Corona: Curse or Opportunity?


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Guest blog by Ziad Abdel Samad

Ziad Abdel Samad of the Arab NGO Network for Development (ANND) offers a critical analysis of the far-reaching impacts of the coronavirus and its role in exposing fault lines, from social safety nets to global trade and financial systems. In this guest blog, which highlights the experience of Arab States, he also explores the importance and impact of the state and interstate dynamics in protecting humanity a human rights.

Never has the world witnessed such a state of panic, not even in world wars, where vast areas remained relatively safe. But the current Corona epidemic seems like a state of global war that will not exclude anyone or any region of this planet. Countries have closed their borders and airports, stopped their railways, and reduced the movement of shipping. Regions inside the same state were isolated and citizens voluntarily quarantined in an unprecedented manner. Distance education has become the way to complete the academic year, depending on the infrastructure required to communicate via the Internet and appropriate applications.

In health services, a significant gap became apparent in the unfair health systems of some countries, regardless of their economic development. They were unable to respond quickly to urgent emergency needs to help hundreds of thousands of patients and carriers of the virus, especially since the number of intensive care beds and available basic medical supplies did not exceed regular needs before the outbreak.

These challenges brought about by the current epidemic crisis, revealed the inherent dangers in the trends promoting foreign investment to achieve growth without binding them to human rights and environmental protection standards, rather than dismantling existing universal social protection schemes or standing in their way, replacing them with “social safety nets” based on selective interventions to protect the most vulnerable. In 2014, the Arab NGO Network on Development (ANND) shed light on this aspect in a regional report that delved deep into the nature of current social protection systems in the Arab countries. The report stressed on the dangers inherent in the private sector becoming the driver behind the economy in the absence of any form of social responsibility.

In the midst of this state of panic and helplessness towards a new, invisible enemy, states closed their doors and dealt with their own crises without resorting to cross-border cooperation, as was the case in other emergency situations with catastrophic repercussions. It appeared as if an earthquake had hit globalization and the global system, along with its mechanisms and institutions.

“The speed in which the Corona pandemic spread and related challenges were a further indication that there is no alternative to the state as the main protector of people at critical moments, through adopting measures, policies, and regulations for its containment.”

What are the implications and how can the current situation point the way to the future?

The Global System Today

Globalization, allowing the free flow of goods, money, people, and ideas, corresponded to the adoption of a series of multilateral international trade agreements whose powers extended beyond trade in goods to cover services; production, protection, and support mechanisms; local policies dealing with competition and investment; and intellectual property issues, such as scientific and medical research and pharmaceutical innovation, including essential medicines, which could save millions of lives from fatal diseases like cancer, HIV/AIDS, and so on.

Multinational corporations, however, did not stop at these agreements. They placed restrictions on the role of States and their ability to protect the rights of their citizens. Labor laws and tax regulations were designed to hinder the existence of social protection systems in favor of private health insurance. Country reports in the abovementioned Arab Watch on Economic and Social Rights: “In most Arab countries, social policies with a protectionist character regressed, both in rich and poor states.” It was a result of loosening controls on the flow of capital, which freed investments from all social and environmental obligations.

The systemic crisis emerged in several regions of the world before the discovery of Covid-19. The US was in the midst of a trade war against its capitalist partners in Europe, North America, and Asia, and especially directed against China. International organizations formed in the aftermath of the Second World War, based on an international law having human rights as its primary foundations were weakened. By the end of last century, the role of the United Nations began to wane, replaced by Bretton Woods institutions and the WTO. Earlier this century, the role of all these institutions declined and gave way to industrialized nations in the G7 then the G8 and then the G20 (especially following the 2007 crisis).

Wars had been raging in the Middle East before the outbreak of the Corona pandemic. Russia allied with China and created a new axis looking for a key role in politics and global markets, challenging the dominant pole, while the role and influence of the EU, as well as traditional US allies such as the Gulf states and Japan, declined significantly. The US itself was witnessing transformations in its priorities, faced by a long-term threat from China. In these circumstances, several countries around the planet saw the emergence of popular movements calling for justice and dignity, in a clear expression of the depth of the crisis in the global order.

As Covid-19 appeared, countries around the world, including industrialized states, seemed unable to confront the pandemic. They began imposing total lockdowns and calling for a “voluntary” state of emergency, deploying armies to enforce them and earmarking billions of dollars to mitigate the impact. But the efforts were too late. Only, China, the source of the pandemic, managed to contain it through strict, swift, and tight measures, in line with the totalitarian nature of its regime, which does not give any consideration to human rights or democracy. Taiwan also succeeded in curbing the spread of the epidemic, despite being China’s neighbor and the high risk of the disease’s spread to its shores before anyone else. It promoted strict protection measures in cooperation between the health sector and immigration and citizens’ departments without resorting to suppression and human rights violations.

Key Phenomena in Today’s World

First: Some had anticipated what is currently happening. It was not just Hollywood that expected that Earth will be threatened by epidemics and enemies from another planet. Bill Gates had predicted a pandemic that would threaten the human race and scientific research will take a while to find a cure. He did not see this in a crystal ball, but a result of the reflection on development of production and consumption patterns unfettered by any legal or moral constraints. Epidemics originating in Africa and Asia began to quickly spread throughout the world (Ebola, SARS, mad cow disease, avian flu, swine flu, etc.). Although they were contained within a short period of time, Gates predicted a pandemic that will not be easily contained causing global chaos and panic.

Second: The quick spread of Covid-19 and related challenges are proof that there is no alternative to the state in protecting people in critical situations, whether through measures or through policies and regulations to stop the spread of the disease. More importantly, however, public facilities have proven to be the most reliable and most effective in receiving the first shockwave and leading the confrontation on the frontlines, with the private sector lagging behind. This fact has been confirmed around the world, particularly in Arab countries threatened by the pandemic. Authorities in Italy, Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea, and Japan, as well as in Lebanon, Jordan, Tunisia, and Morocco, led the confrontation without resorting to dictatorship and the private sector played a complementary role.

Third: Faced by the global panic around Covid-19, closures, and isolation, we must reconsider the global system and its ability to protect people. Moreover, we must contemplate its ability to create successive crises: financial, economic, environmental, climatic, nutritional, health-wise, political, security-wise, and in the face of pandemics, which could prove to be the deadliest of all. Climate change is one crisis threatening human security. Industrial countries failed to sign international treaties to limit greenhouse gas emissions and reduce global warming, a situation which contributes to the spread of diseases and epidemics due to their severe and critical impact on biodiversity, natural balance, and the environment.

The current crisis revealed the fragility of the global trade and financial systems, on one hand, and solidarity mechanisms, including financing and aid, on the other. It brought to the surface the deficiencies in international organizations, which have failed to regain their prescribed role more than a month after declaring a pandemic, starting with groups of industrialized countries that had led the world during dangerous turns. The role of international organizations has diminished, especially specialized UN agencies. Local human resources, knowledge, and expertise was more proactive, more informed, and more capable of reading the situation and guiding governments and stakeholders. What they need is financial aid, rather than technical support or knowledge resources.

Fourth: It appears that all this money spent on the arms race and militarization during the second half of last century, aiming for deterrence in peace situations or resorting to force in cases of intransigence, has been wasted, most recently, in the endless war on terror that began in Afghanistan and Iraq. However, the repercussions were in the form of multi-faceted destruction and, perhaps most seriously, the devastation of the social and cultural fabric, which will take generations for humanity to address. The use of economic sanctions as a weapon and the blockades seeking to curtail the practices of non-democratic regimes that violate human rights are causing further violations and deeper inequality. People are paying the price, while leaders remain in their positions and have at their disposal all the resources and wealth to achieve their political and personal goals.

Prospects for the Future

The world today is at a critical juncture. Choices that people make will have great implications on their future and that of later generations.

Faced by the challenges to globalization – as a system based on commodifying everything in life and their speedy proliferation across borders, characterized by isolationism and protectionism, each state decided to deal with its own affairs and compete in a race to find a cure for the pandemic. They neglected the required exchange of knowledge, cooperation, and communication, especially among social research centers and laboratories, which suggests that the ultimate goal of this race is commercial rather than humanitarian. Closure decisions will also force many workers in the informal sector, almost half of the workforce, as well as daily and freelance and gig workers, to lose their only source of income. Countries with enough resources decided to allocate billions of dollars in aid to their populations. But how will poor countries with huge deficits and debts manage to bridge the gap resulting from similar measures?

Closures encompassed schools and universities that had to shift to distance learning through digital technology. However, the capacity to use such technology is almost exclusively limited to students from private universities or schools and cities with reliable and advanced infrastructure. Students in public education and residents of rural and remote areas or poor suburbs do not have access to such advanced technologies.

The impact of such a situation on human livelihood and dignity will most likely appear following the pandemic and could lead to political instability and stir popular unrest and protest calling for fair solutions to economic and social conditions and more transparency and accountability at the regime level. An alternative to closures would be to seek solidarity mechanisms that could contribute to overcome the crisis and maintain a measure of justice between nations and inside each country. It should include mechanisms for cooperation between various sectors, such as migration, education, and administrative and technical development, especially in the areas of scientific research “in order to provide essential medicines that guarantee universal access to them as a right.”

Finally, will humanity be able to interpret the situation and draw its lessons? The current crisis is about health on the surface, but in its core, it is about politics, the economy, the environment, and security. The confrontation must thus be inclusive of all these dimensions to reach solutions addressing the essence of the situation and not merely the surface. It must include the nature of the global order and emphasize the need to build a real economy on solid and ecological foundations that include effective and fair distribution mechanisms and financial controls, the promotion of democracy and transparency, especially in relation to trade and reviewing the question of debt, which are generating more marginalization and poverty and promoting social inequality between and within countries.

Will humanity admit that current production and consumption patterns are unsustainable and will destroy nature, biological diversity, and the climate, including humans and their safety, and that it must shift to alternative, sustainable, and qualitatively different patterns?

Will humanity admit that security will not come through arms spending in the trillions of dollars, which threatens the security and safety of humanity and deprives people from the resources needed to address economic, social, and cultural challenges? Will it see that the alternative is the promotion of the concept of human security?

But these choices are bolstered by major interests and power centers and will not change unless people begin to break their own chains. They must seek to create more fair and democratic systems, which respect human dignity and say “no to leaders who abused their authority and decided to defend the interests of a wealthy minority that is no more than 1% of the population, instead of their peoples’ interests and rights.”

Only the people will decide if the curse of Covid-19 will lead to more isolation, struggle for influence, sharing markets and spoils, trade wars, and inequalities or if it will be an opportunity for more solidarity, cooperation, integration, justice, equality, dignity, and world peace and security.