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COVID-19's threat to our global civilisation and the need for collective responsibility

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Photo: Sara Johannessen

Writing for Kyodo News, Gro Harlem Brundtland calls for collective action to address multiple crises affecting global civilisation, from COVID-19 and climate change to nuclear proliferation and assaults on the multilateral system.

Ninety years ago in 1930, the father of modern psychiatry Sigmund Freud published a famous essay called “Civilisation and its Discontents”.

Writing in the aftermath of the First World War, amid radical scientific and medical breakthroughs in the field of psychology and also the growth of authoritarian movements like Nazism, Freud explored the tensions between the impulses driving human behaviour and the constraints imposed by the structures of civilisation.

Today, our global civilisation faces the profound challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has thrown up a wide range of “discontents” and poses a complex dilemma of how to balance individual impulses and freedoms with collective responsibility.

Lockdowns, border closures, travel restrictions and mandatory face-coverings have all impacted the personal lives of women and men across the world on an unprecedented scale.

At the same time, the coronavirus has shone a harsh light on existing inequalities in our civilisation, from the distribution of economic resources to access to health and justice services.

The Secretary-General of the United Nations, António Guterres, starkly articulated this injustice in a recent speech to mark Mandela Day:

“COVID-19 has been likened to an x-ray, revealing fractures in the fragile skeleton of the societies we have built. It is exposing fallacies and falsehoods everywhere… while we are all floating on the same sea, it’s clear that some are in superyachts while others are clinging to drifting debris.”

If we are to successfully overcome the pandemic, then we need to recommit to the values of solidarity, cooperation and equality that underpin the Charter of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

2020 marks the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War and the founding of the United Nations, as well as the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the beginnings of Japan’s post-war democracy.

All of these significant anniversaries are interlinked, and underscore that the path of human progress is rarely straightforward. Our civilisation and common human heritage is shaped by war, devastation and loss just as much as by idealism, ingenuity and liberty.

Only an honest reckoning with the complexities and ambiguities of our past can enable us to meet the challenges of the present and future. This is particularly relevant to the current crisis, and how nation states and international institutions like the World Health Organization have responded.

COVID-19 has laid bare the interconnected nature of global risks, and the extent to which even well-resourced health systems can be rapidly overwhelmed when crises hit.

I served as the Director-General of the World Health Organisation during the SARS crisis in 2002-3, and am very conscious of the challenges that multilateral institutions face in persuading member states to respond in the global interest to such threats.                     

It is essential that countries support the WHO and provide it with the necessary funding to carry out its work, including through implementing the recommendations of the Global Preparedness Monitoring Board, of which I am a Co-Chair.

The WHO must be enabled to work on behalf of all humanity, acting solely on the best available scientific and medical evidence. It is deeply unhelpful and counter-productive for the WHO to become a forum for political point scoring by member states in the pursuit of narrow national interests.

The virus will not be overcome unless all states work together, pooling resources and expertise to strengthen health systems, develop and distribute an effective vaccine, protect health workers and provide the necessary care to all who need it in society. This must particularly include vulnerable groups such as refugees, migrants, the elderly and infirm.

Priority must also be given to efforts to support fragile and poorer states, which have weaker health systems and lack the capacity to provide social safety nets to limit the immediate economic and humanitarian impact of the pandemic. It is essential, once an effective vaccine is developed, that it is made accessible and affordable for all countries.

Leaders and citizens alike need to recognise that our world is in a state of profound crisis, and the multilateral system faces its gravest threat since 1945.

The response to COVID-19 and the challenges of ensuring a rapid, equitable and sustainable economic recovery from the pandemic is straining the limits of international solidarity. It has brought into question the interconnected global systems of trade and international travel that have been taken for granted in recent decades.

In addition, we continue to face the longer-term existential threats to human existence posed by climate change and nuclear weapons, both of which are headed in an increasingly dangerous and unpredictable direction, due to neglect – or in some cases, wilful destructiveness.

It is an especially sad irony that this assault on multilateralism is being led by the United States - the country that played the single biggest role in the establishment and maintenance of the multilateral system after 1945, and which helped Japan become the thriving democracy and economic powerhouse it is today.

To my deep regret, the current US Administration has done deep and lasting damage to the UN system and the broader principles of multilateralism since 2017. From withdrawing from the Paris Agreement, to blocking the appointment of judges on the WTO’s Appellate Court, to pulling out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces and Open Skies Treaties, the US Government has sought to undermine and dismantle some of the crowning achievements of multilateralism.

President Trump’s latest decision to withdraw the US from participation in the World Health Organization – announced even as the world remains in the midst of tackling a global pandemic – is among the most astonishingly and transparently counter-productive of these moves.

Our concepts of civilisation, responsibility and solidarity have been sorely tested by COVID-19 and its economic and social fallout. Future generations will judge us on how we respond, not only to save lives now but to “build back better” and be more thoroughly prepared for future shocks. For their sakes and for the future of our shared planet, we must not let them down.

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