COVID-19 is teaching us that addressing a global crisis requires global cooperation. It is also teaching us the futility of a problem-solving approach that considers the world through a narrow prism as comprised of different nations characterised by their differences and not commonalities.
While that approach could work for several problems that we are faced with, now more than ever, there is an urgent need for unity. This was the key message to come out of the Horasis Extraordinary Meeting, held on 1 October.
António Guterres, secretary-general of the United Nations, who opened the virtual meeting, said: “The virus is the greatest global test since the founding of the United Nations. It has devastated lives, economies and communities everywhere and undermined our efforts to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.”
“The pandemic also exacerbated many longstanding inequalities, and exposed global fragilities more generally. COVID-19 is not only a wake-up call, it is a dress rehearsal for the world of challenges to come,” he added.
The pandemic has thrust open fault lines that were overlooked earlier, and exposed all kinds of vulnerabilities. Resolving and emerging from a crisis of this magnitude requires discussion, cooperation and collaboration among different stakeholders – discussions that are open and transparent; cooperation that is multilateral in nature; and collaboration that is result-oriented.
Collaboration in crisis
A number of speakers at the meeting, from different parts of the world, emphasised the need for collaboration. Among them were Fabrizio Hochschild, under-secretary general and special adviser on preparations for the 75th United Nations Anniversary, and Armenian president Armen Sarkissian.
Mr Sarkissian spoke about the need for global dialogue to happen more often so that the benefits of multilateralism can be shared by all. He also talked about the benefits of forming a “club of small nations” to support the cause of developing economies such as Armenia and Kazakhstan amidst global discussions. His thoughts were echoed by Mukhtar Tileuberdi, Minister of Foreign Affairs for Kazakhstan.
There is clear consensus among business and political leaders that in order to secure our futures, we cannot work in isolation. We are witnessing problems of a scale that require us to pool resources and share scientific and technical knowhow. Particularly as we still struggle to emerge from the long shadow this pandemic has cast on life as we know it, differences—and egos—must be cast aside.
“COVID-19 is not only a wake-up call, it is a dress rehearsal for the world of challenges to come” – UN Secretary-General António Guterres.
The pandemic has shown in a matter of months how restricted economic activity can positively impact our environment in myriad ways. This isn’t to suggest that a complete shutdown in economic activity is the right approach to protect the environment, but it clearly demonstrates that the single-minded pursuit of economic growth is not the only approach, and that sustainability must be built into national economic plans and objectives.
Sanda Ojiambo, executive director of the United Nations Global Compact, stressed the need for businesses to practice and commit to transparent sustainability policies to help create a more sustainable future.
We are already starting to see changes in different parts of the world and at different levels, with a growing penchant for initiatives related to sustainability. Take Latin America, for instance, where governments are increasingly acting in this regard. Diego Mesa, Colombia’s minister for mines and energy, said at the meeting his country has vowed to continue to increase its use of clean and green energy in providing electricity to some of the remotest parts of the country.
Gabriel Quijandria, Peru’s vice minister of strategic development of natural resources, also noted a growing shift towards sustainable energy, electric vehicles, and reducing deforestation from the supply-chain ecosystem. “We need to incorporate conservation as part of the toolkit for solving development problems,” he added.
But even in trying to build a more sustainable future, we need collaboration and cooperation, particularly if we do not want to be confronted with the tragedy of the commons. Paul Oquist Kelley, minister of presidency and national policies in Nicaragua, said “the way in which we work together needs to change to overcome the profound economic, political and social disruptions caused by COVID-19 in Latin America and elsewhere.”
This is not going to be the last crisis we face. And we aren’t even out of it yet. Addressing this crisis and emerging successfully out of it requires different stakeholders to work together.
In any pandemic, the poorest are the most vulnerable, noted Michelle Bachelet, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. In this context, it is imperative to provide a strong social protection system for the vulnerable, particularly women and children, she said and called for the need to regenerate support to address inequality across the world.
Preparing for the future
The effects of the crisis have been profound and will take years to reverse. And the situation is even more dire in emerging economies around the world, that don’t have the fiscal space to rapidly increase spending on healthcare and other social infrastructure, while simultaneously trying to buttress the economic impacts of the pandemic. In many poorer economies, decades’ worth of progress in areas like reducing absolute poverty will likely be reversed due to COVID-19.
Exacerbating affairs is the widening lack of trust between governments, individuals and businesses. This will need restoring and cannot be achieved single-handedly. Unsurprisingly, a common thread that tied the various sessions at the meeting was that of the need for global cooperation, collaboration and multilateralism.
This is not going to be the last crisis we face. And we aren’t even out of it yet. Addressing this crisis and emerging successfully out of it requires different stakeholders to work together. If we do not change track now, and urgently, future generations will hold us responsible for having failed them.
Geopolitical developments such as the trade war, tech war and growing scepticism of multilateralism may consume our minds for now, but they are not helping us address the real challenges in any material manner. That must change.
Frank-Jürgen Richter is the founder and chairman of Horasis: The Global Visions Community. He was earlier a director of the World Economic Forum. He has lived, studied and worked in Asia for almost a decade, principally in Tokyo and in Beijing. Mr Richter has also authored and edited a series of books on global strategy and Asian business. His writing has appeared in The International Herald Tribune, The Wall Street Journal, The Far Eastern Economic Review, The Straits Times and the South China Morning Post, among others.