‘Commonwealth collaboration has never been more important’

India has acted swiftly to tackle the pandemic and the survival rate in the country is one of the best in the world, says Commonwealth Secretary General

As the world continues to grapple with the debilitating human toll and economic consequences of the 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 about the specific goals of its multi-country initiatives. Edited excerpts:

You said upon announcing the postponement, in the face of the COVID-19 crisis, of the Commonwealth’s biennial Heads of Government Meeting, “Lives have been lost, economies are shrinking, and livelihoods have been shattered. It is difficult to predict what the new normal will look like.” How can Commonwealth nations reach that new normal?

One of the things we must do is understand how we can collaborate even more trenchantly, because the tragedy that we are facing is that COVID-19 has touched every single part of our lives. There is going to be no turning back to how we were before. Our reality now is 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. 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.

These three coming together means that Commonwealth collaboration has never been more important. If humanity is to survive, we must come up with a different construct. I believe this is going to be our new normal.

How will Commonwealth nations face up to the health aspect of this challenge? In India, for example, we may be facing a shortage of critical medical equipment, including PPEs, ventilators, and testing kits.

Four years ago, when I became Secretary General, the Commonwealth Health Ministers were already focusing on the reality that in order to face the increasing risk of epidemics and the possibility of a pandemic, 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?

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. India has produced so many exciting new developments.

We are using the Indian ability for jugaad — to take things and make them better — as something that the whole Commonwealth can join into. This is an area of real challenge.

How can Commonwealth nations, including India, balance the trade-off between nationwide lockdown as a means to enforce social distancing, and their devastating economic impact especially on migrant workers?

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. 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.

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 pandemic?

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.

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 must do that which we can do in order to protect our Member States and the world.

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.

The Commonwealth has always been at the forefront of the climate change agenda because our Member States are suffering

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