By Bernardita Muñoz
People say, optimistically, that every crisis is an opportunity. Well, now we are facing one of, if not the biggest crisis lived in the modern world. Coronavirus has struck not only our healthcare systems but the global order in unimaginable proportions. Our societies are facing a forced turning point in the way we connect with one another, trade among countries, the manner in which basic rights are provided (like health and education) and how governments set up their priorities, and so on. This crisis has put under the microscope the current development and economic models, as well as the political and international relations structures and institutions, and now it is giving us the opportunity to change the way governments and societies understand development for the future. Cooperation seems to be the obvious option to tackle this crisis and the following steps, however, is far from being a reality now. If we want to be prepared for something like this in the future, cooperation among countries is indispensable and central in every effort oriented towards development.
As we all know, the scope of this crisis is global. It has already reached over 180 countries, a total of 1,980,003 confirmed cases, and almost 127,000 deaths, and the numbers are increasing by the minute. The way coronavirus has spread across the globe has shown that regardless of levels of wealth, development and/or economic growth, we are all equally exposed, and our economies, although, more or less vulnerable, they can all collapse by a “flu”. In fact, the majority of the most affected countries until now are part of the global north. The US has more than tripled the number of confirmed cases in Spain (the second majority in confirmed cases), and only among the US, Italy, Spain, France and the UK, over 93,000 people have lost their lives. The combined GDP of these same countries, on the other hand, reaches almost US$30 trillion, over a third of the world’s total GDP. Therefore, it is clear that this disease does not discriminate on wealth and definitely does not care about borders.
We have seen almost all governments in the world trying to deal with this pandemic. Sadly, many of them look like headless chickens running around, attempting to contain the spread of the disease, secure medical resources, promote policies and programs for softening the economic debacle of this crisis, while keeping the country running. Clearly, none of them were prepared for this nor its consequences, and now many governments are paying the cost of not putting enough resources into the strengthening of basic public goods and services, such as healthcare or scientific research.
However, the crisis has rushed some processes and pushed for changes. The mobilization of all resources and efforts towards the containment of Covid-19 and its aftereffects has opened options of discussion unexplored until recently. Countries are preparing themselves to deal with the current and later consequences in productivity and economic performance, and maybe this is precisely how we can use this crisis as an opportunity. What this crisis has shown us until now is that acting alone is a waste of money and resources, therefore, the paradigm of success through competition among countries might not be the best strategy to overcome a crisis that has taken down even the fiercest advocates of this kind of thinking. The level of interconnectedness and globalization among nations is putting natural limits to this ideology, which seeks to give complete domination and control to internal markets in detriment of foreign ones, at any cost. The selfishness of the leaders that defend this idea is not a wise or a useful strategy in normal circumstances, let alone in a state of catastrophe.
Furthermore, it is worrying and extremely threatening to see how this attitude has shaped other aspects of international relations which have humanitarian implications, revealing how dangerous is to keep the same world order under which we live now. Donald Trump gives a sad example on this regard. His attempt to buy exclusive access to a future COVID-19 vaccine for the US or to redirect their production of masks of 3M just for the US internal demand, leaving Canada and Latin America without the necessary medical implements, illustrate that the actions guided by this kind of ideology, has concrete and devastating effects on our well-being. What can we do then? Although Donald Trump explicitly denies the idea of cooperation, he knows that not even the US can overcome this crisis without the support of other nations, he accepted the humanitarian aid sent by Russia and although controversial, this gesture exemplifies that a global crisis cannot be solved without international help.
Cooperation, collaboration, integration and solidarity among nations can no longer be just a utopia, we should find a way to convert this illusion into reality. It is sad, yet real, to think that this is just an illusory hope, but it is of extreme importance and a formidable tool for countries that don’t have the financial backup that developed nations have. Global south countries, usually defenseless against great powers, have the opportunity to revise the way they are connecting among each other and, maybe, to reconfigure their position in the global scheme.
One example of this is what recently Alicia Bárcena, ECLAC Executive Secretary, presented as the vision of the organization regarding how the Latin American and Caribbean region should face the Covid crisis and its consequences. She established that the only viable strategy to mitigate the effects of the pandemic -that according to ECLAC will result in the contraction in -1,8% of the region’s GDP- is that in the medium and long term, countries of the region rethink their development plans oriented towards higher coordination and integration within Latin America and the Caribbean, in terms of supply chains, migration policies, poverty alleviation and reduction of inequalities, to name a few.
What is key in the approach that Bárcena presents, is that cooperation is not just an idealist approach, but a necessary condition to overcome the aftermaths of this disaster. At a regional level seems something difficult but doable, but is it a possibility in global terms? Can we project a development model for the world that is based on collaboration and not on competition? This is a broad question, that I’m far from being prepared to answer. However, I think it is crucial that regular people, like me or you, think about the possibilities around this idea. Capitalism as we know it has shown, particularly the last months, its biggest flaws. It seems that our current economic structures are always running behind in addressing the pressing issues affecting our daily lives, and they have been pointed out, according to some critics like Mariana Mazzucato, as the main cause of why the healthcare systems were unprepared to deal with a crisis of this magnitude.
From the above, there is no doubt that change is needed, however, we must know how to conduct it. The current model cannot be discarded, simply because this is not feasible not in the short nor the medium term (maybe in the very long term?) but certainly it needs to be modified, urgently and deeply, and if not now, when? Many voices are highlighting the relevance of this virus as a breaking point in our era. One of them is Yuval Noah Harari, who in his columns in Time and the Financial Times, emphasizes the role that the Covid-19 crisis plays in remodeling the world’s order.
Harari centers his argument on the importance of cooperation -in terms of trust, information flow, economic plans and essential human movement- as crucial for any plan we set for our future. According to the author a global problem calls for a global solution, therefore “nationalist isolation” is not an option, instead solidarity is. This concept acknowledges that we are part of an intricate system not easy to ignore or dismantle, therefore uncoordinated plans among countries could result in ineffective or even counter-productive solutions if these neglects the cooperation factor. As the same Harari says “if each government does its own thing in complete disregard of the others, the result will be chaos and a deepening crisis”.
When facing a pandemic, like the one we have right now, the immediate response will necessarily go in closing borders and move all the resources into protecting the well-being of the residents of each country, however, this is not a sustainable solution in the long term. This reflection has argued that cooperation is the most sensible way of redirecting our world. But we don’t know if it’s feasible considering the culture of competition that runs the world today. I think yes, but not right now. Not especially when we have egotistic “leaders” in charge of running the global economy and politics. How can we do it then? Only time and experts will tell, but maybe an ECLAC-like solution could be the way to go, meaning, integration and collaboration among neighboring countries in creating contingency plans to address the inevitable social and economic crisis, and hopefully to coordinate development plans towards the future. Solo players are not an option, particularly for global south countries, for which the wiser choice is to join forces and resources. This also could give more leverage and bargaining power to these smaller blocks in front of stronger economic and political powers.
It is possible to think that we could have been better prepared for this crisis if cooperation among countries would have been a reality and a validated way of doing international politics a long time ago. It is clear now that the ideology of separation at a global level has taken us nowhere. The bottom line is that after this crisis we have the chance, and the obligation, to rebuild our reality. Whether if this is going to be by gluing the pieces of what we had, or, taking what it worked and throw away what has taken us to where we are today, is the choice we need to make. But we must do better, and we have the option now to ask for more to our authorities. If this crisis has shown us something is that even the most stubborn leaders, the strongest economies, or the most evolved societies, are subjugated to something as small as a virus. We should not lose this opportunity to question and change, if not, we should accept that this will happen again, assuming in the face of history that we have learned nothing.
 We have to keep in mind that these are also the ones that have a higher diagnostic capacity; therefore, the data could be biased regarding the number of cases per country.
 United Nations Economic Commission for Latin American and the Caribbean.
 Mazzucato argues that the implementation of austerity plans in many countries, has resulted in the erosion of public entities, like healthcare systems.
Photo credits: European Pharmaceutical Review