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Sábado, 23 Mayo 2020 21:38

The global response to COVID-19: Successes and failures in a fragmented world

The global response to COVID-19: Successes and failures in a fragmented world https://news.un.org/es/story/2020/04/1472352

"Among cooperation and efficient scientific development use, trust and legitimacy allow an understanding of the current successes and failures."

By: Mariana Duque Díez[1]


Diverse actors of the 21st century’s global order considered as possible rapid threats crises related to climate change, the tension between super-powers and violent conflicts, but a global pandemic was not part of the panorama. Coronavirus (COVID-19) is the name of the virus that was first reported in November 2019, and that rapidly evolved into a pandemic. The response has varied from country to country, according to their capabilities, political systems, cultures and leadership styles. However, a weak global system has slowed down an effective response to a crisis that knows no national borders. Even if international organizations, NGOs and the public sector have shown interest in cooperation, governments have not accomplished a successful joint effort.

Moreover, the COVID-19 crisis has accelerated the trends of previous risks that were on the 2020[2] scene, reflecting the scope of a systemic world (Bremmer & Kupchan, 2020b, p. 4). In fact, the UN Sustainable Development Goals included three goals directly related to the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak and their non-accomplishment is threatening the virus stop measures; considering, for example, that in 2017, two out of five people worldwide did not have a basic handwashing facility with soap and water at home (UN, 2019). Subsequently, current global conditions to face the health threat have an important scope: By the 22nd of May 2020, around 5.076.846 cases have been confirmed in 190 countries, while the mortality rate is 331.137 people (Johns Hopkins University, 2020).

In this context, I argue that although there have been successes and failures in responding to COVID-19, the global governance decay represents a major impediment for the current crisis management. For this purpose, the paper presents the COVID-19 crisis development in terms of public health, economic issues and cultural factors. Thereupon, this work discusses the role of global governance by analyzing the impact of countries’ multilateral cooperation, the World Health Organization, and other international institutions. Finally, the text concludes by pointing out the need for international cooperation, institutional trust and legitimacy, and a comprehensive Human Rights approach to tackle the pandemic successfully.

In this sense, it is worth it to mention that this is not an extensive data compilation of the COVID-19 crisis but instead highlights the need for better cooperation between countries—the main actors in the current global order. Thus, the challenge is to choose between nationalist isolation or a global solidarity approach (Harari, 2020), and even if the virus seems to lead a process of deglobalization (Bremmer & Kupchan, 2020b, p.3), the 21st century issues – pandemic, climate change, terrorism, etc. – show that a national approach is not going to be sufficient. 

  1. Development of the crisis and governmental responses

The impact of the COVID-19 crisis and the subsequent responses have varied from country to country. Using different approaches and having unequal capabilities, each government is facing the public health issue, as well as the economic repercussions. Additionally, cultural factors have influenced, for example, the lockdown success, especially as the first time in history of quarantine for healthy people instead of only the sick and vulnerable (Fund & Hay, 2020).

Estimating what is a success or a failure in the process of tackling coronavirus, depends on the perspective: some measures have stopped the spread of the virus, but also have derogated human rights. Some others have maintained the economy at the expense of human lives. This section shows some of the governmental responses, successes, limitations and failures.

  • Public health reaction

Undoubtedly, public health is the first concern when facing a highly contagious virus. China, the country in which the virus first appeared, reacted with significant speed by isolating the causative virus, establishing diagnosis tools, and estimating the incubation time, once the dimension of the dimension of the situation was globally known (WHO, 2020, p.16). The rapid scientific information was a pivotal point to start combating the virus. Nevertheless, China’s official data is not considered as a trustworthy resource because of the alleged political manipulation (Financial Times, 2020). In the case of South Korea, a remarkable capability to test their population has been the key to their success. For instance, having the most comprehensive data for COVID-19 in the world has allowed them to follow and break numerous chains of transmission (MOEF, 2020, p.3). Moreover, honest reporting and the well-informed population have made a significant contribution (Harari, 2020).

Apart from that, lockdowns have been decreed almost everywhere, changing intensity over time (See annex 1). By May 11th, 2020, some countries like Germany have started the deconfinement process, taking the risk of a new increase in virus spread (The Times, 2020). Sweden chose a self-responsibility strategy by closing a few businesses and schools but allowing people to decide when to go out of their homes. Nonetheless, a big failure was the lack of communication for non-Swedish speakers, who are the most vulnerable populations. Thus, the migrants and asylum seekers – mainly from Somalia– are the group most infected (Shahid Ahmed, 2020). The US response has also failed because of its erratic communication, including the rejection of the virus and irresponsible suggestions for, for example, ingesting chemicals (The Guardian, 2020).

Lastly, a constant among countries has been the desire to implement technology to collect data, with more or less success depending on the territory. China implemented the system by using Health QR codes, with an approach called “one map, one QR code, and one index” (Xifeng, Xiaolin & Xuchu, 2020) (See annex 2). Thanks to this development, it is possible to monitor two times a day the temperature of each individual and report it to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Although similar proposals have appeared in countries like The United Kingdom or Colombia, their success is limited because of the drawbacks that it represents for the right to privacy and the incomplete population coverage. In the case of Colombia, for example, CoronApp had the potential of catching contact addresses, location and Bluetooth management to do contact tracing (Karisma Foundation, 2020). Among the cases presented, the successes and failures vary depending not merely on centralized monitoring or intense punishment, but on well-informed citizens and trust in public institutions (Harari, 2020).

  • Economic impacts of the COVID-19 crisis

The unexpected coronavirus crisis has strongly shocked the global economy, from both the demand and the supply side. Thereby, “the short-term collapse in global output now underway already seems likely to rival or exceed that of any recession in the last 150 years” (Rogoff, 2020). Support for the demand side can help while people are locked down. Still, it is unsustainable for countries with less developed economies in the mid-term[3] and wealthy countries if 20-30% of the workforce is isolated for much of the next two years.

Furthermore, the most significant economies are confronting the crisis in their own way. China, the second-largest world economy, fell 6.8%. This is the first time since 1992 that it is dealing with a contraction (IMF in WEF, 2020). Even if the employment is slowly rebounding, especially in manufacturing goods, there are doubts about who would be able to buy those goods if the rest of the world is suffering from a recession (Rogoff, 2020). The world’s primary political and economic power is also struggling with the pandemic economic outcomes. Even if the United States has privileged the reopening of the economy—costing more than 78.000 lives and 1,2 confirmed cases (BBC, 2020)—, the price of an oil barrel of West Texas Intermediate (WTI) turned negative for the first time in history (Brown, Jones & Palumbo, 2020).

Another aspect of the economic matter around COVID-19 is the previous production capacity and the governmental response to provide the needed assets to handle the pandemic. In this matter, South Korea accomplished a fast-track allowance for a company that was able to produce and transport coronavirus test kits. At the same time, Seoul continued increasing its institutions and manufacturers, passing from 3000 daily tests on February 7th to 18000 on March 16th (MOEF, 2020, p.10). By contrast, Colombia was lucky for having the opportunity to get ready for tackling the virus, since it arrived later to Latin America. However, the global means are scarce, and the fact that the country cannot produce them reduces the advantages of the time given to Colombia (Pesquisa, 2020).

Finally, in global terms, the absence of a complete testing capacity worldwide and the uncertainty about how long the vaccine or the development of effective treatment would take makes the continuation of business investments and hiring processes challenging.

  • Cultural factors

Cultural specificities are an additional factor in understanding why some countries have succeeded more than others tackling the COVID-19 crisis. In this sense, the deep commitment of the Chinese population was a key factor to reduce the virus spread among all the regions outside Wuhan. On the one hand, the strictness is indeed a primary characteristic of the Chinese government, but on the other hand, an age-old collective culture is also part of the Chinese life perspective, in which solidarity and common good are the premises (WHO, 2020, p.17).

In the same way, the Swedish sense of self-responsibility allows the country to avoid strict rules and, instead, offer voluntary guidelines for its population. Consequently, public transportation occupation in Stockholm fell by 50% the last week of March, and citizens started working remotely. Due to the high level of trust in public authorities and responsibility conscience, citizens have avoided non-essential travels and the elders or sick stay at home (Savage, 2020).

This is not the situation in France or Iran. In the second case, the lack of awareness of the need to use gloves and masks, along with a late response of the government and the hurry to reopen mosques, have made Iran become the most affected country in the Middle East region (Reuters, 2020). For the French case, the day after Macron announced that the country was “at war with COVID-19” while calling for social distancing and school closure, Paris experienced a wave of people all around the city enjoying a sunny day without any kind of precaution (McKenna, 2020). In this regard, a French politician pointed out the importance of freedom for French citizens, meaning that possibly, people will not follow recommendations if they are considerably restrictive.

These examples illustrate the importance of considering collective behavior and inner values to face crises because it is impossible to replicate the same strategy all around the world, even if the issue involves them all.

  1. Global governance

In terms of global governance, it is possible to outline two potential options. Firstly isolationism, in which national interest prevails over any type of situation going on outside countries’ borders. The second approach is the opposite: to recognize that a pandemic—as well as climate change or terrorism—knows no boundaries. Thus, it is necessary to cooperate and help the hardest-hit countries, in order to avert an imminent global collapse (Malley, 2020).

Even though the second approach seems to be more rational and hence, desirable, the COVID-19 crisis blew up in a moment of increasing populism and nationalism in big and small powers. At the same time, the world confronts an unsettling geopolitical phase full of risks and uncertainties, in which superpowers are not successfully taking the leadership of the current crisis (Acharya, 2018). Instead, the US—former global leader in fighting Ebola and 2008 financial crisis—decided to continue a verbal confrontation against China and other countries, even if they are not geopolitical enemies[4]. China itself defended its approach by openly contrasting its success on tackling coronavirus to others’ failures. Thereby, Xi Jinping’s government has spread an air of superiority and desirability of their control and collective mobilization, especially in terms of information management (Stimson Center, 2020). Other countries such as Iran, have joined efforts in the geopolitical clash between Washington and Beijing, by declaring a “fight against the virus, which might be the product of an American biological attack” (Hossein Salami in Rezaian, 2020), while struggling to obtain medical supplies and testing kits because of the US sanctions to the country (Al Jazeera, 2020).

Meanwhile, other countries and international institutions are trying to cooperate and exchange resources, technologies and efforts, but lacking a capable leader. On the one hand, states willing to adopt a cooperative approach are constrained by states conducting isolation responses. As such, the G7 countries could not agree on a joint statement because of the US’ neglect of multilateralism (The Guardian, 2020). At the same time, some European countries have been trying to find other options. France has responded to hospital saturation by sending patients to other regions and sometimes to other countries (McKenna, 2020).

On the other hand, international institutions have suffered the impossibility of taking decisions over the countries, limiting their actions to give recommendations or to provide humanitarian aid—by sending tests, medical resources and qualified staff— when the countries accept it. The more powerful organizations have engaged in economic cooperation. The European Union, for example, has agreed on border controls, support research for treatment, medical guidance for its member states and economic measures (European Commission, 2020). This is possible thanks to the multilateral nature of the union. In the same way, other institutions have contributed according to their capabilities. The International Committee of the Red Cross has distributed goods and basic kits; prominent newspapers have created free access specials about COVID-19, and platforms like Facebook and Twitter have created ads with useful information.

On its behalf, the World Health Organization, a leading figure for the crisis, was first criticized for its delay in declaring the pandemic. After that, the institution has been doing daily reports, technical guidance and online training exercises. Thus, the institution has made remarkable efforts with a limited budget, knowing that the total annual budget is about $2.5bn, comparable to the budget of a large US hospital (Borger, 2020). Once again, it is possible to see the limitations of non-state actors in the current health crisis, while countries deploy insufficient cooperation measures.


Talking about successes and failures in the COVID-19 global crisis is risky, considering that it is an ongoing phenomenon. However, the effects of both good practices and mistakes are starting to be visible. In any case, these categories are assigned depending on priorities: While some governments have succeeded in stopping the virus spread, others have kept their economies working. As such, there is a wide panorama of states balancing health, political, social and economic variables.

In this scenario, one pattern is clear: In places where there is more cooperation, the response is faster and more efficient in tackling the virus. The scientific advances achieved during the pandemic are prominent, starting from the understanding of the virus and going through the use of new technologies to track its spread. Paradoxically, in the political level, struggles with cooperation and global governance have delayed a better way out of the crisis. Thus, the human governance paradox is more visible than ever[5] (Tiberghien, 2019).

Among cooperation and efficient scientific development use, trust and legitimacy allow an understanding of the current successes and failures. The chance to believe in the facts that a certain government provides, as well as the popular openness to follow the given instructions, can make the difference. Transparent data is vital to distribute medical resources and reinforce aid during struggles. Thus, the clash of global orders proposed by China, the US, and Europe (WEF, 2018), and the rise of populism and de-globalization are, in the end, major obstacles for the COVID-19 global response.

Finally, it is worth it to mention the human rights challenges faced during the pandemic. The unprecedented nature of the current crisis and its need for a rapid response have, in practice, transformed the inalienable and universal character of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Thus, a ponderation between health, privacy, freedom, among others, has been the pattern. Nevertheless, a different approach and a more robust demand for the respect of these rights is not only necessary but urgent. At the same time, the international community requires a better commitment to fulfill the Sustainable Development Goals in order to respond to this crisis and the future ones, which will be as unpredictable as this one.



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Annex 1: Global responses to the pandemic (lockdowns)

Anexo Mariana Duque

Source: Own elaboration with information of Financial Times (2020). Retrieved from: https://ig.ft.com/coronavirus-lockdowns/


Annex 2: Health QR Code implemented in China for tracking COVID-19

Anexo Mariana Duque 2


According to the World Economic Forum (2020): “Health QR codes were established for everyone in the city and everyone who entered the city. The green code allows you to move freely. The yellow code requires a seven-day self-quarantine. The red code requires a 14-day self-quarantine. The yellow and red codes can be turned green after the quarantine time. This health surveillance system has been applied in most cities in Zhejiang Province, and will be implemented in other provinces”.

Source: World Economic Forum (2020). Retrieved from: https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/03/coronavirus-covid-19-hangzhou-zhejiang-government-response/


[1] Political Scientist from Universidad Pontificia Bolivariana. Student of the master’s degree in international security, specialized in diplomacy and global risks at SciencesPo – Paris. Currently in France. Contact: Esta dirección de correo electrónico está siendo protegida contra los robots de spam. Necesita tener JavaScript habilitado para poder verlo.

[2] According to the Eurasia Group, some of the 2020 Top Global Risks were the domestic policies in the US, the US-China relationship, changes in India, new populism, the growth of Shiism, and Latin America popular movements, among others. No one of them included the possibility of a pandemic (Bremmer & Kupchan, 2020).

[3] For Colombia’s case, public health researchers stated the need of guaranteeing a minimum income for informal workers, because sending basic food basket goods is not sustainable in the long-term (Rivera, 2020).

[4] Trumps’ administration has insisted on calling COVID-19 the “Wuhan virus” in order to blame on China (The Guardian, 2020); accused China of intentionally underreporting their data; and affirmed to have 'enormous evidence' that the coronavirus pandemic originated in a laboratory in Wuhan (Edwards, 2020).

[5] The Human Governance paradox is described by this question: why can we develop AI and modern medicine, and yet struggle to cooperate on the future of the Earth? (Tiberghien, 2019).

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