Crises are opportunities to grow, to develop, to emerge from chaos with a new, more complex and responsive order. However, crises, whether individual or social, do not in themselves guarantee progress and learning; there must be a conscious effort to identify lessons and a strong determination to make adjustments to unhelpful patterns of behavior and institutional dynamics.
The COVID-19 pandemic has opened up new debates, brought about changes whose consequences are unpredictable, and spawned some novel problems. One year into the pandemic, what are some of the most important lessons that can be drawn that might set us on a more sustainable path?
1. Climate change requires rethinking our development model
The recurrence of epidemics and zoonoses in recent years cannot be explained without reference to our planet’s environmental transformations as a result of human action. COVID-19 is a reminder that the climate threat is as urgent and as real as the pandemic, the imminent threat of terrorism or weapons of mass destruction. However, successfully addressing climate change requires a global approach and an in-depth review of the foundations on which our production, marketing, processing and consumption system stands.
2. International cooperation must replace competition and conflict
A century ago our economic, social and environmental systems were not so complex and interconnected. Much higher levels of integration and interdependence make clear that the global common good must be placed above the national and individual good, and that personal protection can only be achieved through the protection of the group, suggesting that such systems must now rest on a foundation of cooperation. Strengthening the United Nations framework will be a vital component of this effort, the ultimate aim of which is to empower the United Nations and its supporting institutions to become a problem-solving organization, able to help articulate and implement solutions to a whole range of global problems which can only be addressed in the context of much higher levels of international cooperation.
3. Better management of globalization will reduce fragility
The scarcity of masks, gels and toilet paper during the first months of the pandemic highlighted some of the vulnerabilities of a production model that saw increasing levels of concentration driven by the desire to reduce storage costs and improve the efficiency and speed of supply chains. Anchoring at least some basic industries locally not only reduces pollution associated with transport but increases self-sufficiency and resilience to unexpected shocks. We need to strengthen our local communities because, in the middle of a global shock which causes massive disruptions to our economic system, local communities and the neighborhood can become important sources of resilience and hope, encouraging people and creating spaces for experimentation, innovation and collective action.
4. It is necessary to redefine the meaning of national security
In the minds of the vast majority, this concept evokes images of well-equipped military establishments with armed forces ready to defend national interests against possible real or imaginary attacks by potential adversaries, while absorbing a significant share of national budgets. But COVID-19 has shown us that, in the midst of a pandemic, the most sophisticated and destructive weapons are totally useless: an atomic bomb is not effective in the fight against a virus. Perhaps national security will now have to be seen from the perspective of human well-being, from the ability of governments to have well-prepared health infrastructures, a clean environment, a social safety-net, and the resources to continue to educate children and young people in preparation for an increasingly complex world and economy.
5. Restoring public spending priorities
COVID-19 has found the vast majority of countries totally unprepared to deal effectively with its devastating consequences. Even high-income countries have seen their hospitals and public health systems come under heavy strain. However, in the midst of the pandemic, according to IMF data, we continue to spend the equivalent of 6.3% of global GDP in subsidizing petrol, electricity, natural gas and coal, thus worsening climate change and also economic inequality, as 60% of the benefits of these subsidies end up in the hands of the richest 20% of the population. Faced with the high levels of extreme poverty, malnutrition and illiteracy in the world, this represents a massive waste of resources, bordering on the criminal. There should be a broad, serious debate about the priorities of public spending, against the background of other future claims on public resources linked to population aging, climate change mitigation and adaptation, and the challenges associated with budgets already under heavy strain as a result of the consequences of the pandemic.
6. Expanding the scope of social protection
One characteristic of coronaviruses and similar pathogens in a globalized world is that they pose risks to the entire human species. Smallpox, which until 1967 infected 15 million people annually and was fatal to 2 million of them, was eventually eradicated in 1980 following the World Health Organization’s declaration that almost all of the world’s population had been vaccinated. Closing borders does not guarantee the elimination of the risk of contagion, in addition to being an inefficient measure, given the high degrees of integration of the world’s economies. A more realistic solution—and certainly less harmful to human prosperity than deglobalizing by retreating behind national borders—is to expand access to health and basic social protections to a much larger percentage of the world’s population. Not only would this demonstrate solidarity, but also minimize the systemic risk from unprotected populations that are especially vulnerable to pandemics: vulnerable people must be protected to protect everyone.
7. Trust must be cultivated and preserved
Responding to a pandemic requires acknowledging that we are all interconnected. Without broad participation, solutions will prove elusive. Trust must be fostered between countries, between segments of society, and between rulers and subjects. Responsible media can contribute to this through clarity, consistency and devotion to the truth. The climate of polarization must be avoided at all costs as a destructive weapon. Language has consequences, imperceptibly eroding democracy. Social cohesion is a value that cannot be taken for granted since, when it disappears, it takes decades to restore. Finally, appealing to citizen cooperation nurtures trust and is more effective than trying to change behavior using law and coercive authority, although these may exceptionally be necessary.
Expert knowledge must inform public policies, but public policies cannot simply depend on expert knowledge: they must be enriched by consultation and deliberation at different levels and with different actors. Ethical, political and practical problems are not solved only by technical measures. They require expert knowledge, debate, reflection and ultimately learning.