“Nearly half the world’s population doesn’t have the luxury of being able to afford social distancing or access to proper hygiene.”

by Michael Vatikiotis

originally published in the Straits Times, April 18

The Covid-19 pandemic hit a polarised and divided world when the international order established after World War II was weakening.

The response has been rooted in narrow nationalism. Not surprisingly, this context has hindered effective global cooperation to combat the virus, deepening existing fault lines of conflict and generating new and troubling fissures.

Relations between the United States and China have worsened as each blames the other for the virus and nervously eyes the advantage one might gain over the other. The European Union badly needed renewed cohesion following the Brexit debacle. It is now divided over how to manage a likely economic depression.

Across Africa, Asia and Latin America, the drivers of pre-existing conflict are being reinforced by sudden mass unemployment, dislocation and hunger.

Rather than the world coming together and emerging stronger from crisis, it seems to be falling apart. Coming out of the pandemic, there will be an urgent need to pick up the pieces and try to put things back together. This will require visionary leadership, creative diplomacy and a willingness to engage and talk. The alternative is a world devoid of the collective spirit of human endeavour that followed World War II.

Somehow the strength of that spirit endures. Responding to a call by the United Nations Secretary-General for a global ceasefire, several governments and non-state armed groups – specifically in Cameroon, South Sudan, Colombia, Yemen, the Philippines and Southern Thailand – have called for a humanitarian pause to facilitate efforts to address the health crisis. This is an excellent first step but it will take sustained attention by the states and the peace-making community to turn these humanitarian gestures into sustainable, long-term reductions in violence.

Nearly half the world’s population doesn’t have the luxury of being able to afford social distancing or access to proper hygiene.

If the pandemic lockdowns persist, social tension brought about by protracted social and economic stress could exacerbate internal conflicts all over the world. Fragile countries without strong medical systems, underlying inequalities, simmering ethnic and communal conflicts, and a history of irredentism may experience increased conflict.

At the same time, urgent and necessary cooperation between states and regions to set aside their differences to overcome the crisis has been haltingly slow and beset by selfish nationalism and recrimination.

“Fragile countries without strong medical systems, underlying inequalities… may experience increased conflict.”

Held to account by their citizens for failing to cope with the health crisis, states will be guarded and less open; they will be inclined to cast blame for what happened far and wide to avoid being held responsible for shortcomings in the initial response to the coronavirus. This may have an impact on the state of formal diplomatic relations – an already deadlocked UN Security Council will make no progress.

As we are seeing in Asia, some parts of the world will normalise and open up again more swiftly than others, which will impact levels of participation and engagement in global fora. Values and the stress on issues of global concern will shift accordingly.

There will be more refugees and displaced people in the world after Covid-19; the same wars and conflicts, even if temporarily on hold, will need addressing. But with the global system on life support, intervention will need to adapt, recalibrate, and use cutting-edge technology to overcome these obstacles.

Even before the health crisis, there was a move towards using online platforms as a tool of convening and facilitating dialogue. More and more expressions of protest have moved off the streets and onto platforms such as Facebook, YouTube and WhatsApp.

The moderators of this space are the big tech companies that own and control the popular platforms and which can decide what gets viewed prominently or removed entirely.

The social distancing demanded by the course of this pandemic has created opportunities to explore this new ecosystem of human interaction, one where the dissemination of information, true or false, becomes the critical factor determining the outcome of human interaction. But there need to be new ways to moderate the misuse of information, which can also generate tension and violence.

Tech firms and civil society groups and some governments have started collaborating to monitor hate speech and rumours, as in Thailand, although some governments have found this a useful tool to sow confusion and cast blame.

Constructive dialogue can be conducted online, and has generated calls and appeals jointly or unilaterally agreed by protagonists and civil society activists over video-conferencing platforms, as recently seen in the US and China in a bid to promote closer cooperation to combat Covid-19. But there is no consensus as yet on how effective or secure these forums and channels are, or by what rules they should abide.

All of this suggests a lot of trial and error. New forums and combinations of parties will emerge. It will be an opportunity to remake and recast some of the old, nationalistic, exclusive and narrowly constrained platforms of global cooperation. There will need to be a concerted effort to be more inclusive and to consult across broader sections of society. New priorities will include drivers of conflict that have been set aside in the past – such as income inequality, access to health and public services, the risks of climate change and mass migration.

Private as well as public diplomacy, facilitated by the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue and other mediation actors, will be key. More importantly we all need to promote effective collaboration to make the most of this crisis to rebuild a global system that is both more representative and also sensitive to the needs of mankind.

  • Michael Vatikiotis is Asia director of the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue and author of Blood And Silk: Power And Conflict In Modern Southeast Asia.

 

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