Imagine bringing in a new year engulfed by a welcome assault on all the senses that such festivities can bring. Surrounded by people near and dear. Fun without the fear of contributing to loss of life. Merriment in the absence of mask-wearing. Being social minus the distancing. Plodding along to the pub with no passport. Transit lacking in trouble. Perhaps an in-person office party, or even the odd excursion overseas. These are some of the things that can be truly enjoyed when cooperation occurs.
Cooperation is crucial during times of emergency, especially if the challenges faced in such a period are to be overcome at minimal cost. A key feature of public health emergencies is that they can quickly transcend national borders, which in turn calls for inter-state and inter-institutional cooperation. International legal frameworks have the potential to contribute to such cooperation, whether through trade agreements that enable personal protective equipment to be distributed to where it is needed most, or rules that stipulate how international travel procedures ought to operate during a global pandemic. Yet there are issues regarding in what ways these frameworks actually meet their respective aims and if they should be reformed in order to improve responses to public health emergencies.
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic continues to shine a light on the shortcomings of the current approaches to governance in the context of public health. Although there are limitations in what the law can do in mitigating problems such as misinformation and vaccine inequity, there exist opportunities to make changes that may bring about more positive outcomes. These include implementing policies that share the promise of preventing public health emergencies from occurring in the first place, or at the very least better preparing societies across states for addressing them. Sharing data forms part of this process, but states cannot share data that they are unable to collect and manage. Concerted efforts are therefore needed to develop the necessary support structures within states so they have this ability. And when data is shared in order to inform responses of other states and actors, those that took the important step of sharing data should not be punished. Encouraging this practice by instead rewarding states could incentivize compliance with international legal obligations, in particular if a reward outweighs the benefits of non-compliance. A pertinent example with respect to public health is states deciding whether it is worthwhile to provide a notification of an event that might constitute a public health risk of international concern, which relates to legal obligations enshrined in the International Health Regulations of the World Health Organization that bind 196 states. The issuance of timely communications can assist a variety of actors in coordinating responses that allow societies to get out ahead of a spreading disease as opposed to constantly playing catch-up. Ensuring that states are not punished but rewarded for being transparent about situations within them is one change that international law can foster, helping facts travel fast.
There are more ways in which international legal frameworks applicable to public health can be reformed for the purpose of strengthening cooperation. A number of these are set out in the Bingham Centre’s Roadmap for Reform of International Legal Frameworks to Strengthen Cooperation in Responses to Public Health Emergencies, which can be downloaded here. This output forms part of a multi-institutional project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council on behalf of UK Research and Innovation (grant AH/V015214/1). Alongside initiatives that aspire to update applicable laws, tackling what might be described as the underlying causes of public health emergencies is pivotal. The apparent rampant socioeconomic inequality within and between states, the damage done to natural environments, and the corruption that penetrates the highest offices of the public and private spheres require treatment. Governments, international organizations and corporations alike can place much emphasis on individuals taking personal responsibility for their behaviour in trying times, but this responsibility should be met in measure by collectives, proportionate to the powers they are tasked with exercising. COVID-19 has presented lessons to be learned. Perhaps in the future the balancing of interests that must be struck when engaging with matters that arise in public health emergencies will hit the mark, where effectivity in policy choices subject this world to further decisions that are more pre-emptive than they are reactive. Alternatives involve maintaining the continuation of practices that do about as much good as slapping a band-aid on a broken leg.