Pandemics and Progress
The COVID-19 pandemic threatens to push the world’s social, political, and economic structures to the breaking point, and overcoming the crisis will require resilience. Real success will lie in rediscovering and institutionalizing the true value of compassion, respect, and generosity in the weeks and months ahead.
AMMAN – Humanity has survived many pandemics throughout history. In many cases, we learned lessons that helped to spur subsequent progress. For example, the kingdoms and states of Central and Western Europe abolished serfdom once it became clear in the aftermath of devastating pestilence that dependency and servitude jeopardized leaders’ hold on power.
Similarly, the Spanish Flu pandemic that killed more than 50 million people in 1918-19 highlighted the vulnerability of entire countries in the absence of widespread access to basic health care. That episode spurred governments to start building the public-health systems that improved life so much in the twentieth century.
More often than not, humanity has banded together in the face of all kinds of threats. Today, the COVID-19 pandemic and its many ramifications threaten to push our social, political, and economic structures to the breaking point. If the past is prologue, then our survival and welfare demand that we change.
The combination of disease, recession, and fear can rapidly overwhelm states and societies. Each coming day will bring increasing challenges that can be met only by caring for the sick, minimizing the impact of shutdowns on lives and livelihoods, securing the delivery of adequate water, food, and energy supplies, and racing to find a cure for the virus.
As in any asymmetric conflict, success depends on resilience. To contain the economic and sociopolitical fallout from the crisis, policymakers should focus on preserving human dignity and welfare as the bedrock of national and international security.
In much of the world, the most vulnerable members of society are those on the front lines of the crisis: not just doctors, nurses, care-givers, and pharmacists, but also sanitation workers, farmers, supermarket cashiers, and truck drivers. All are displaying the courage, sacrifice, and dedication that will see us through the next 12-18 months of lockdowns. But in the absence of state support, what will happen to the hundreds of thousands of people who have already been laid off, and the millions more who face looming hardship as unemployment continues to rise?
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As the calls for social distancing grow louder and more incessant, we must remember our humanitarian duty to one another. After all, security, far from being individual, is collective and global.
Indeed, the logic of mutually assured survival does not allow for gray areas. In the end, successful conflict resolution always finds a way to transcend political beliefs, nationality, ethnicity, gender, and religion. Likewise, beating back this pandemic will require that our commitment to life be truly universal.
The world has reliable brokers that can help to manage this and other crises, such as the International Committee of the Red Cross and Médecins Sans Frontières. They and other similarly trusted organizations must take the lead in developing a public platform of health facts so that everyone understands both the scale of the challenge and the changes we must make in order to meet it. And those who cry hoax need to be exposed as the callous cynics that they are.
Moreover, the people who have been attacked the most in recent years – migrants and refugees – must be an integral part of national efforts to halt the spread of COVID-19. The United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia says that 55 million people in the region require some sort of humanitarian assistance, and that displaced women and girls are especially vulnerable in a pandemic. So, the challenge to both public health and our shared humanity is vast.
Fortunately, the multilateral system, although damaged by nationalist attacks in recent years, still has the capacity to face up to this existential crisis. And although human solidarity initially was significantly weakened as the COVID-19 virus spread from China, it is now being bolstered by Chinese assistance to Italy’s people and government in their time of need.
The current crisis is equally a crisis of globalization, which, while it has lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty in recent decades, has also undermined the foundations of sustainability. A better globalization will require nothing less than extending the ethic of human solidarity beyond the contours of our immediate response to the COVID-19 outbreak. Real success will lie not in taming a pathogen, but in rediscovering and institutionalizing the true value of compassion, respect, and generosity in the weeks and months ahead.