How to rebuild back better: Planetary health as a compass for shaping the future international global order
Worldwide over one billion people are on coronavirus lockdown. Overnight, the frantic economies of the twenty-first century ground to a halt. All of the sudden, an invisible organism became our number one enemy, demonstrating the fragility of an über-connected planet. The coronavirus pandemic is an unprecedented event and will leave a much changed world in its wake. The question of global cooperation looms large in thinking about the post-pandemic world. Are we entering a world that is less free and open? A world of more authoritarian states? Or is this pandemic an opportunity to “unlearn” mistakes and build our societies based on trust, knowledge and cooperation?
In this exploration of the post-pandemic world and the consequences for multilateralism, I address two main themes: the ruptures in the current global liberal order and their consequences for democracy and capitalism, and the role of the UN in a time of apparent broken solidarity.
The coronavirus: A mirror of our failed global “community”?
In moments of crisis, we soon learn who we really are. If we were selfish before, the chances are that we will become even more so. Our most primal instincts kick in. Around the world, we are seeing people acting in ways that to many of us previously seemed unimaginable; from the irrational stockpiling of toilet paper to the outrageous actions of public figures such as Senator Rand Paul, who refused to self-isolate or practice social distancing after taking a Covid-19 test.
Ugly times, it seems, make us ugly people. But looking beyond these tales of ignorance, this global health crisis highlights the simple fact that we are all in this together. There is no Planet B.
Once we overcome the huge task of making our populations feel safe again, much more difficult questions will arise. Choices will have to be made. Many of the questions that we will need to tackle will reflect shifts in political power, an economic system that has reached its limits, the growing scarcity of natural resources and its consequences for human health.
For the first time in history we can watch a pandemic unfold much as we would a sporting event. Countries can monitor their numbers and learn what others are doing to combat the coronavirus in real time. A spirit of competition seems to be emerging in view of the differences in health systems, responses, political regimes, cultural attitudes, geography and demographics. In this macabre game, the strategy that each team pursues will make a difference – BUT we must all win at the same time. The challenge is that we can’t seem to agree on the rules of the game.
Trump’s lethal denial of science: a disservice to global cooperation
President Trump’s denial of science is nothing new. The President’s willingness to ignore decades of scientific evidence on climate change is symptomatic of this flight from reality. But this time he has no choice. Trump has been forced to swallow the sour pill of economic recession and listen to the experts, who have recommended that regions across the US impose ever stricter measures to stifle the pandemic’s growth. His plan to reopen America for business at Easter might sound like a “beautiful thing” but it is unlikely to become reality.
This disconnect between wishful thinking and facts is a constant feature in US politics and is not an issue for the half of Americans who support Trump, who took his policy of “America first” to its logical conclusion when he tried to secure exclusive access to a coronavirus vaccine in development in Germany – a move that scandalized the German public.
Real leaders emerge in times of crisis. So far, there are reasons to believe that the US has failed to live up to its historical role as the guardian of the liberal global order and Western values such as freedom, human rights, and scientific thinking. This pandemic could be a game-changer in the US’ elections and this probably why President Trump is so anxious to go back to business. In doing so, the US President has failed to show solidarity and empathy towards the world and his own citizens. Almost inevitably, China is moving to fill the gap left by the United States.
China’s role in the post-pandemic world
It appears likely that China will emerge from the corona crisis as a key player in the post-pandemic global order. Even as Chinese people around the world met with waves of racism, some commentators celebrated the relative success with which China dealt with the coronavirus in a country of 1.5 billion people. The strong hand of an authoritarian regime, in this case, appears to have staved off worse disaster. As the situation in China improves, the government has been investing in its soft power and orchestrating a highly effective propaganda campaign.
But while everyone on this planet wants the same thing – the freedom to leave their homes as they please – little attention has been given to the present and future consequences for our democracies, privacy and personal freedom of the methods of surveillance being applied to address this crisis.
The aid provided to European countries by the Chinese government appeals to an image of solidarity even as some question whether China is to blame for allowing this disease to spill over. But does China’s rise reflect a weakening of democratic role models? One major risk we face in the future is an acceptance of authoritarian control in exchange for the protection of public health. Overall, this pandemic is accelerating the ongoing expansion of Chinese influence around the globe.
The European (dis-)Union
The free circulation of people, and not only goods, has been a powerful way of building European identity. The Schengen Agreement practically abolished internal borders within the so-called Schengen Area, which extends to most of the EU. Signed in 1985, the treaty is a symbolic part of the EU’s actorness and regional cooperation. The pandemic, however, rendered EU passports irrelevant and closed national borders. What will happen next?
Historically, the EU’s raison d'être has been associated, above all, with peace. But the nature of war has changed in the twenty-first century. When a battle happens against an invisible enemy, borders can be closed and yet the violence continues to spread undetectably. This retreat, and the failure of the member states to agree on common European debt mechanism, has left the most affected countries (Italy and Spain) to fend for themselves and revealed the shortcomings of a Europe already shaken by Brexit.
What matters is that the EU’s potential deconstruction has serious implications for multilateralism. This is because, as a bloc, this region has been the most important supporter of a rule-based system under the UN’s authority.
The implications for multilateralism
Those countries that cope more successfully with Covid-19 are likely to become more influential in the post-pandemic world. This will have follow-on effects for international organizations, which remain country-driven institutions, despite the growing influence of non-governmental actors.
The UN was created in the aftermath of two world wars with the aim of ensuring a more peaceful coexistence among countries. The end of the twentieth century was marked by a period of intense globalization, reinforcing the need for strong multilateral institutions to regulate this interconnected world. However, norms and regulations have largely been shaped by the most powerful actors. The UN Security Council is the best example, given that only five permanent members have the power to veto decisions that affect the whole world. The original UN charter had 51 signatories. Today, there are more than 193 members and dozens of accredited observers. Many countries have called for the UN Security Council to be reformed with the aim of lending the Council greater legitimacy and credibility, foremost among them Brazil and Germany. In the post-pandemic world, global health could be reimagined as a matter of global security. This raises the question of why five countries should be making decisions that will affect the entire world. There are reasons to believe that, if this much delayed UN reform is not accomplished, the whole UN system could be sidelined just when the world most needs a global action plan.
This pandemic throws up serious challenges for multilateralism. In the short term, key multilateral environmental agreements that were already not in good shape could come unstuck. The Paris Agreement and the failure of the UN Climate Summit in 2019 in Madrid are examples of a system already under stress. Another relevant process that is essential for planetary health is the 2020 UN Biodiversity Conference that is set to take place in China in October 2020. We need to promote safe spaces to advance negotiations that will enable us to tackle the most challenging threats of this century. The biodiversity negotiations, for example, are crucial because the health of our ecosystems is directly connected to our own. When it comes to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), many organizations still hand-pick their “favorite goal” and fail to implement policies that reflect the holistic nature of this roadmap for development. An unravelling of hard-won agreements will only reinforce this trend.
An economic recession is inevitable. This pandemic is revealing the fragility of a production model that operates on the basis of a “perfect world scenario”, despite all the warnings that we are hurtling towards environmental tipping points that could trigger future conflicts. Nature is indeed sending us a message and it is not a gentle one. What we are doing to our planet is getting back to us, all of us.
What is worrisome is how we could be heading towards a world that is less open to global cooperation. The UN’s response to the pandemic is a reflection of its member states. Will they fear globalization even more or embrace the fact that we need coordinated responses for a sustainable future? In light of these events, peace, security and sustainable development will be predominantly shaped by non-traditional powers and this means that our democracies could be at a greater risk than previously imagined.
A chance to heal or the perpetuation of a sick model?
One of the reasons that our imperfect capitalist system has been able to move forward is the lack of satisfactory alternatives. Is this the time to revisit the basic premises of the way we conceive progress? The post-pandemic world will undeniably be a challenging one. The impact of stark inequalities will become even more apparent. Nobody really knows how to apply the rules of social distancing in highly populated areas replete with informal settlements or how to enforce handwashing in water-deprived regions.
So far, this pandemic has two faces. A sad one, which reminds one of all the losses at the human, social and economic levels; and a happy one symbolizing the opportunity to re-imagine the future through the lens of planetary health.
Undoubtedly, many lessons will emerge from the current pandemic and the first worth highlighting is how efficiency has been prioritized at the expense of resilience and adaptive capacities in our supply chains, for example. We have been producing wherever it was cheaper, irrespective of the human and environmental costs. The price of this choice has skyrocketed and we are finally getting the bill. Two items are particularly expensive: an over-dependency on one region (China) and unprecedented environmental damage.
In this disruptive moment in history, one thing is certain: now is the time to make a choice. We need to take the time to think as a civilization about the kind of future we really want. We can build a better world in the wake of this pandemic if we finally ditch a concept of development that ignores environmental and social externalities and grasp the intrinsic connection between human health and healthy ecosystems. Chaos can be beautiful if it is filled with meaning. We can either go back to business as usual or we can choose to invest in planetary health. Covid-19 is a chance for us to be re-born. Who do you want to be?
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