Warning that protectionism and unilateral action will ultimately be self-defeating, Singapore's Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan told the 75th United Nations General Assembly that no nation, large or small, will be safe unless all are safe together.
"What we need now is vaccine multilateralism," he stressed. "We need greater international cooperation to ensure equitable and universal access to Covid-19 vaccines."
Speaking last Saturday via video link to the General Assembly, which for the first time has had to go almost completely virtual due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Dr Balakrishnan acknowledged that bodies like the World Health Organisation, the World Trade Organisation and the UN needed reform.
But he warned that the multilateral system is "confronted by nationalism, xenophobia, the rejection of free trade and global economic integration, and the bifurcation of technology and supply chains".
And while these were pre-existing trends, the pandemic has accelerated and intensified them, he said, stressing that the world needs to defeat Covid-19 together. "What we need now is more global cooperation, not less," he said.
"We have to ensure that medical supplies and scientific collaboration can continue to flow across borders, and we need to intensify our exchange of information and infection protocols, if we hope to resume some semblance of a 'normal' life, including the resumption of international travel, and to do all this safely," said Dr Balakrishnan.
He added: "We should also consider ways to tackle the inequalities which Covid-19 has exposed and in some cases exacerbated. We need to build more equitable societies."
Ensuring an open trading system is key to rebuilding efforts, Dr Balakrishnan urged.
"No country can be completely self-sufficient. It is in the interest of all countries that we uphold and strengthen supply chain connectivity. In fact, seeking more markets and diversifying our sources of supply will build resilience," he said.
Stressing that the open, rules-based multilateral trading system is a foundation for sustainable global recovery, Dr Balakrishnan said: "The system has allowed countries to trade in goods and services in mutually beneficial ways.
FOREIGN MINISTER VIVIAN BALAKRISHNAN AT THE U.N.
ON COVID-19 VACCINE
What we need now is vaccine multilateralism. We need greater international cooperation to ensure equitable and universal access to Covid-19 vaccines.
ON CLIMATE CHANGE
It is irrefutable that respect for biodiversity and wildlife is essential for humankind's own health and our existence. Countries should therefore align recovery efforts with long-term climate goals.
ON ROLE OF THE U.N.
Small countries make up over half of the membership at the UN. It is essential to have a system where small sovereign states have an equal voice, and disputes can be settled peacefully, in accordance with international law and agreed rules.
"It has raised hundreds of millions of people from poverty. In the aftermath of Covid-19, we should look at ways to support and strengthen this system to make it work better for the future.
"We also need to rebuild safe and reliable transport networks to facilitate the resumption of people mobility."
The minister acknowledged that the path to the post-Covid-19 "new normal" will not be linear.
"At each stage of the way, all countries need to balance the public health concerns with economic and social concerns, and make trade-offs based on their unique national circumstances," he said.
But continued international cooperation is key to overcoming the devastating impact of the pandemic, and to rebuilding, he stressed. "We need to build greater trust, and we need to learn from one another."
And as the world rebuilds, it must also continue to enhance resilience to meet challenges posed by the digital revolution, cyber-security threats, climate change and transboundary pollution.
"It is… critical to collectively develop a trusted, open and inclusive cyberspace underpinned by international law and norms of responsible state behaviour," he said.
On climate change, the Paris Agreement had established a very important global consensus for action, and the coronavirus had shown how inextricably linked human well-being is to the health of the planet, the minister said.
"It is irrefutable that respect for biodiversity and wildlife is essential for humankind's own health and our existence," he said. "Countries should therefore align recovery efforts with long-term climate goals."
While countries cannot hope to go back to the way things were before the pandemic, and neither can the multilateral system, "we must adapt and we must reinforce our international institutions so that they remain open, inclusive, transparent, and fit for purpose", he said.
The role of the UN, in particular, is "indispensable as a universal platform for cooperation, based on the principles of equality, mutual respect, mutual benefit and international law", said Dr Balakrishnan.
"But the UN itself must adapt and reform in order to respond effectively to contemporary and future challenges if it is to remain relevant for the next 75 years."
He added: "Small countries make up over half of the membership at the UN. It is essential to have a system where small sovereign states have an equal voice and disputes can be settled peacefully, in accordance with international law and agreed rules.
"We must seize the opportunity of the UN's 75th anniversary and that presented by the current Covid-19 pandemic to reinvigorate the rules-based multilateral system."