Post-COVID-19 world: Statesmanship required to create a new normal

By Moneef Zou'bi

China Today

July 2020

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Since the end of the Cold War, a global rivalry ensued between our world’s unipolar camp exhibited via American primacy, and a multipolar camp represented by the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India and China) grouping, with tacit backing from many countries in Europe, South Asia, and Latin America. Only an occurrence as momentous as 9/11 – although momentarily – accomplished a bringing together of peoples in the face of the global terrorism pandemic that the event represented. 

When our world was drifting apart politically and economically, with the divide between the unipolarists and the multipolarists ever-widening, the war against COVID-19 broke out; a war that some have anticipated as recently as 2018. Speaking at the Conference of the Massachusetts Medical Society of that year, to mark the centenary of the Spanish flu (Spanish only in name), former US President Barack Obama warned of a new, highly transmissible, and virulent human respiratory illness for which no adequate countermeasures existed. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has proven to all that we (humans) are one. Human beings may have different dreams, however, we all go to bed under the same sky every night. Such problems would be numerous in our post-COVID-19 world. Severe food and water insecurity, unprecedented economic upheavals, which according to the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and International Monetary Fund (IMF) have led, or can eventually lead to over two and a half billion, or 1 in 3 of the world population, joining the ranks of the unemployed all over the world. 

Presently, United Nations (UN) Secretary-General António Guterres is an unhappy man. The collective and positive chi that prevailed globally when the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development was adopted in 2015 is today no longer. This is demonstrated by the absence of joint international actions to stand up to COVID-19, aside from the efforts of some stakeholders, businesses, and organizations, as well as researchers to mitigate the risk and impact of this unprecedented global emergency.

This, notwithstanding Mr. Antonio Gutteras’s call in March 2020 for an immediate ceasefire in all world conflict zones and for opening up the windows of diplomacy, and to bringing hope to places where the most vulnerable human beings face COVID-19. And while António Guterres’ call was heeded by parties to conflicts in Cameroon, Central African Republic, Colombia, Libya, Myanmar, Philippines, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, Ukraine and Yemen, enormous difficulties to implementation emerged as such conflicts have festered for years and distrust is deep, with many spoilers and many suspicions. 

Perhaps in the hope that the UN would again assume its collective role as a guardian of international peace and security, while the world fights the deadly COVID-19 pandemic, Guterres advocated that the world must turn to “science and solidarity,” not least to combat the spreading of “the global misinfo-demic.” Undeniably, the current pandemic underlines the importance of accurate scientific knowledge provided by trusted national science advisory mechanisms to guide political decisions. We have witnessed how political leaders in Italy, Brazil, Spain, the UK, and the US only paid lip service to science-based advice and pushed their countries to the brink of catastrophe. In all five cases, after initially disregarding the assertions and data provided by science advisors, they rather belatedly changed course.

The UN Secretary-General must likewise be disappointed with the deplorable failure of regional groupings to respond to the current crisis. For instance, when the epidemic struck Italy, Spain, and other European countries, none of the said countries received the expected aid from their European partners. The same is true of other organizations representing other regional groupings such as the Arab League (AL) and indeed the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).  We can take some comfort nonetheless from the fact that humans have more often than not banded together in the face of all kinds of threats. Examples exist of countries sharing and providing medical equipment, test kits, and other essential medical supplies. The example of the Chinese businessman Jack Ma donating 100,000 COVID-19 test kits to Jordan in March 2020, is an encouraging case in point, as well as China’s swift and effective action in the form of the aid it provided for the people of Italy.

In all its ramifications, COVID-19 threatens to push our human, social, political, and economic systems to the brink. Disease, recession leading to mass unemployment, and uncertainty can overpower individuals, societies, and states. The immediate future will bring increasing challenges that can only be met by caring for the sick, minimizing the impact of lockdowns on the lives of human beings, securing the delivery of adequate water, food and energy supplies, and, on the research front, scrambling for a vaccine and a cure. 

To manage the socio-political and socio-economic fallout on our post-COVID-19 world, societal leaders should focus on human dignity and welfare as the foundation of national and international security. Our post-COVID-19 world will witness extraordinary tumult with polities struggling to maintain social order, upholding security while generally adopting good governance practices. Realizing long-term security in most countries can only be achieved by assuring food, water, and energy security, combined with sustainable and equitable socio-economic development.  Regional insecurity is heightened in the absence of cooperation, which has to again become the norm in the face of existential threats both regionally and globally. 

The 2030 Agenda still represents a political manifesto for the post-COVID-19 world over the next decade. Based on the principle of universality, it nevertheless allows every country to contribute to achieving the larger vision of global sustainable development without dispensing with the ownership of its national development agenda. It aims to transform our world by addressing the interconnected root causes of poverty, hunger, pandemics, environmental degradation, climate change and migration. It promulgates a global partnership that will work in a spirit of solidarity, with the poorest in particular, and with people in vulnerable situations.

The spirit of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development has to be cultivated again. Revisiting the Agenda is necessary to factor in new health and globalization parameters as well as elements that have come to undermine the foundations of contemporary society with its rampant inequality and rising injustice, and which threatens the very survival of our species with climate change. The revised Agenda has moreover to extend the ethic of human solidarity beyond the contours of our immediate response to the outbreak of COVID-19.

The Agenda is people-centered, putting human rights and social justice at its core, in a manner not dissimilar to the declaration of China’s National People’s Congress, in May 2020, which stipulated that China will work to ensure achieving the development goals of winning the battle against poverty without setting a specific economic growth target for 2020 while aiming to create more than 9 million new urban jobs and keep the registered urban unemployment rate of around 5.5 percent. 

In harmony with with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the Declaration of the National People’s Congress stresses the people-centered philosophy, particularly adhering to “people first” in coordinating epidemic control and economic and social development.

Now, humanity’s real triumph lies not in the taming of the coronavirus or in re-discovering the principles of justice, solidarity, mutual respect and partnership (as outlined in the InterAction Council’s own Universal Declaration of Human Responsibilities) but in institutionalizing these values in the days, weeks and months ahead.

Dr. Moneef Zou’bi is the Science Advisor of the InterAction Council.