What Changes Do We Want in the Post-Coronavirus World?
LIM Hyun Mook (Director, APCEIU)
Something beyond our imagination is occurring. The novel coronavirus is forcing humanity into the greatest crisis since World War II. Even the United States and European countries, regarded as advanced nations, are being hit hardest due to the ongoing pandemic. However, crises sometimes bring about positive changes. The 1918-19 influenza triggered the introduction of national health services in European countries. What changes do we want once the coronavirus crisis has passed? While overcoming the immediate crisis is an absolute priority, we need to look beyond that.
Globalization in Retreat?
Some predict that globalization will recede, and the role of the state will be strengthened again. Actually, almost all countries have closed their borders and blocked the entry of foreigners. Exports of medical supplies have been banned, and global supply chains of manufacturing components have been disrupted. Some countries have halted food exports. Along with these actions, the authority and responsibility of states are expanding unprecedentedly. From forceful lockdown measures to the allocation of workers and resources, countries are behaving much like during the times of war. Some critics fear health fascism. The state is also mobilizing large amounts of public money to provide disaster aid to the people and nationalize companies on the brink of bankruptcy.
Accelerated globalization over the past several decades has connected the lives of humanity more closely than ever, which means that no single country can be safe alone. COVID-19 has evidenced the stark risk of such globalization. Will market globalism retreat after the coronavirus crisis and will state sovereignty, resource nationalism, and protectionism resurge? Is this change positive? If not, should we go back to pre-coronavirus globalization? In history, crises did not necessarily lead to positive changes. The opposite was often the case. Economic inequality in South Korea widened after the 1997 financial crisis, and polarization has deepened in many countries since the 2008 global financial crisis.
Strengthening Democracy and the Public Sector
As we go through this crisis, we feel the desperate need to strengthen the public sector above all. We realize that, at the cost of enormous sacrifices, citizens’ health and safety cannot be protected by privatization but by social solidarity and public systems. We must not forget that countries that have cut the number of public health workers and budgets and put public health in the hands of the market are suffering the most in this crisis.
Each country's response strategies and policies inevitably vary depending on its infection control, the medical system, and the political regime. There can be no one-size-fits-all strategy. However, it is essential to learn from the experiences of other countries. While most countries have declared an emergency and are struggling to slow the spread of the virus, South Korea has succeeded in flattening the infection curve due to its citizens’ participation and cooperation without employing coercive measures. The utilization of technologies such as the tracking of movements of those that tested positive also played a significant role in South Korea, but more importantly, the citizens' willingness to cooperate for the safety of the community was paramount to its success.
When disasters and crises strike, people naturally feel fear first, which is followed by unusual behaviors such as panic-buying. The most effective antidote to combat this fear is democratic leadership. Democratic leadership instills trust in its citizens and promotes civic cooperation. This is because it prioritizes the health and safety of citizens and responds quickly to the needs of civil society in times of crisis. In some countries, the government's coercive responses are temporarily supported by its citizens. However, coercive measures suppress the voluntary cooperation and creative response of a country’s citizens and eventually diminish the community's capacity for responding to crises.
In addition, accurate and sufficient information is important. This is also the foundation of democracy. Media reports that blame others and fake news can hinder citizens' responsible actions and undermine the morale of those striving to overcome the crisis. The news media that responsibly deal with an infectious disease crisis are another critical factor that strengthens the public sphere.
Viruses are said to be equal to everyone, but in reality, they sacrifice vulnerable people more. It is the politicians, assisted by scientists, who take special steps to protect them and make decisions to allocate insufficient medical resources for them. This brings to mind the importance of democracy. Likewise, it is international politics that coordinates internationally assistance for low-income countries with weak medical systems.
International Solidarity and Cooperation
COVID-19 has revealed the vulnerable reality of high-income countries so much so that it is frightening just to imagine how badly low-income countries will be damaged if such explosive outbreaks happen. International support and cooperation for them are desperately needed. However, global governance aimed at tackling the pandemic crisis is not functioning well. Even the strongest nation in the world, the United States, is focusing on its domestic countermeasures. Moreover, European Union countries have failed to show strong joint action.
International solidarity and cooperation could be less robust than before if globalization retreats after the coronavirus pandemic and state sovereignty continue to rise. This is not good for world peace and safety. What we need is not higher walls, but more cooperation.
Ironically, the COVID-19 crisis has made the skies clean. As lockdowns in many countries have dampened industrial activities, there is a significant drop in fossil fuel consumption. Fine dust has also decreased. We are in a paradoxical situation where the pandemic crisis helps to fight the climate crisis.
The cause of the continued emergence of mutated viruses such as SARS, MERS, and COVID-19 may be attributed to modern industrial civilization. As animal and plant habitats are destroyed, and the ecosystem is disrupted by climate change, there are more chances for virus strains to spread to humans. In addition, urbanization has concentrated the population, and globalization has led to frequent international movements, both factors that generate a favorable environment for the virus to spread worldwide.
Epidemics are likely to outbreak again in the future. In view of this, while we need to fully reinforce the quarantine and medical system, more fundamentally, we need to reflect on whether our lives are sustainable. The coronavirus may be a “canary in a coal mine” that warns of the dangers of modern industrial civilization, captivated by the tenet of economic growth based on fossil fuel.
The Role of Education
What role should education play for positive changes to be pursued in the post-coronavirus world? What lessons will we as responsible citizens learn and pass on to the next generation in this pandemic crisis, the biggest one since World War II?
Above all, the first lesson should be that fighting hate and discrimination, and practicing the spirit of solidarity and cooperation, is absolutely important in overcoming a crisis. Under the current crisis, some people equated certain groups with the virus; they stigmatized, hated, and wielded violence against them. On the other side, there have been many cases of people showing solidarity and cooperation in order to narrow the psychological distance while avoiding physical contact. Regardless of racial, national, and ethnic distinctions, citizens of the world showed empathy with the suffering of victims, appreciated the strenuous effort of medical workers and quarantine authorities, and did whatever small things they could do to contribute to overcoming the crisis. This has moved and encouraged us all.
Understanding the value of democracy and the public good, empathizing with the suffering and hardship of those affected by the disease, and practicing solidarity and support, particularly for the vulnerable and underprivileged people and low-income countries with weak medical systems should also be an important lesson. In addition, it will be essential to develop literacy that enables a critical understanding of the information disseminated from social media channels and the press.
Reflections on the sustainability of modern society are also a critical lesson that has emerged from this crisis. The questions the coronavirus is asking us, such as the climate crisis caused by the use of fossil fuels, lives of humanity closely interconnected under globalization and the resulting greater risks and vulnerabilities, and the harmony between the protection of personal information and community safety, are all important and urgent.
Sharing these lessons and finding their meaning together is perhaps the most important educational task of the time. Global citizens who have developed their capabilities through such education will become agents for driving positive post-crisis changes. UNESCO should further strengthen its efforts to promote Global Citizenship Education in this regard. APCEIU will also continue to contribute to this effort.
I extend my respect and gratitude to medical workers and quarantine authorities around the world who are struggling to fight the crisis even at this moment. I also appreciate the solidarity and cooperation displayed by global citizens sharing common humanity beyond all distinctions and differences.