The pain of the COVID-19 pandemic, a defining event of our times, will continue long after the virus subsides. When the immediate crisis is over many will have experienced unimaginable loss. Many will have lost loved ones, huge numbers will have lost jobs and perhaps homes, and hundreds of millions will have experienced the anxiety and loneliness of social isolation.
But we will have gained something too – a choice.
When we emerge from this collective trauma we can choose to go back to our old trajectory. Or, we can learn from this experience and make different choices for the future.
Every person on the planet has a stake in fighting this virus. As Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organisation (WHO), put it, “we have an unprecedented opportunity to come together as one against a common enemy: an enemy against humanity”.
Although the pandemic has brought out some ugly xenophobic scapegoating, it has also been marked by millions of small acts of kindness which have brought communities closer together. If we choose to reject racism and hatred, the heart-warming solidarity we have seen in recent weeks can be translated into action on a grand scale.
We can go beyond supporting our neighbours and make a collective decision to provide safety for people who are homeless or displaced. This crisis has opened many people’s eyes to the fragility of others’ circumstances, exposing the inequalities which have left so many in urgent need of shelter and healthcare. We can and should continue to protect these people after the pandemic is contained.
We can say no to more austerity measures like the ones which have been imposed in many countries over the last decade, often hitting the most marginalized people hardest. Governments responding to the profound economic and social consequences of the pandemic will need to do things differently.
We can choose to get far more serious about the climate. Emissions have fallen dramatically in some parts of the world, as flights are grounded and cars disappear from the streets. The human cost has been unconscionably high; but when this is over, will we simply turn the engines on again? Or will we resolve to fight for a more sustainable future, brought about through a just transition from fossil fuels? We are seeing a new precedent for dramatic government action and fiscal interventions on a massive scale to safeguard life, health, and economies in the face of a huge threat. Can this guide us in our response to the still deeper existential threat ahead of us?
We must seize the chance to strengthen healthcare systems and reclaim the idea of health for all – backed by adequate resources. This crisis is already laying bare the fragility of health systems around the world, including those which mostly rely on individuals’ ability to access and afford care. This pandemic has shown that the individual is only protected when the whole is protected.
We can choose to rethink social security fit for a new era. COVID-19 hits the most economically precarious hardest, unleashing the harshest consequences of inequality. People who make a living in the informal economy lack any kind of safety net, even though they provide vital services to society; the same goes for women who carry out the majority of unpaid domestic work around the world. Many “gig” workers simply cannot afford to socially distance themselves; yet people such as delivery drivers are critical enablers of other people’s social distancing. Will we gain a new appreciation for the importance of all these forms of work? Will the pandemic provide the impetus for more inclusive protection?
We can demand that a line be drawn on surveillance and the use of technology for social control. China widely used surveillance technology in its efforts to track and curb the spread of COVID-19, a seemingly beguiling model which is turning heads in many countries. But once in place, powerful technologies like this are not so easily put aside. Can we push back against the Faustian bargain of sophisticated surveillance as the price we are told we must pay for our health?
Finally, we can choose to rebuild trust. Many politicians have benefited handsomely in recent years from attacking technical expertise and undermining evidence and science. They have tried to silence truth with cries of “fake news” and attacked journalists relentlessly. But now that our lives depend so obviously on science and access to reliable and accurate information, can public trust in evidence be restored?
These choices are ours to make – and let’s be sure we make the right ones. It’s the best way of honouring all those who have suffered throughout this pandemic.
David Griffiths is Director of the Office of the Secretary General at Amnesty International