Mar 28 , 2020
By Federica Mogherini ( Federica Mogherini is former high representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs & Security Policy, vice president of the European Commission, and Italian minister of Foreign Affairs & International Cooperation. )

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 “go national.”

Unilateralism and “zero-sum game” logic seemed to be the new normal: “For me to win, I need you to lose” and “Me first.”

These phrases seemed to be the unequivocal and almost uncontested trademark of this century. Moreover, it was a trademark that had no limits in terms of geography and ideology. One found it in many different shades, but on every continent, in every political orientation, across a wide range of institutional systems, and even within some international organisations. This trend seemed to consolidate by the day. There were very few voices trying to argue for a cooperative international approach, multilateralism, win-win solutions, 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 many people in danger and shaking the foundations of our everyday way of life, we need to ask if this paradigm is likely to remain the predominant one.

As the pandemic strengthens, are there lessons we will learn?

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 a sense of fear and suspicion among communities? Will it divide us even more, increasing the level of toxic rhetoric and behaviour 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 several things loud and clear. If we are willing to listen, these are a few elementary messages.

Primarily, the global community exists. What happens far away has an impact 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 since our bodies are all equally exposed to the virus, no matter who we are.

I do have an interest in my neighbour’s wellbeing. If my neighbour has a problem, it is also my problem. If I do not care for the sake of my neighbour, I had better care for my own sake. In an interconnected world like ours, the only effective way to take care of oneself is to take care of others. Solidarity is the new selfishness.

Just as importantly, globally coordinated solutions are needed, desperately needed, and this requires an investment in international multilateral organisations. If we think we can respond effectively to a crisis like this just by adopting national measures, we do what in Italy is referred to as “trying to empty the sea with a spoon”: a lot of work with no results.

To be effective, you need a systematic, coordinated effort at the global level, with adequate political and financial investments in the international multilateral setup that is required to monitor developments, respond to them, and prevent them from getting even worse. If we dismantle the credibility and capacity to act of international organisations, they will be less likely to be effective when we need them, and we will be the ones paying the price.

Science-based political decisions are also 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 civilisation excluded, and for very wise reasons. Any distortion from scientific evidence-based decisions, due to short-term political or economic considerations, is dangerous.

We can also not afford to realise that 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 investments and a collective sense of responsibility that 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.

Another fundamental lesson is that 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 is the economy, stupid!

Seventh, well-functioning democratic institutions are 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.

Last but not least, nothing is more precious and valuable than life. We sometimes forget, especially when it is our own life in question. This is sound common sense – maybe it is 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 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 is not idealism. It is pure realism.

PUBLISHED ON Mar 28,2020 [ VOL 20 , NO 1039]

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