Needed a new Manhattan Project - a global alliance to defeat COVID19

Modi and Macron are  the  "Champions of Earth". Now they should join hands to champion the global action through ACE -Alliance for (COVID19) Eradication, writes Rajendra Shende for South Asia Monitor

Rajendra Shende Sep 28, 2020

Two years back United Nations Secretary General (UNSG) Antonio Guterres flew into New Delhi to bestow the "Champions of the Earth" award to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.  Modi shared that award with French President Emmanuelle Macron.  The duo launched the International Solar Alliance (ISA), that now has 88 country signatories. Guterres showered fulsome praise on Modi for forging such an alliance and also for his bold initiatives in India for a ban on single-use plastic within five years ( by 2023 ). He said the UN headquarters in New York took a cue from Modi and banned the use of single-use plastic immediately.

 Modi is now championing another more relevant and most delayed issue of UN reforms. The UN needs 'reformed multilateralism' is the chorus from countries around the world.  But he used the UN’s inaction in the wake of COVID19 to drive the point home. In his address to the   historic and unprecedented high-level segment of 75th session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) through a video address, Modi raised a persuasive question. He asked “Where is the United Nations in this joint fight against the pandemic? Where is its effective response?”. No other question could have been more telling. In fact it lays bare the pressing need to reform the United Nations.

From  the 22 September, when the special high level session of UNGA  commemorating 75th anniversary of the establishment of the United Nations started, nearly each head of the state has raised  this vital question. The UN now finds itself entangled in  the archaic global management and operating structure that has not changed for  last 75 years when the world has seen breathtaking transformation. No country, no community and no business has remained so static amidst the transformative 75 years.

The successes that can be attributed to the UN since its establishment in 1945, are  mainly due to its convening power. Some of these are preventing World War III, striking environmental treaties like the Montreal Protocol aimed at saving the ozone layer, framing the sustainable development model in the actionable platform.

Modi's offer on vaccines

Since January 2020, the UN has been nearly invisible and its convening power has been almost absent during the  pandemic of COVID19 except for the WHO’s briefings that in reality kept on changing the causative source, extent, means of spreading, medicines for treatment. On its 75th  anniversary the UN has lost the chance to be in the frontline of the global crisis, particularly for the poor countries that miserably lacked the health systems to address the unprecedented shocks.

The UNGA , till now, passed only two resolutions ( April 2020) and UNSC passed just  one  resolution ( July 2020) which are  directly related to COOVID19. In comparison, 17 UNSC  resolutions were passed on Iraq-issue  before Iraq’s invasion started in 2003. Three COVID related resolutions were passive. They included expressions of solidarity and need for international cooperation to fight COVID19 and open access to vaccines and equipment. 

Only one resolution was adopted by the UN Security Council  - whose resolutions are binding as against the resolution of the UN General Assembly which are non-binding - was on ceasefire of  armed conflict in c countries like Yemen to allow humanitarian assistance related to COVID19 to vulnerable communities trapped in the conflicts.  Except for such UN interventions each country acted in silos for their own citizens to fight common enemies and provide some assistance to other countries.

Some countries did better. India stepped in to provide medicines to 150 countries, including the USA. Modi’s assurance to international community in his UNGA speech  that India’s vaccine production and delivery capacity will be used to help all humanity in fighting this crisis and that India will also help all the countries in enhancing their cold chain and storage capacities for the delivery of the vaccines has been appreciated by the UN and WHO.

China too supplied millions of PPE to rich and poor countries, including India.  Even the UN coordinated the supplies to 130 poor countries mainly in Africa and Latin America through its coordinating platforms operated  by likes of UNICEF and World Food Programme, purely on  donation by countries and corporates.

However, as against  such unilateral and piecemeal efforts , though laudable, there was urgent need to establish on war footing the planetary scale alliance and network of scientists and institutes to develop an  harmonised and collaborative short term assistance on medicines and vaccines as well as  strategic research  on long term measures to prevent and eradicate possibilities of  abrupt ambush on humanity from biological unknown enemies.

A new Manhattan Project?

Indeed, the world already has experience of cooperative and coordinated research and development by a group of countries that ended World War II, but not before taking the lives of 50 million people and soldiers. That collaborative  project,  having a code name of The Manhattan Project , had the top-secret objective of developing  the atomic bomb to make the enemy surrender immediately. The speed of development was critical. The USA, UK and Canada in partnership kicked off the project of research and development in the middle of the war. More than 150,000 scientists and technologists in nearly 40 institutes finally succeeded in developing two atomic bombs that forced the most formidable enemy, Japan, to surrender and end the war. 

The lesson from the Manhattan Project is not anymore about the development and use of atomic bombs to defeat the enemy. The lesson now is about partnership and collaborative actions to defeat a formidable enemy with speedy and accelerated actions. That exactly is needed today to defeat the Novel Coronavirus. 

Support for collective action

The speeches of the UN Security Council (UNSC) members and other countries over the last few days in the high-level debate  have with conviction outlined their support for collective and speedy action.

US President Donald Trump stated that the USA has supplied the  equipment to "friends and partners".  French President Emmanuel Macron has launched along with the EU, WHO and Bill Gates Foundation a ground-breaking partnership ACT-A ( Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator). Macron hoped that ACT-A’s resources would be helpful to combat the pandemic and would be accessible to all.

China’s President Xi Jingping categorically stated that “we should enhance solidarity and get this through together and launch a joint international response to beat this pandemic. When their development is completed and they are available for use, these vaccines will be made a global public good”.

The more effective statement came from UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson. He mentioned the joint programme of virus development by Oxford and Serum Institute of India to supply one billion doses to low and middle-income countries.

 President Putin said  “ The only way … to work together.” He added that Russia is “ready to share experience and continue cooperating with all States and international entities, including in supplying the Russian vaccine which has proved reliable, safe, and effective, to other countries”.

Global alliance to eradicate Covid 19

The consensus is emerging that never again must the world wage 196 different campaigns, one for each country - G-20, G-7, regional groupings, partnerships with near and dear friendly countries are all welcome. However, as intended by all P-5 on UNSC and other countries who  have spoken in the UNGA, all are ready to kick start a global alliance to eradicate COVID19.

Modi and Macron are  the  "Champions of Earth". Now they should join hands to champion the global action through ACE -Alliance for (Covid 19) Eradication. They should use their friendships with Trump, Johnson, Xi and Putin to forge the ACE. The UN would get inspired to support. That would not only be the fitting outcome of the 75th anniversary of the United Nations but the convincing demonstration of India’s global appeal. As India starts its two year tenure as non-permanent member of UNSC, such action would enhance India’s image as a torch bearer of 'reformed multilateralism'.

Above all it would strengthen the response to another question that he raised in his speech - “How long will India be kept out of the decision-making structures of the United Nations?"

(The writer is  Chairman TERRE Policy Centre and former Director @UNEP. The views expressed are personal)

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