Coronavirus – Health and Governance Issues

Growing salience of multilateralism


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level: Not much

Mains level: Paper 2- Need for multilateralism

Multilateralism faces several challenges at the time when it is needed the most. The article highlights the need for more of it in the face of global challenges.

Lack of international collaboration to deal with Covid

  • As COVID-19 recognises no boundaries, one would have expected that countries with technological and financial capabilities, would agree to pool their resources together to work on an effective and affordable anti-virus vaccine.
  • Instead, there are several parallel national efforts underway even as the World Health Organization (WHO) has put together a Covax alliance for the same purpose.
  •  Active collaboration would have enhanced our collective ability to overcome what has become a public health-cum-economic crisis.
  • But we live in an era when nationalist urges, fuelled by a political opportunism, diminish the appeal of international cooperation.
  • The post-pandemic world will have the awful dilemma of global integration without solidarity.

Trends in the global order that suggests the need for multilateralims

1) Global food crisis

  • The World Food Program has been awarded this year’s Noble Peace Prize.
  • The award is sending a message to the world — that we need multilateralism as an expression of international solidarity.
  • According to the WFP, 132 million more people could become malnourished as a consequence of the pandemic.
  • To the 690 million people who go to bed each night on an empty stomach, perhaps another 100 million or more will be added.
  • The Nobel Prize to the WFP will hopefully nudge our collective conscience to come together and relieve this looming humanitarian crisis.

2) Despite issues, U.N. is still important

  • The United Nations is at the centre of multilateral institutions and processes and kept alive the notion of international solidarity and cooperation.
  • But it suffers from several disabilities due to the fault of its most powerful member countries.
  • They have deprived the UN of resources.
  • They have resisted efforts to institute long-overdue reforms.
  • Its structure no longer reflects the changes in power equations that have taken place and country such as India continues to be denied permanent membership of the Security Council.
  • And yet, the UN is now an essential part of the fabric of international relations for two reasons:
  • 1) The salience of global issues has expanded.
  • 2) The need for multilateral approaches in finding solutions has greatly increased.

3) Multilateral institutions have become platform for contestation

  • In the network of multilateral institutions, several belong to the UN system, others are inter-governmental, still others may be non-governmental of a hybrid character.
  • This network performs two important tasks:
  • 1) Enable governance in areas which require coordination among nation-states.
  • 2) Set norms to regulate the behaviour of states so as to avoid conflict and to ensure both equitable burden-sharing and, equally, a fair distribution of benefits.
  • While there are multilateral institutions they have become platforms for contestations among their member states.
  • There is recognition of the need to cooperate but this is seen as a compulsion rather than desirable.

4) Globalisation driven by technology will remain here

  • Globalisation may have stalled, but as we become increasingly digitised, there will be more, not less, globalisation.
  • The pandemic has triggered galloping globalisation in the digital economy.
  • Globalisation is driven by technology and as long as the technology remains the key driver of economic growth, there is no escape from globalisation.
  • In the contemporary world, the line separating the domestic from the external has become increasingly blurred.
  • In tackling domestic challenges deeper external engagement is often indispensable. This is certainly true of climate change.
  • The pandemic originated in a third country but soon raged across national borders.
  • If there had been a robust and truly global early warning system, perhaps it could have been contained.

5) Interconnectedness of challenges

  • We must also take into account the inter-connectedness among various challenges, for example, food, energy and water security are inter-linked with strong feedback loops.
  • Enhancing food security may lead to diminished water and energy security.
  • It may also have collateral impact on health security.
  •  It is in recognition of these inter-connections that the international community agreed on a set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
  • The SDGs are cross-domain but also cross-national in character, and hence demand greater multilateral cooperation in order to succeed.

6) Need for more democratic world

  • The lack of cooperation from even a single state may frustrate success in tackling a global challenge.
  • A fresh pandemic may erupt in any remote corner of the world and spread throughout the globe.
  • Prevention cannot be achieved through coercion, only through cooperation. It is only multilateralism that makes this possible.


It is a paradox that precisely at a time when the salience of cross-national and global challenges has significantly increased, nation-states are less willing to cooperate and collaborate in tackling them. So, there is a need for more of multilateralism to deal with the issues of global level.

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