Did you hear what Antonio Guterres - the head of the UN – had to say about the Corona epidemic? And did you see the measures taken by Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus the head of the World Health Organization (WHO) to stop the pandemic from killing more people?
The centre of global humanitarianism is Geneva, a small town in Switzerland. There you can find WHO headquarters, as well as UN’s OCHA, UNHCR, and the international Red Cross movement and many other international bureaucracies. Yet, Geneva is not the place where multilateral political decisions are taken.
Both international administrators were busy of late with the Covid-19, but apart from declarations of general character, I am not aware of what they did, or how they might lead us out of the crisis. The UN system is running after the pandemic with declarations – and even then paying much care not to anger its members, the nation-states.
One of the interesting disclosures of Covid-19 is that our global political system is without leadership. Not that we did not know this – it is the case at least since the demise of the League of Nations, but the epidemic made what is know graphically visible: that humanity after creating a globalized economy, integrated finances, global transportation system, instant communication, etc., urgently needs a global system of governance, at its peril.
The centre of global humanitarianism is Geneva, a small town in Switzerland. There you can find WHO headquarters, as well as UN’s OCHA, UNHCR, and the international Red Cross movement and many other international bureaucracies. Yet, Geneva is not the place where multilateral political decisions are taken. For that there is New York, which is the UN’s political centre. Once decisions are taken in New York, it does not mean much until some capitals– such as Washington DC, Brussels, Beijing, London, New Delhi and others, decide to finance it. After political decisions are taken, and money is made available, Geneva as a technical humanitarian centre can implement them. In other words, we have a large number of humanitarian organizations, but they do not take neither political nor financial decisions. They have simply no power. They implement decisions taken elsewhere, and therefore the ceiling of their strategic thinking is limited to “project cycles”.
We do not have global governance capable of facing global threats. From January 10 on, when the cases of Covid-19 became public information in China, the UN and the WHO made suggestions and calls through press conferences. But these were short of coordinated policies to stop the spread of the pandemic. The UN including WHO are not even part of the conversation about what happened, and what to do next.
Instead of globalized response – for which we lack the instruments – what happened is that nation-states took over the decision making process. And they behaved like nation-states: closing borders as the instinctive response. In many cases the epidemic was not spreading through international borders, but within cities, provinces, regions, and across mountains and rivers within nation-states. By the time international air traffic came to halt it was already too late to stop the spread of the virus. Nation-states are continuing the fight like generals fighting the last war, not the future one.
Within the nation-states, we did not see the emergence of a global leader: The president of the most populous nation, Xi Jinping, fought the epidemic with censorship: he kept the Covid-19 secret long enough that it is endangering today the entire planet. Now, there are growing doubts about the daily statistics announced by Chinese officials. Iran did something similar: its leaders privileged holding parliamentary elections at the price of keeping the epidemic secret, with catastrophic consequences. Other “strong” leaders, such as Putin of Russia, Sisi of Egypt – you can name many others here - still follow the policy of censorship, while South Korea showed that the only efficient fight against the epidemic is extreme transparency and carrying out massive tests to record where the epidemic stands, and how to stop it. The leader of the biggest economy, Donald Trump, who could never think in more than sound bites, is more concerned about the short-term economic performance of Wall Street over the long-term consequences of a pandemic. Boris Johnson, the leader of a nation that not long ago dominated the world, was in a hospital where he proudly “shook hands with everybody” until he tested positive to the virus.
Although we do not have global political leadership, it does not mean that we not have a global system. We do. It is based on profit-making capitalism. Our entire global system is organized through financial gain. That explains why some parts of the Covid-19 tests were produced on one continent, and other segments on another continent. Like that profit margins are bigger, any accountant would tell you. That is why few weeks after the pandemic there were shortages of such banal things as face-masks, disinfecting gels, etc. In the last three decades – since the collapse of the Soviet Union - the same financial logic has cut pubic services to a bare minimum and that is why our hospitals are already overcrowded and unable to face the pandemic. Hospitals have to make a choice between one patient and another, and patients who are not severely suffering from Covid-19 are simply sent back home without testing. A global system based on financial calculations is evidently not the way to save our human souls. But this capitalist system looks today so fragile, powerless. The market did not produce a leader who can take us to safer shores. Moreover, politicians suddenly panicking decided to bring the economy to a stop. The managers of multi-nationals did not have a word to say now. The pandemic took their power away, and now they are watching their screens like everyone else.
Then there is the media, the space where we seek our information and participate in debates. Our communication system, based on twitter, facebook and the others, encourages rumours rather than factual reporting, speculation rather than lucid debate. Today, social media celebrities are running the show and not experts and scientists. Funding for journalism and investigation, just like funding for public health, has been in free fall for the last two decades. Without precise information about what challenges humanity faces, and what are the possible solutions we cannot have democratic deliberation to decide which way to go, and what to give up while the fight against this epidemic – or the next - goes on. Our global social media has left us with celebrities and rumours, and it is undermining our wisdom and decision-making capacity.
Covid-19, which is only slightly more mortal than seasonal influenza, has brought our global system into standstill. It could give us a moment of reflection, a chance to reorganize our house, to think about the massive pollution we produced, destruction of our ecosystem and our natural resources, the melting of the polar ice, the rising sea levels, and the rapidly changing climate. Corona might give us the time to rethink of a common management of a world that has become too small to leave it to profit-makers. Because after Covid-19 there are so many other risks for which we are not prepared yet, and the lessons learned from the management of the epidemic – if we ever learn those lessons – might not be enough.