“It is time to put global conflict on lock-down and focus together on the true fight of our lives”. The Secretary General of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres, live-streamed this appeal to the world as Britain was going into lock-down. The Coronavirus pandemic could “open precious windows to diplomacy” and help create “corridors for life-saving aid”. The two-week cease-fire in Yemen declared by Saudi Arabia is a promising sign. A former Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth office, the Rt. Hon. Alistair Burt in a paper to the Defence and Security Forum has recently elaborated on the possibilities inherent in the Guterres appeal.
Alistair Burt’s thinking derives from his experience of the Middle East with its intractable conflicts, Yemen, Afghanistan, Syria, US-Iran, Israel-Palestine-Iran. No-one can make concessions or they will ‘lose face’ or appear to be weaker than their opponent. No-one trusts their adversary as a negotiating partner. A bitter stalemate prevails. “A ladder to climb down” would be a game-changer. Covid-19 offers one to the warring parties, Burt suggests. The belligerents with whole populations trapped between them face the uncontrolled spread of the virus. The combatants can cease fire and co-operate or many more will die. ‘All win or all lose’.
Years ago I travelled from Jordan into Israel by – what was then called – the Allenby Bridge. There was a hold up. I watched ambulances pull up on each side of the bridge. A patient from the Jordanian ambulance was carried out on a stretcher and handed over to the Israeli ambulance crew. The two ambulances moved off. It somehow summed up the divisions in the Holy Land but also how the medical world in its basic humanity and solidarity can overcome them. But Guterres’ appeal, Burt’s diplomatic vision, though, go wider than this.
Alistair Burt’s short Defence Forum paper joins a contemporary plethora of reflections about the world as it might be post-Coronavirus. The pandemic is what in biblical Greek would be called a Kairos moment, a time of great danger but also of great opportunity and possibility for fresh vision. The combination of authoritarian rule and advanced cyber-technology, AI, combine to create the danger of China using its strategy against the pandemic to further entrench the surveillance of its population to near 1984 proportions. But the sharing that has taken place offers of its COVID-19 expertise with other countries also provides the opportunity to open up a new chapter of international co-operation.
“These days of pain are bringing many hidden problems to the surface”, Pope Francis tweeted today. Coronavirus has revealed and cast an extraordinary spotlight both on the importance of good governance, and on the impact of inequality and poverty on people around the world and within nations. Governments which can, and do, energetically strive to turn well-formulated health policies into reality within their health systems, provide the gold standard. Governments which cannot or will not, sacrifice the lives of their citizens. Only in democracies can citizens hold their governments to account and know with some certainty what is happening. Inequality and poverty cause poor health outcomes wherever you live. Pandemics accentuate dramatically pre-existing inequalities and poverty.
Whilst we in Britain count the number of ventilators in thousands and lament how few, African doctors, for example, treasure the medical equipment sent by a parish in Europe, an x-ray machine donated by Rotary, HAZMAT clothing brought by WHO and international medical charities. The world’s refugee settlements are even more in need of international support. Like the Victorians, in UK the realisation is dawning that “we are all in this together” when it comes to health, and that this need not be only a defensive government mantra during war and pestilence but the basis for policies promoting social justice and equity.
The longed-for time when Coronavirus is controlled will offer a moment for renewed vision, an opportunity for changing direction. The choices are obvious. Either persist in an economics that disadvantage the poor, or an economics “as if people mattered”, promote a nationalist ‘beggar your neighbour’ foreign policy, or foster international co-operation, might is right or promotion of human rights, walls to keep desperate refugees out, or all take a consistent fair annual quota, accept a silent creeping genocide of the poor around the world in the next decade, or wealthy nations aid the reconstruction of the poorest economies.
Government emphasis on being ‘in this together’ must apply a fortiori to climate change. Before Coronavirus the idea that lifestyles must become simpler, radical changes had to be made to the economy, with coordinated efforts made globally to reduce carbon emissions and bring about effective carbon capture, whilst acknowledging that we are running against the clock, seemed either utopian or were criminally ignored by governments - according to your viewpoint. Now nearly all these changes are imposed on us to control the pandemic. We didn’t choose clean air – or clean waterways in Venice, nor to drastically reduce damaging air travel; both are the bi-product of economic collapse. Is it utopian to believe that having been forced to cut our carbon-based energy use we might in future choose to do so with a new determination and efficacy? Will Alistair Burt’s ladder also provide a way down for Trump, and the less obvious foot-draggers, from blocking action against climate change? Time will tell.
The choices that will have to be made are becoming more obvious. It does not mean we will necessarily make the right ones. Now is the time for all people of goodwill, leaders of the faith communities, International NGOs, campaigning organisations and governments that treasure social democracy and a just international order, to create the kind of coalition that can ensure that the right choices are made. “Beggar my neighbour” or a genuine “Politics of Solidarity”? The G20 Riyadh meeting hosted by Saudi Arabia this November could be the first place for such a coalition to make a major impact on a post-Coronavirus world.
See The Article 10/04/2020