The COVID-19 crisis is an opportunity to call some of the political mistakes of recent years by their name and adjust our trajectory according to the compass of reality. Seizing it will require people around the world – starting with institutional and political leaders, but, ultimately, all of us – to put reality first.
As of a few weeks ago, no one would have disputed that the most relevant and evident trend in the global politics of our times is “go national.” Unilateralism and “zero-sum game” logic seemed to be the new normal: “For me to win, I need you to lose” and “Me first.”
These phrases seemed to be the unequivocal and almost uncontested trademark of this century. Moreover, it was a trademark that had almost no limits in terms of geography and ideology: you found it in many different shades, but on each and every continent, in each and every political orientation (including many varieties of unlabelled political movements), across a wide range of institutional systems, and even within some international organizations. This trend seemed to consolidate by the day, with very few voices trying to argue for a cooperative international approach, multilateralism, win-win solutions and a search for common ground, and community-based policies rather than a purely individualistic vision of society.
Today, as the coronavirus pandemic spreads across the entire world, putting at risk so many of our lives and shaking the foundations of our everyday way of life, we need to ask if this paradigm is likely to remain the predominant one. Is the pandemic going to strengthen it, or are there lessons we will learn?
Can a virus challenge some of the assumptions on which the current global political landscape is based? Is it going to make us focus on what really counts, on what unites us as humanity, or is it going to fuel the sense of fear and suspicion among and within communities, dividing us even more, increasing the level of toxic rhetoric and behaviors that has already poisoned our societies, and partially paralyzed our collective capacity to act efficiently? Are we going to use this crisis as an opportunity to call some of the mistakes of recent years by their name, and adjust our trajectory at last to the compass of reality?
This pandemic is telling us a number of things loud and clear. If we are willing to listen, these are a few very simple ones.
First, the global community exists. What happens far away has an impact (even a vital one) here and now. A sneeze on one continent has direct repercussions on another. We are connected, we are one. All attempts to consider borders as dividing lines, and to classify people by nationality, ethnicity, gender, or religious belief – all of this loses meaning at once, as our bodies are all equally exposed to the virus, no matter who we are.
Second, I do have an interest in my neighbor’s wellbeing. If my neighbor has a problem, it is also my problem. So, if I do not care for the sake of my neighbor, I’d better care for my own sake. Because in an interconnected world like ours, the only effective way to take care of yourself is to take care of others. Solidarity is the new selfish.
Third, global coordinated solutions are needed, desperately needed, and this requires an investment in international multilateral organizations. If you think you can respond effectively to a crisis like this just by adopting national measures, you do what in Italian is referred to as “trying to empty the sea with a spoon”: a lot of work with no results.
In order to be effective, you need a systematic, coordinated effort at the global level, with adequate political and financial collective investments in the international multilateral setup that is required to monitor developments, respond to them, and prevent them from getting even worse. If you dismantle the credibility and capacity to act of international organizations, they will be less likely to be effective when you need them, and you will be the one paying the price.
Fourth, science-based political decisions are the only rational and useful way to go. Evidence is the only reliable point of reference we have. Luckily, we have been investing in science for thousands of years – across the world, no civilization excluded, and for very wise reasons. Any distortion from scientific evidence-based decisions, due to short-term political or economic considerations, is simply dangerous.
Fifth, health is a public good. It is not just a private issue. It is a matter of national – and even international – security, and of economic prosperity. As such, it requires both adequate and sustained public investments, and a collective sense of responsibility that each and every citizen is called to exercise. Avoiding contagion is not only a life-saving must for individuals, it is also a vital contribution to the survival of communities and the functioning of public health services, and ultimately, of the state.
Sixth, the global economy needs human beings to stay healthy. Investment in public health, science, and research is an investment in prosperous economies worldwide. Production, consumption, trade, and services – the basis of our economic system – need people to be healthy and safe. It’s the economy, stupid!
Seventh, well-functioning democratic institutions are literally vital to our lives. We take things for granted until we risk losing them. The way in which decisionmaking functions (or not) is the ultimate test in times of crisis. If democracy is perceived as a burden that slows or even impedes effective and fast measures, the argument in favor of more authoritarian systems of governance will grow stronger, with all the negative implications this would have on our rights and freedoms. Making democratic institutions work is an investment in our health, our security, and our freedoms and rights.
Last, but not least, nothing is more precious and valuable than life. We sometimes forget, especially when it’s our own life in question. This is sound common sense – maybe it’s time to go back to basics.
Every crisis can be used as an opportunity to learn lessons from the mistakes of the past, adjust policies, change course, and fix things that we were not even admitting were broken. It all depends on what individuals across the world decide to do, starting with those who have institutional and political responsibilities. But ultimately, all of us will need to decide. Will this crisis be used for short-term individual gains, with the usual scapegoat exercise, or will it be a wake-up call to reality? It’s not idealism, it’s pure realism.