While hard to believe, the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is just getting started. This is an outbreak, the likes of which we have not seen in our lifetime. This is not the time — and I am not the person — to dole out health advice or information on the virus from better-suited sources and authorities. I do, however, want to bring attention to the unprecedented risks we face in our work for peaceful, just and inclusive societies at this precarious moment. If we are not attentive to these challenges now, they may well reinforce and exacerbate this global health crisis, creating new cycles of social unrest and collective violence at a time when governments, businesses and civil society have limited capacity to focus on anything else. We will be able to manage one crisis, if we do it right: rapidly and dramatically reducing COVID-19 infections and scaling-up efforts to identify a vaccine. But if we allow spill-over effects, secondary problems and new crises to proliferate on top of this health emergency, we will be entering into truly uncertain and dangerous territory. We have to manage the pandemic whilst also strengthening governance, watching the distribution of resources and make justice more people-centered. In other words, we must manage the pandemic through the lens of SDG16+.
Inequality has already risen dramatically in many countries over the past decades. Owing to a combination of short- and long-term supply and demand shocks, inequality may worsen considerably. The virus is hitting people indiscriminately, but its effects are not the same across wage levels and wealth groups. Many of the burdens are pushed onto groups with the least capacity to manage them. The unemployed, those working in the informal sector, and lower paid workers do not have the same resilience as better-off groups do to manage through this pandemic. They may not have the money to pay for testing, medicines and health care, either because they are not covered by health insurance, including sick leave provisions, or because they do not have the cash to cover increased health costs in the short- to medium-term. Already vulnerable groups are now losing their jobs or are being put on “voluntary” leave for months to come, without money to survive beyond the next few days. A large portion of Americans, for example, live pay-check to pay-check. Taxi drivers in New York, London, Oslo and Johannesburg struggle to collect fares — the money they need for the next days´ food and their children’s schooling. Precarious workers in Addis, Bogota and Madrid are losing their families´ survival kits. And whilst many professionals, civil service employees and similar groups can move to working online, using remote conferencing services, etc., others do not have the same facilities or provisions. Poor students in many countries cannot go online to attend classes because many of them simply do not have access to computers or Wi-Fi. School closures in many countries may seem obvious for health purposes, but such closures simultaneously remove many poor children´s access to the only meal they will have that day. And whilst some governments may have the resources to relieve the burdens of the poor and most vulnerable, low income countries will have limited capacity to do that.
Is there a way to fight this pandemic and prevent inequality from increasing even further? If ever there was a time to find just solutions and work towards a more just society, it is now. Now, when the impact of spiraling inequality is visible for all to see and the risk of an upsurge in all types of violence is so real. This is a moment when people will look to their national leaders to address their most urgent problems relating to their health, their safety, their homes and their jobs. Will the solutions offered help them solve the problems they are facing? Will they be protected and empowered to weather this storm? Or will they meet authorities and systems that are impervious to their needs and experiences. Practically speaking, will there be flexibility in their mortgage payments, so they can stay in their homes, such as Italy is offering, or a moratorium on evictions such as several cities and states in the U.S. have done?
People understand that in these extraordinary times, their individual needs and freedoms may have to be made subordinate to the general interest. But will they be heard if the impact to their situation becomes unbearable? Will people have access to platforms to voice and organize their concerns, interests and complaints — and be heard? This will be necessary if we want to avoid tensions and conflict within and between communities. Will the justice system be flexible enough to adapt and provide access to justice in these challenging circumstances? Justice institutions, like other public institutions, will have to focus on health-related issues and be forced to revert to emergency mode. Yet, these extraordinary circumstances can also provide opportunities for innovations that have long been resisted. Innovations like procedures that allow for quicker decisions in the cases that are most urgent, remote access to cases, and contact between parties that was previously impossible.
So, this is mainly an appeal to all to keep an eye on the key tools that will help us through this crisis, to calm the effects of COVID-19 in the short-term, and in the longer-term to help the reconstruction efforts that will come after the emergency has passed. Those tools are embodied in SDG16+. Managing this crisis through the lenses of SDG16+ is going to help us get through it smoothly, and make us better able to sort out all the problems we will experience in its wake, as we rebuild our societies.
Democracy was already facing a crisis before the coronavirus hit. And whilst emergencies necessitate clear, and to some extent hierarchical, leadership and communication, they do not necessitate authoritarian rule. In the throes of this pandemic, we should set aside openly critical, flat-style democratic debates, keeping them for after the crisis has calmed. Now is the time to close ranks behind health and emergency authorities and experts. That said, the democratic institutions, principles and systems we put in place to run our countries will assure the reconstruction and management of the secondary effects of the health crisis much better when they are set up in a transparent, consultative and democratic way. We know from previous crises that there will be forces trying to take advantage of the situation. We also know from earlier experiences that antidemocratic powers have become adept at turning democratic societies´ very openness against them, particularly when it comes to technology. We will proceed with care, but be extra alert about defending and strengthening our institutions at this time.
Despite the dire situation we face today, there are rays of hope. Many institutions are working. Health workers are making a heroic effort. Emergency operations are on stand-by or in action. Mayors and governors are taking action. Thousands of community leaders from churches, mosques, trade unions, students, professionals, neighborhoods, et al are rising to the occasion. People are also mobilizing broadly on the Internet and on social media: singing from the balconies; organizing food deliveries for others; transferring money to people in need; arranging wake-up calls and sorting out live performance. All of it building up the social capital we need in order to steer us through.
At the end of the day, it will be the levels of inequality and violence, the quality of our governance systems and the degree to which we are able to provide justice for all, that shape both our social capital and the way in which we steer through this crisis. If we manage this crisis with good governance, pay attention to people’s justice needs and ensure that help is distributed in favor of the poor, we will reduce the spill-over effects of this pandemic. We already have a health crisis on our hands. Let us ensure that we do not also wind up with political and economic ones, and/or compounding cycles of violence.
We at Pathfinders — CIC are, and will continue to be, working on that throughout the pandemic. Some events may be postponed, others reorganized, but our fundamental aim will remain the same: building better capacity for the Pathfinders to take SDG16+ forward, continuing our work for peaceful, just and inclusive societies and thus, find a way to navigate through this crisis.