This moment cries out for a cooperative international response. In 2008, governments generally trusted the experts—for instance, then–Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, who had made the 1929 crash his life’s work, led the American response—even when their recommendations were politically unpopular. These responses were decisive and coordinated. Unfortunately, no such response has been forthcoming in recent months. The recent G20 ministerial meeting in Saudi Arabia accomplished little.
The Trump administration has shown no interest in leading an international response, preferring instead to deemphasize the risk. However, this moment demands strong diplomatic action from the United States. The government needs to recognize that this is already a global crisis with economic and security implications, as well as risks to health and human safety. National health organizations are working closely together, but the United States should be convening world leaders, whether in person or by conference, and coming up with a global response.
World leaders and their ablest advisers should be discussing and agreeing on best practices for containing the spread of the virus worldwide, not only within their own borders. This includes understanding the limits of travel bans, which can have an outsize economic impact if overused, and undertaking a massive effort to find a vaccine and ensure it is distributed widely, not just to the wealthiest few.
Leaders understandably need to reassure their citizens on the economy even as they prepare for the worst—hence the recurring rhetoric about the economy remaining strong. However, to limit the depth of the recession that would accompany a pandemic, they should institute an economic initiative, possibly including a stimulus of government investment, to keep the global economy afloat. Wall Street is certainly anticipating such a response. The Fed slashing interest rates is a start.
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Stronger states must provide assistance to countries with weaker capacity to deal with the exigencies of the crisis, even if the countries are adversaries. Toward that end, the U.S. and others can look at temporarily lifting certain sanctions on vulnerable countries, such as Iran and North Korea, where necessary to fight the virus. There will be ample opportunity to reimpose the restrictions when the emergency has passed.
COVID-19 is becoming the third major crisis of the post–Cold War period, following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and the financial collapse of 2008. This crisis may exact a greater toll than the other two and has demonstrated the limits of populism as a method of government. Expertise matters. Institutions matter. There is such a thing as the global community. An enlightened response, even if it’s unpopular, matters. The system must be made to work again.