Monday, June 21, 2021

BRICS Strategizes Collective Response to COVID-19

Extraordinary times call for out-of-the-box measures and, in a COVID-19 induced global disruption, this was aptly reflected in the recent BRICS Foreign Ministers virtual meeting. The Foreign Ministers of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa met with the core objective of strategizing a collective response to the pandemic which has overwhelmed national health response systems and brought the world to the brink of a recession. India’s External Affairs Minister Dr. S Jaishankar represented India at the meet. Rebuilding health and wealth was, therefore, the core focus of the online discussion. The interaction also delved into a post-COVID-19 world order and the role of emerging economies in it with the foreign ministers re-emphasising the need for reforming multilateral institutions.

The key outcome of the meeting was the decision to allocate US$ 15 billion to set up a special loan instrument that will help reconstruct the ravaged BRICS economies. A virtual BRICS Health officials’ meeting to ideate upon a more effective medical response will be held in the first week of May. However, given the looming threat of a second wave of infection, reversing the tide of the virus in four of the five BRICS countries appears a herculean task.

Today, eleven years after the first BRICS summit in Yekaterinburg, the wheels have come a full circle with Russia once again in the driver’s seat as President of the group to navigate it through these turbulent times. Representing 42 per cent of the global population, the raison d’être of BRICS has been to offer a platform to its members to achieve their shared objectives. These include reform of economic governance, primacy of the UN, respect for sovereignty, and establishment of an equitable multipolar world anchored in multilateralism.

However, multilateralism is arguably in crisis. The credibility of the UNSC is being increasingly questioned amidst its failure to even discuss the global pandemic. Similarly, the WHO’s alleged China-centric bias was seen as undermining the efficacy of its early warning and response systems that could have limited the COVID-19 spread. The simmering resentment against China may even lead to new equations and alignments. Meanwhile, the growing tendency of ‘my country first’ is challenging the pillars of globalisation that have hitherto rested on open borders and interdependent supply chains. With countries progressively looking inwards, a recalibration of multilateralism is likely in the offing.

Amidst these churnings, the robust dialogue mechanisms of BRICS can hold it in good stead to collectively tackle the pandemic, anchored in health diplomacy. The 2018 BRICS proposal to develop a Centre for Research and Development of Vaccines is likely to gain traction. The pharmacological prowess of India, Russia and China can aid the process of developing effective and low cost medicines, including traditional ones. The emphasis on holistic health can receive a boost through Yoga. Similarly, the revival of BRICS Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief mechanisms can help alleviate future black swan events. In this context, the New Development Bank of the group is well positioned to fast-track several of these proposals that lie at the frontiers of science and technology.

At a time when virtual space has acquired a critical dimension in keeping the wheels of economies rolling, the salience of cyber security is profound. Similarly, the global lockdowns, which led to nature healing and reclaiming its place, have re-emphasised the efficacy of tackling climate change. These issues remain the key focus of BRICS dialogue architecture.

Given the political, economic and ideological diversity of BRICS members, as evidenced by Russia and South Africa shielding China at the UNSC despite its COVID-19 acts of commission and omission, the litmus test will lie in BRICS ability to strengthen mutually beneficial cooperation while setting aside their differences. With the future outlook of COVID-19 pandemic appearing gloomy and uncertain, combining each other’s strengths to weather a raging tempest is more relevant than ever before.

Script: Rajorshi Roy, Analyst on Russia & CIS

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