Commonwealth collaboration has never been more important, says Secretary-General Patricia Scotland

“What we are facing right now is the monsoon in Asia. We’re also looking forward, if you can put it that way, to a really bad hurricane season across the Caribbean.”

Updated - May 16, 2020 10:49 pm IST

Published - May 16, 2020 07:43 pm IST

Commonwealth Secretary General Baroness Patricia Scotland. File

Commonwealth Secretary General Baroness Patricia Scotland. File

As the world continues to grapple with the debilitating human toll and economic consequences of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic , multilateral organisations are doing what they can to coordinate policy responses worldwide. The Commonwealth Secretariat, whose administrative hub in London covers 54 countries encompassing over 30% of the world’s population, has been at the forefront of this global institutional response. Its Secretary-General, Baroness Patricia Scotland , spoke to Narayan Lakshman about the specific goals of its multi-country initiatives.

Edited transcript:

The Commonwealth has in the face of the COVID-19 crisis postponed its biennial Heads of Government Meeting, originally slated for Kigali in June 2020. On that decision you said, “Lives have been lost, economies are shrinking, and livelihoods have been shattered. It is difficult to predict what the new normal will look like.” Could you tell us what you see as the highest priority tasks for the Commonwealth nations to reach that new normal?

One of the things we have to do is understand how we can collaborate even more trenchantly, because the tragedy that we are facing is that COVID has touched every single part of our lives. Few of us have been untouched by it, even if it is only the fear that someone that we love may be so dangerously ill that we will lose them. The whole of our Commonwealth family has had to face this pandemic together, and we are collaborating to make sure that we can respond. There is going to be no turning back to how we were before. Our reality is now that this pandemic may be the first pandemic that we face and not the last. It is putting enormous strain on each of our countries, because it is not just a health pandemic.

What we are facing right now is the monsoon in Asia. We’re also looking forward, if you can put it that way, to a really bad hurricane season across the Caribbean. We’ve already seen the storms that have hit the Pacific with such viciousness and destruction, Vanuatu being hit worst of all. Across Africa we are seeing the ravages of desertification and locusts, and we have just seen the flooding that has started in Kenya, affected Rwanda and East Africa. We are going be facing a climate crisis, and those two [crises] intersect in such a way that we will potentially have to face an economic tsunami.

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These three coming together means that Commonwealth collaboration has never been more important. If humanity is to survive this pandemic crisis, and the crisis that is coming our way on the climate, together with the financial crisis, we have to come up with a different construct. I believe this is going to be our new normal.

But the Commonwealth has done this before. When other dangers faced us, the bravery of Commonwealth citizens has been tested in the fire of time. I believe that this pandemic and the new normal that we are facing is the test for our generations. Just as our forefathers had the ability to rise to this challenge, so do we.

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Let us break down the multidimensionality of this crisis. On the public health front, there is much variation across the Commonwealth nations. In India for example some have said there is a shortage of critical medical equipment including PPEs , ventilators, and testing kits. How will these nations face up to the health aspect of this challenge?

One of the difficulties of the Commonwealth is that we do represent one-third of the world’s population and as a result we have every variant known to man. We have the very wealthy countries, we have medium-income countries, and we have the least-developed and some of the smallest countries in the world. We have Nauru, which has between 11,000-12,000 people, and then of course the biggest country in our Commonwealth, India, with around 1.3 billion people. India has all the variations of the rest of the Commonwealth, but within her boundaries. India has widely differing positions in terms of the States – you have island States, you have every type of environment, but all in one country.

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If we look across the Commonwealth, we have very highly developed universal healthcare systems, and then we have nascent, developing healthcare systems. Getting the balance right between all of those is critical. Four years ago, when I became Secretary-General, the Commonwealth Health Ministers were already focusing on the reality that in order to face what we then identified as the increasing risk of epidemics and the possibility of a pandemic, that one of the critical things that we had to have was a universal healthcare system.

But the variance between the universal health systems was wide. Some were extremely expensive and were seen to be beyond the reach of a number of our small and developing states. So, we asked a different question: How do we develop a Commonwealth-identified method which could be potentially applicable to all? How do we design the essence of what will deliver a cost-effective and cost-efficient mechanism that will enable us to have universal coverage, which would enable us to respond to epidemic and pandemic health issues?

We must remember that it is not just infections like COVID-19 and Ebola that we must deal with. There is a huge risk to our member states from non-communicable diseases including, obesity and heart attacks, which are killing more of our people than anything else. That is what we started working on together. The wonder of the Commonwealth is that each country was willing to say that it would give its brothers and sisters within the Commonwealth everything it knew about how to work together. We started four years ago, and since then we have been working as the Health Ministers’ meeting that takes place on the margins of the World Health Organization (WHO) to see how we could have a conjoined issue.

Last year, we decided to look at digitalisation and how we would be able to share that knowledge between all of us. We also decided to look at how we get medication and equipment with a greater degree of fairness to all our Member States. When the Ministers came together, we understood that some of our smaller countries were paying 30 times more than some of the other countries for the same medication. At that stage we decided that we should create a platform which would enable us to help each other. We were in the process of doing that and we have now accelerated it.

The real opportunity we have is to dig deep into the innovation and brilliance which is in each of our Member States. We are looking at how technology can assist us, but then we have a problem: our health systems are now under strain and we know that digitalisation is going to be of radical importance; but some of our Members States are now on 2G, others on 3G and 4G, and some will be migrating to 5G. That breadth means that we will risk leaving someone behind. We are also looking on the health dynamic,as to how we overcome that, and there has been some brilliant work done by our young people.

I created the Secretary-General’s Innovation Awards specifically to highlight the genius that is within our young people and we have had some fantastic opportunities. For example, there is a wonderful young Indian man who has come up with a way to help neonates breathe more easily. In India, there is a real strain on what neonatal units are available. When a baby is born prematurely, it is very difficult to ensure that in every single area, there is somewhere they can go immediately and have the babies cared for. What this young man has done is to develop a method to keep the child alive in order to get it to the right neonatal area.

These innovations are cheap and effective, and they can be shared. We are now developing on our websites these sorts of platforms to enable us to share the genius that is within the 2.4 billion people of the Commonwealth. The truth is, we are so much better together – more powerful and creative than we would ever be on our own.

India has produced so many exciting new developments. We were talking earlier about the Indian ability for jugaad ¬– to take things and make them better. We are using that method as something that the whole Commonwealth can join into. This is an area of real challenge.

India adopted the mechanism of nationwide lockdown early on as a means to enforce social distancing, and now appears to have far fewer cases and deaths than parts of the West, including the U.S., Italy, Spain, and France – this despite its population density and relatively less developed public health systems. How do you balance this with the devastating economic impact of the lockdown, including on the internal dislocation of migrant workers in massive numbers?

In order to have long term wealth we have to have health. What is the price of a human life? I believe that India has been an exemplar because what Prime Minister Narendra Modi did was to act swiftly. If you look at the 1.3 billion population of India the cost to India in terms of loss of life, which might have been a similar percentage to what has happened in many European countries, would have been unbearable and, thankfully, unimaginable.

A country has to make a decision: what do we value the most? If we have health and life, we can look forward to wealth in the future. But if we do not have life, we have nothing at all. It has been extraordinary that India, with its enormous population and complexities, has put life above all else. The COVID-19 lockdown is estimated to cost India $4.5 billion each day, but that price, which has been paid by India, has meant that the survival rate in India has been one of the best right the way across the world.

But India is not just looking after her people – she has reached out her hands to those brothers and sisters around her to help. We know that on March 15, India as a member of the SAARC proposed the creation of the creation of the COVID-19 emergency fund , with voluntary contributions for all Member States and immediately proposed an initial contribution of $10 million. But she did not just do that. A few days later India supplied medical supplies, testing equipment, and sanitisers among other items to SAARC members including Commonwealth members such as the Maldives, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. The way in which India is responding, and Mr. Modi has responded, is not just to the Indian people, but also looking out for others – sending out 10,000 metric tonnes of wheat to Afghanistan after having pledged last year to give 75,000 metric tonnes, for example.

India is demonstrating leadership and world solidarity in a way that will be meaningful for its people. We know that the long-term economic costs are going to be significant. But if we have life, we have a chance to come together in solidarity and collaboration with other countries, and forge a new response to the economic reality.

Between May 11 and June 12 we have created a series of webinars which will take place on every Wednesday, where Commonwealth leaders in the economic world will come together, and we will try and craft an economic response to what we may now have to do. It is not going to be business as usual. In the past we have judged ourselves, by our gross national product. That approach is not going to be able to work anymore. If you look at what is happening as a result of the pandemic, it does not matter whether you were rich or poor or least developed or medium income before this thing hit you. The impact is going to be so devastating to many of us that we have to think in a different way as to how we help each other.

We are going to have to look at debt, and not just debt postponement, but what level of debt forgiveness are we going to have for small countries. We have 33 small countries in the Commonwealth. If you are a small island state like Dominica, the state that I was born in, with only 72,000 people in the whole country, when the climate change crisis hit with tropical storms in the last few years, it lost a large percentage of its GDP each time. It did not matter that the country was deemed to be a medium income country before those events. After it, there was destitution. We are going to have to look together as a global family as to what the results are going to be and how we are going to cope with that.

The good thing about our Commonwealth is that because we represent all five regions, and every income level, country size, race and religion, when we come together and brainstorm, I hope that we will through solidarity be able to come up with the methodologies that will need to change.

We are living in a world where unilateral or individualistic approaches have been on the ascendant. Yet we have never had a moment in our history when needed multilateralism more. Because the Commonwealth does see itself as a family of nations, our Member States are reaching out to each other and asking how they can help.

This is a time for leadership, and we are seeing great leadership from a number of our Member States, including Mr. Modi, Cyril Ramaphosa in the African Union, Mia Mottley in the Commonwealth Caribbean, Jacinda Arden and Frank Bainimarama in the Pacific Region. They are showing resolute and profound commitment.

Given the U.S. withdrawal from the multilateral approach to fighting climate change, what options does the Commonwealth think are feasible presently, and how is that approach impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic?

In 1989 the Commonwealth came together in Lankawi, Malaysia, to face the reality of the climate crisis, which was then seen to be coming at us in a way that was unavoidable. India was right there too. What did the Commonwealth leaders say back then? They said that if we did not address the issue of climate change now – and that was 30 years ago – we will be facing an existential threat. The reason that we were able to say that so clearly is that the small Member States were able to highlight to all their bigger brothers and sisters what they were going through, including rising sea levels, the erosion of their landmasses, an increase in the number of climatic episodes and the link between climate crises and their indebtedness. For the 30 years since then, the Commonwealth has kept the banner of climate change on high. It was the Commonwealth in 2015 in Malta at the CHOGM that came up with the construct to say that we have to have an enforceable agreement, and that it had to be two degrees and enforceable, and that we needed the 1.5 degrees aspirational target to stay alive. That was the world agreed in Paris in 2015, a month later. The Commonwealth has always been at the forefront of the climate change agenda, not because of the rhetoric, but because our Member States were suffering the consequences of climate change.

India has all the different ecosystems and climatic regions within its borders, which is reflected and mirrored in the other 53 countries. India has experienced this. Whether the U.S. will choose to wake up to our reality is not a matter that we can have undermine our understanding of the reality. We have to do that which we can do in order to protect our Member States and the world.

For example. look at what we are doing with the Solar Alliance, which India has also been promoting. At the Women Minister’s meeting that took place in Kenya, there were ladies from all over Africa who had been turned into solar engineers. They were called “solar grandmothers” who, despite their age and despite perhaps not being the most highly educated, were going to India, being trained to become solar engineers, going back to their villages, and setting up solar opportunities. This meant that children were able to do their homework with proper lighting, that women were able to run their sewing machines and grow their wealth for their countries. They were changing lives and India had made that possible. This is solidarity. Out of this come the blue and green economies of tomorrow. Yes, the COVID-19 pandemic is radically changing what we know to be our position, but it is producing innovative solutions for our young people – 60% of our Commonwealth is under 30 years of age -- leading to new jobs, industries and futures.

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