International Institutions, Cooperation and the COVID-19 Pandemic

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1 May 2020, 10:20 a.m.

(Disponible en français : Les organismes internationaux, la coopération et la pandémie de COVID‑19)

The COVID-19 pandemic has mobilized international institutions established by sovereign states to facilitate cooperation in the face of a global crisis or concern. The advantages of such engagement include pooling capabilities and knowledge, multiplying efforts, dispersing risks, and, ultimately, improving the chances of achieving a favourable, mutually beneficial outcome.

Reflecting the health, social and economic dimensions of the viral pandemic, each institution brings its own function, membership and resources to the management of the crisis. This HillNote highlights some of these institutions.

United Nations Network

Marking its 75th anniversary in 2020, the United Nations (UN) is among the most highly structured and multifaceted institutions contributing to the global effort against the COVID-19 pandemic. With 193 member states, the UN and its vast network of organs, agencies and programs have been active on many fronts.

Of these entities, the World Health Organization (WHO) has been particularly active. From the time that its China office reported a pneumonia of unknown cause in Wuhan on 31 December 2019, the WHO has played a leading role in coordinating efforts among its 194[i] member states to prepare for, respond to, and recover from, COVID-19.

Among other measures, the WHO has been:

  • issuing guidelines for schools, workplaces, health providers and public officials on how to reduce and control the spread of disease;
  • providing learning and training resources for health workers and the public;
  • shipping critical supplies such as personal protective equipment and testing kits to help meet the surge in global demand; and
  • countering misinformation about the disease and forms of treatment.

The WHO has also accelerated the coordination of public and private sector research into the virus and the development of effective diagnostic tests, vaccines and medicines, including trials. It is also working with countries to develop strategies for lifting lockdown restrictions.

In many instances, the WHO is acting in tandem with other institutions. They include the UN Development Program (UNDP), whose COVID-19 activities align with its global mission to eradicate poverty, reduce inequalities and build resilience in order to sustain development. Funded in part by donor contributions from UN member states, the UNDP’s focus has been on the most affected countries, including those vulnerable because of weak health and other systems, or already in crisis.

Other examples include the UN Refugee Agency, led by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Established in 1950 to address the aftermath of World War II, the UNHCR’s assistance to refugees, asylum-seekers, internally displaced and stateless persons has since expanded to include public health assistance and action against viral outbreaks, such as COVID-19. With over 70 million people forcibly displaced around the world and over 90 refugee-hosting countries reporting cases of the coronavirus, the UNHCR has enhanced its support for some of the world’s most at-risk populations by facilitating the provision of shelter, sanitation, clean water and medical care. It is also working with governments to ensure that they consider refugee populations in their response plans. Supported primarily by voluntary contributions from states, the UNHCR has launched an appeal for US$255 million in additional donations amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The activities of other institutions point to the broad scope of the intersecting issues arising from the coronavirus outbreak. Such institutions include:

The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank

As in the 2008–09 global financial crisis, states are also looking to develop common approaches against the economic fallout of COVID-19 measures through institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. With resources totalling in the trillions, the efforts of these institutions have focused primarily on sustaining liquidity in the financial system; deploying financial resources to countries requesting bailouts or emergency loans; coordinating fiscal and other measures; and approving debt relief for certain countries.

For many economically vulnerable countries, these funding arrangements – with fewer conditions tied to policy reforms than otherwise – are supporting access to diagnostics and detection of COVID-19, purchasing medical equipment, training health workers, and building health infrastructure.

Other Institutions

These efforts are complemented by institutions that are regional, smaller, more informal, and potentially offer more flexibility for states to organize a collective response to the pandemic. Such institutions include the G20, the G7, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and BRICS.

In this vein, the G20 has evolved from its beginnings as a meeting of key financial ministers coordinating a response to the 1998 Asian economic crisis, to become a crucial mechanism for state leaders addressing a range of global concerns, including the 2020 coronavirus pandemic.

At an extraordinary summit on 26 March 2020, the G20 leaders committed, among other measures, to share information about the virus; minimize economic, trade and labour disruptions with financial stimulus packages; provide help to countries in need; and support efforts by the WHO and other institutions. Since then, G20 Ministers of Health have met to share national best practices and develop a set of urgent actions to jointly combat the pandemic. This is in addition to meetings of other G20 ministers to discuss pandemic-related concerns.


Given that these institutions are subject to the will and preferences of the states that created them, the success of cooperation efforts is not a foregone conclusion. Global rivalries are affecting how member states are working together to address the pandemic, as seen in the UN Security Council and the WHO. In other respects, whether before the virus’ outbreak or as a primary response to its global spread, many states have been turning inward, away from multilateralism and the international institutions that underpin the global order.

The stakes for other efforts at international cooperation, such as promoting gender equality and addressing climate change, as well as ending protracted conflicts and combating terrorism, are high. COVID-19 and its aftermath may be unprecedented, but the challenges of international institutions and state cooperation are not.

Additional Resources

Russian BRICS Chairmanship Statement on the Novel Coronavirus Pneumonia Epidemic Outbreak in China, 11 February 2020.

G7 Leaders’ Statement, 16 March 2020.

Extraordinary G20 Leaders Summit statement on COVID-19, 26 March 2020.

Declaration of NATO Foreign Ministers issued following their meeting of 2 April 2020.

[i] The Cook Islands is a member of WHO, but not a member of the UN.

Author: Natalie Mychajlyszyn, Library of Parliament

Categories: COVID-19, Health and safety, International affairs and defence

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