Listening to the pandemic

Federica Mogherini asks what we can learn from coronavirus

In the face of COVID-19, we need to admit the political mistakes of recent years and adjust our trajectory according to the compass of reality. People around the world – institutional and political leaders, but, ultimately, all of us – must 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 ʺgo nationalʺ. Unilateralism and ʺzero-sum gameʺ logic seemed to be the new normal: ʺFor me to win, I need you to loseʺ and ʺMe firstʺ.

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 organisations.

This trend seemed to consolidate by the day, with very few voices trying to argue for a co-operative 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?

The compass of reality

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 behaviours that have already poisoned our societies, and partially paralysed 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 truths are few and simple.

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.

Solidarity is the new selfish

Second, I do have an interest in my neighbour’s wellbeing. If my neighbour has a problem, it is also my problem. So, if I do not care for the sake of my neighbour, 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 co-ordinated solutions are needed, desperately needed, and this requires investment in international multilateral organisations. 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 ʺtrying to empty the sea with a spoonʺ: a lot of work with no results.

In order to be effective, you need a systematic, co-ordinated effort at the global level, with adequate political and financial collective investment in the international multilateral set-up that is required to monitor developments, respond to them and prevent them from getting even worse.

World Health Organisation Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus declares a global health emergency (photo: picture-alliance/KEYSTONE/J.-C. Bott)
The global community exists: "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," writes Mogherini
If you dismantle the credibility and capacity to act of international organisations, they will be less likely to be effective when you need them, and you will be the one paying the price.

Science-based politics

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 investment, 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 decision-making 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 favour 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.

Life is precious

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.

Federica Mogherini

© Project Syndicate 2020

Federica Mogherini is a former high representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Vice President of the European Commission, and Italian minister of foreign affairs and international cooperation.

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