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As COVID-19 has shown, the first reaction of governments in a pandemic is to close borders. Indeed, the World Health Organization’s (WHO) prescription of “isolate, test, treat and trace” proves much easier if the influx of imported cases from abroad is curtailed. Shutting down frontiers, however, can only really prove effective in certain isolated or island states, where it can initially limit the number of infected cases.
At this time of writing, however, with cases in 177 countries and national infection rates all tending toward an exponential curve, we must reckon with the reality that the virus is insidious: infection is not immediately discernible. So no amount of border closures will prevent transmission. Furthermore, with substantial underreporting, the growing problem is even more challenging than currently understood. No single nation can make any properly-informed decisions until we know the full extent – and characteristics – of this virus.
What this pandemic clearly demonstrates, however, is the need for a completely different concept of responsible action – notably, decisive support for the underlying principle of human solidarity and cooperation. With this in mind, we propose the following guidelines for both national leaders and their citizens as a practical and ethical humanitarian response to global crises, such as the coronavirus outbreak.
Public health should be priority one
First of all, we need to prioritize public health over political or economic goals. Quite simply, no other agenda is as important today as saving lives and avoiding contagion— not global markets, short-term profits, electoral success, or geo-strategic advantage. Unless we take coordinated, collective public action to prevent the spread of the virus while seeking a cure, the human impact will be catastrophic.
Such an approach also needs to respond globally to gaps in public health, including a specific focus on countries with least capacities, such as Zimbabwe, Iraq or even rural India. If the Great Influenza of 1918-1920 is any guide, COVID-19 may circle the globe in successive waves. Thus, emergency assistance from wealthier to lesser-developed countries or communities should increase, not only for reasons of self-interest but for demonstrating solidarity with the rest of the world. No one can go it alone.
As the latest cases have shown, everyone is vulnerable. It does not matter whether you are a Prime Minister, doctor, nurse, shopkeeper, farmer, football champion, garbage collector or rock star. We can all become infected. At the same time, we need to establish safety nets for the most vulnerable. The list is long and spreads across the globe: refugees, displaced persons, humanitarian workers, the elderly, the imprisoned, homeless, street children, people with disabilities or who are institutionalized, individuals with pre-existing health risks…
Women, too, should be part of this focus, particularly those more exposed to infection in their role as caregivers both within families and on the front-line. Furthermore, the risk of increased sexual violence, spouse abuse and gender discrimination typically surges during emergencies.
International collaboration: Key to confronting a pandemic
Overall, however, is the urgent need for far greater international collaboration. Only with coordinated efforts can one effectively trace cases, promote cross-border hospitalization, share medical research, reject patents on vaccines and treatment, or prevent the hoarding and price gouging of medical equipment and materials. This is where the leadership of specific global or regional bodies, such as WHO, Security Council, European Union or African Union could make a decisive difference, perhaps saving thousands if not millions of lives. Joint action is far more effective than one country trying to deal solely with its own problems.
As crises often demonstrate, fear of the unknown coupled with a lack of credible information can provoke discrimination against both individuals and groups. History has repeatedly demonstrated that geographic, ethnic or religious labels for disease (e.g., “Spanish Flu” and “Chinese Virus”) are notoriously wrong. Much worse, they result in stereotypes, racism and violence. Very often, too, such attitudes are deliberately fueled by political or economic interests. This pandemic has already demonstrated that no one group faces a greater risk than any other, whether Christians, Hindus, Muslims, Jews…We must recognize the essential equality and vulnerability of all humans and act accordingly.
While political leaders may demonstrate that they are in charge through high-profile decision-making, there is always the danger of authoritarian over-reach. Hungary, for example is now being criticized for precisely this. While apparently ‘justified’ by the outbreak, this approach may actually prove abusive and difficult to undo once the pandemic is over. Humanitarian crises, for example, have led to draconian measures that go well beyond “the greater good” and may be motivated by narrow political interests to consolidate power or achieve political goals.
Whether dealing with the postponement of elections, censorship, or the punishing of opposition constituencies, it is critical to remain alert to unnecessarily authoritarian measures.
Equally important is the need to ensure that the information being disseminated is credible and based on accurate information. (See article on why the UN needs to support independent, public interest newsgathers) As we have seen, social media have been inundated by deliberate disinformation or political ignorance but also well-meaning yet factually inaccurate assertions. This is where reliable local and international newsgatherers ranging from newspapers and magazines to radio and TV networks could work closely together with a consortium of globally respected health institutions such as WHO, the US Centres for Disease Control, European Centre for Disease Control, Médecins sans Frontières or The Lancet.
‘Humanitarian corridors’ needed
And finally, wars and humanitarian crises do not simply disappear with the onset of a pandemic. (See piece by Michael Keating on not ignoring peacebuilding) If anything, civilians caught up in conflict zones may suffer even more, given that they are no longer on the global radar of concern. Hence the need to establish “humanitarian corridors” to facilitate public health action. UN Secretary General António Guterres has called for a global moratorium on warfare to promote humanitarian access and take nonpartisan action against COVID-19. This call should be supported and negotiated at ground level with all those involved, from Colombia to Yemen, from Myanmar to Mozambique, from Syria to Afghanistan.
How we treat the weakest among us during this crisis will determine the community spirit and ethics of the post-COVID-19 world. Solidarity on a global scale constitutes the fundamental ethical consideration our grandchildren should learn from us. It is an oft-repeated axiom that the first casualty of war is truth; we must ensure that human solidarity does not become a casualty of this pandemic. Instead, we need to ensure that it is reinforced and invigorated as a result.
Fred Spielberg and Everett Ressler are both highly experienced humanitarian veterans. They are members of Humanitarian and Development Partnerships International (HDPI) (www.hdpi.org), a not-for-profit international consulting network that brings experienced senior practitioners to support organizations working to tackle the world’s most critical humanitarian and development challenges.