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Former Prime Minister of Norway and former Director-General of the World Health Organization Gro Harlem Brundtland said COVID-19 revealed the fragility of the current world order. (Photo by Bernt Sønvisen | CC BY-ND 2.0)

Former Prime Minister of Norway Gro Harlem Brundtland discussed how the failures of the World Health Organization and individual governments to properly respond to the COVID-19 pandemic have exacerbated the extent of its destructive impact at a virtual Perry World House event.

Brundtland, who is also the former Director-General of the WHO, said the pandemic revealed the fragility of the current world order. The Wednesday event was moderated by NPR Middle East Correspondent Deborah Amos and introduced by Vice Provost for Global Initiatives Ezekiel Emanuel as part of the PWH series “The UN at 75: Coronavirus and Competition,” which celebrates the 75th anniversary of the United Nations.

“Both the death toll and the economic impact of the pandemic have fallen disproportionally on poor, vulnerable, and marginalized communities within all societies," Brundtland said. "Deepening the chasms of inequality and social injustice, COVID-19 has revealed a collective failure by leaders and policymakers to take pandemic prevention, preparedness, and response seriously and prioritize it accordingly.”

World governments have fallen short in providing help for those who need it, and exacerbated the fissures among societies and among nations, she added. Brundtland criticized the role of the United States, China, and international institutions such as the WHO in particular for mishandling the pandemic. 

“Unquestionably, the United States has not been the only bad actor in undermining multilateralism. China also bears responsibility for the unhelpful public infighting over the origins of the virus in recent months,” Brundtland said. “Our global institutions, such as the World Bank and the [International Monetary Fund], have illustrated their present limitations with regard to quick and effective countermeasures in such a dramatic crisis affecting all of us across the world.”

Brundtland called for a new Bretton Woods system, which stated that gold was the basis for the U.S. dollar and other currencies were tied to the U.S. dollar's value. The Bretton Woods agreement also established the World Bank and the IMF, which have remained important to the exchange of international currencies even after the Bretton Woods system was dissolved in the 1970s.

Speakers at Perry World House's other "UN at 75" events struck a similar tone. Several veteran diplomats called for more international collaboration to address the pandemic on Wednesday, and former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power rebuked the Trump administration's rejection of a multilateral approach.

Brundtland is a member of The Elders, an independent group of global leaders founded by former President of South Africa Nelson Mandela in 2007, who work together for peace, justice, and human rights. She also serves as co-chair of the Global Preparedness Monitoring Board, an independent monitoring and accountability body set up in 2018 to ensure preparedness for global health crises.

Brundtland served as Norway's first female Prime Minister in 1981, from 1986 to 1989, and again from 1990 to 1996.