Confronted by the gravest humanitarian and economic crisis of our times, we face a choice. Shall we pull together? Or shall we pull each other apart?
Cooperation and coordination among doctors and virologists fighting COVID-19 has been exemplary; scientific leaders seem to be pulling us together. Political leaders seem to be pulling us apart – with US President Donald Trump leading the discord.
“The aggressive unilateral, us-versus-them nationalism of America First has gone global,” as former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown put it in his Foreword to the eBook that Simon Evenett and I edited on export restrictions. “Now, we have an international coalition of anti-internationalists impeding global cooperation - China First, India First, and Russia First.”
Some governments – including the US, France, India, and China – are imposing export restrictions or new controls on vital medical supplies. Others are limiting food exports – including some of the world’s key suppliers such as Russia, Ukraine, and Vietnam. And many are ignoring the plight of financially weak nations. Bad as all this is, the real danger is what it may lead to.
If today’s export restrictions trigger a 1929-like retaliatory spiral, the result will be catastrophic. If all the major producers ban exports, the world’s ability to make vital medical supplies would be paralysed. Medical equipment and supplies cannot be manufactured without international supply chains, since no nation is self-sufficient in all the inputs and components. Short-sighted efforts to boost local availability would end up doing the opposite. This is exactly what happened in the 1930s, but back then it was a spiral of import tariffs that did the damage.
It does not have to be like this.
In 2009, leaders of the G20 nations came together at the London Summit and declared: “A global crisis requires a global solution. … our global plan for recovery must have at its heart the needs and jobs of hard-working families, not just in developed countries but in emerging markets and the poorest countries of the world too.”
G20 leaders did agree to a statement on 26 March 2020 that seemed hopeful but was actually hollow. Instead of committing to avoiding a vortex of destructive export bans, they justified them: “Consistent with the needs of our citizens, we will work to ensure the flow of vital medical supplies …”
In the eBook that Simon Evenett and I edited, the authors of the various chapters demonstrate that export restrictions are doubly harmful. First, they are ineffective in they do not help nations meet the medical challenge posed by this pandemic. Second, the lack of coordination is raising prices, thereby driving costs beyond the means of many developing nations. People will die needlessly.
All nations act out of self-interest, as they should do. But in 2009, the G20 leaders demonstrated “enlightened self-interest,” rather than the short-sighted, nationalist self-interest displayed in their 26 March statement.
Given the integrated nature of 21st century manufacturing, the fastest and most effective way of ramping up production is by ensuring that established international supply chains function well. That demands international cooperation, not narrow nationalism. Narrow nationalism won’t help any nation fight off COVID-19, foster economic recovery, or nurture the collaborative spirit that the human race needs to defeat this threat.
Quite simply, this is our generation’s moment of truth. This deadly strand of RNA respects no borders. The pandemic cannot be definitively squashed in any one nation without being squashed in every nation. In order to marshal the world’s awesome productive capacities to the goal of defeating this virus, leaders need to cooperate and coordinate.
 See his Forward to the eBook, “COVID-19 and trade policy: Why turning inward won’t work,” edited by Richard Baldwin and Simon Evenett, VoxEU.org, 29 April 2020.
 See chapters by area experts in “COVID-19 and trade policy: Why turning inward won’t work,” edited by Richard Baldwin and Simon Evenett, VoxEU.org, 29 April 2020