Coronavirus and the United Nations

March 25, 2020 by Danny Danon
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As the world adjusts to life during a global pandemic, with nations implementing lockdown measures and citizens trying to cope with life in this new reality, it’s worth considering—and leveraging—the valuable role of the United Nations.

Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations Danny Danon during a visit of U.N. Secretary General António Guterres at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem on Aug. 28, 2017. Credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.

No doubt, such a statement is unexpected coming from Israel’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations. As my country all-too-often remains the favourite subject of U.N. resolutions and institutional bias, I am certainly one more likely to critique rather than praise the international organization.

Yet today, we must all look past the world body’s weaknesses, inefficiencies and shortcomings to focus on what it can do right. The U.N. Secretary-General and its institutions, in particular the World Health Organization, are proving that the United Nations is just the organization that the world needs to address the global nature of the coronavirus pandemic.

The coronavirus is certainly not the world’s first global pandemic. The Black Death in the mid-14th century decimated Europe’s population for hundreds of years. And the Spanish Influenza at the end of World War I killed tens of millions around the world in a matter of years.

Ultimately, geography—and advances in medicine—contained both diseases. In the 1300s, the limited mobility of the age meant that the plague, which initially came to Europe via trade, did not expand beyond the continent. The Spanish flu travelled with troops returning to North America, India and Oceania following the end of the Great War, but had limited dissemination beyond these initial destinations.

Today, however, we live in a globalized world. Unlike in the worlds of the Black Death or Spanish Influenza, in today’s world, a virus originating in the Chinese countryside can leapfrog around the world in a matter of weeks. From China, it quickly spread to Italy and Iran. Now, the United States and Israel are in the throes of a growing number of cases, leading to national emergencies. To date, the virus is on every populated continent; soon, no region or country will be unaffected. No longer is geography the vaccine humanity could rely on as a natural defence.

Understandably, individual countries have taken unilateral actions to protect their populations. Governments, particularly democracies beholden to their people, have a responsibility to be responsive to and protective of their citizens above all else. This has led to drastic national actions, such as closing borders, grounding international flights, restricting access to foreign nationals and so on.

Yet the virus marches on, ravaging countries’ populations and quality of life, and threatening to decimate the world’s economy.

Unlike the pandemics in the 14th or early 20th centuries, the coronavirus is spreading to all parts of the globe with alarming speed. The nature and ubiquity of such a universal attack require a unified and coordinated global response. With national governments, understandably, focusing inward, it is the United Nations that must lead this international effort.

As Rome, Beijing, Jerusalem, Washington and capitals around the world barely look beyond their own national borders, the United Nations is already positioned to view the entire playing field, which transcends national boundaries. From Turtle Bay and the WHO offices in Geneva, the United Nations can assess the spread of the virus, allocate resources and issue guidance above national considerations as it adheres to its stated purpose of “harmonizing actions of nations in the attainment of the common ends” of international peace and security.

On the diplomatic front, the relationships that U.N. diplomats develop through our regular work can help grease the wheels of governmental action and cut through bureaucratic red tape, ensuring online sharing of data and medical expertise. If a company in one country develops a promising treatment, the United Nations and its diplomatic network can help bring that medicine to at-risk populations in other countries.

In short, this global crisis requires a global response. We must leverage the capabilities of the United Nations, including the relationships between diplomatic colleagues, to ensure that everyone gets the help they need.

The most important value in Judaism is pikuach nefesh, “saving a life.” If the United Nations is best positioned to pursue that value today, when it is needed most, then Israel will stand behind it. The rest, as they say, is just commentary.

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