The global health crisis of Covid-19 has called into question the kind of society we want to live in. Professor Robert Dussey, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Togo, puts forward 10 lessons we can learn in order to construct a more humanistic world order
The coronavirus pandemic challenges us and reminds us of the sad and distressing human experience of previous pandemics: the Black Death from 1347 to 1353 killed between 75m and 200m people worldwide, decimating almost half of the European population; the Spanish flu from 1918 to 1919 killed 50m; HIV/AIDS has taken the lives of more than 32m and continues to kill; 1.5m people worldwide died of tuberculosis in 2018.
Covid-19, with its human devastation and other dramatic implications, will long mark the world and every human conscience. The crisis it has engendered has paralysed the world, which has become, in the words of German sociologist Ulrich Beck, a “world of risk”. The risk is great and calls for action: “The emergence of global risks shared by all the inhabitants of the planet, and which in themselves are disasters, [forces us] to react.”
The responses to Covid-19 have mobilised human, logistical, financial and economic resources and national solidarity. Contrary to all expectations, we are witnessing the large-scale return of the welfare state and governments are not lacking in imagination in terms of social innovation and public policies.
The global health crisis of Covid-19 has put the issue of the model of society we want back on the agenda and it forces us to meditate on the motivations underlying our economic and political development choices.
The crisis will undoubtedly have implications for the post-coronavirus world, for the future of the world, our continents and our countries. It is, for us humans, an exhortation to move towards a new, more humanistic world order to restore hope to the world.
Learning from history
The power of history, whether ancient, recent or in the making, is that it teaches us to see better. Friedrich Hegel, in his Lectures on the Philosophy of History, said that kings and statesmen should learn from history, but that “[w]hat experience and history teaches us is that people and governments have never learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it.”
Aldous Huxley takes over the Hegelian diagnosis and states in his Collected Essays “[t]hat men derive little benefit from the lessons of history is the most important lesson that history teaches us.”
This severe diagnosis established by the two thinkers, which is even excessive – because not all men are amnesiacs and there are statesmen, governments and men of good will who know how to let themselves be taught by history – must, however, push our current world to reconsider its relationship to history since the intelligence of the past is essential in the invention of the future.
The particularity of history in the context of the coronavirus pandemic is that it is present history, history in the making, which participates in Universal History in the Hegelian sense of the term, which subsumes under its process the three dimensions of temporality that are the past, the present and the future.
For our world it’s about learning from current human history to build a more resilient and humanist post-Covid-19 world. Each country will certainly take stock of the coronavirus at the right time and draw lessons for the national level. But, on a human or global scale, it is useful to learn a few lessons from the coronavirus pandemic.
Lesson 1: We must rediscover and promote the sense of human dignity
Already in Antiquity, Protagoras affirmed that man is the measure of all things. Man must remain the end of development. We must learn to place humanity at the heart of global concerns, starting with the human being itself.
The Socratic exhortation “Know thyself” remains applicable today and appeals to every human person as a categorical imperative. Who are we? Rational beings. The human being is an end in itself and must remain so.
As Emmanuel Kant put it, “all rational beings are subject to the law by which they must never treat themselves or anyone else merely as a means, but always at the same time as ends in themselves.”
For Kant, each human being has an intrinsic worth, a dignity, which makes them valuable “above all price”.
The world, therefore must learn to place humanity at the heart of its concerns by constantly keeping in mind the primacy of the human over all other considerations, whether economic, financial, political or geopolitical.
The world must rediscover and promote the sense of human dignity. The coronavirus forces us to change our development model and work to place human beings and the requirements linked to their dignity at the centre of our concerns.
Lesson 2: We live in a vulnerable world
We must remember on a human scale that the uncertainty linked to the future and to the historical development of human societies is greater than the certainty linked to the present.
In the space of only a few months, our world, which is becoming increasingly self-confident, more and more confident in its scientific advances and their technological applications, as well as its driving forces, has regained consciousness of its astonishing vulnerability.
The world is vulnerable and this is not just a purely theoretical view. It is a vulnerability linked not only to the fragility of the existential experience of man but also to modern civilisation with very “questionable” ideological beginnings.
The vulnerability exposed by the Covid-19 pandemic is vulnerability on a human scale, the manifestation of which takes various forms because humanity itself is diverse. Our societies, states and continents do not all have the same resilience or the same means in the fight against the pandemic.
Lesson 3: Social and global inequalities pose dangers for the world
There is incontestably both country-level and global-level inequality across the world. In his book The Price of Inequality Joseph Stiglitz has warned of this threatens our future.
The poorest states and citizens are paying the price for inequality but the global response to Covid-19 is not taking account of this in many parts of the world. We must work to reduce country-level and global-level inequalities.
To reduce inequality at the state level, John Rawls advocates the redistribution of resources to the most disadvantaged citizens. Amartya Sen advocates strengthening the capabilities of individual agents by emphasising, among other things, the importance of health, education and positive freedoms.
National measures, based on the logic of mitigation of inequalities, can be supported and supplemented on a global scale by global policy measures under the banner of the United Nations.
Lesson 4: To build a sustainable world we can no longer pursue the same economic course
The economic models we choose must be consistent with the values for the kind of society and world we want to live in.
Our world is suffering from a vision of the economy that does not take sufficient account of the social, political and ecological. In The Great Transformation, Karl Polanyi described how the modern economy became “disembedded” – less constrained by non-economic institutions and able to pursue its own logic, but at the same time less humane.
We need a socially and humanely responsible economy, or better yet, an economy with a human face, which does not see society and the world as mere instruments at its service.
Our economic choices must be in line with the model of society we want. If we want to build a sustainable world we can no longer pursue the same economic course, paying attention only to GDP and growth figures. We must break away from a consumer vision of society.
Lesson 5: Economy and ecology cannot be separated
Human, social, economic and environmental factors are inextricably linked. This truth is known to all and yet the world is struggling to comply with it.
Traditionally, health is placed in the social sphere. The current coronavirus health crisis has confronted the world with one of the worst economic crises of modern times. If we do not pull through the Covid-19 crisis quickly, the economic crisis it will end up inflicting on the world could seriously put to test the test our response to evil.
With regard to the environmental aspect, its relation to human health is obvious. Man is an element of the Cosmic Whole and his existence carries the stigma of ecological tears. Climate change and its dramatic consequences are waving the Sword of Damocles above our heads.
International public opinion is widely convinced today that Covid-19 is of animal and environmental origin. Human health and the climate are among the first priority concerns of our societies and the world. The link between ecology and economics is well known.
Lesson 6: We must reconcile with nature fast
We must relearn in the near future to respect the great balances of nature. To put it bluntly: we are currently in a state of advanced malaise and self-corruption that needs to be stopped.
There is a striking abyss between our planet and humanity. We have gone beyond reasonable limits and we must lucidly change course. We have no choice between collective suicide and an urgent change in perspectives, between biocide and life, between the wreck and a radical change in our relationship to the planet.
Michel Serres in his book The Natural Contract called us, not too long ago, to make peace between man and the planet and to an intra-cosmic reconciliation in addition to the social contract of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, which is a human-to-human contract.
At one point, man was imagined to be disconnected from the planet and the planet itself perceived as being at his disposal. This myth is over and we now know, as we learn from the great ancient African and Greek civilisations, that man himself is just one element of the Cosmic Whole, and today a rebellious child who must be reconciled with the Great Earth Family.
Lesson 7: The crisis is putting severe strain on the medical profession
Global health emergencies as problematic as the one currently induced by the coronavirus put a severe strain on the medical profession as well as scientific and pharmaceutical research.
The health emergency puts the classic methods of validation of research in the medical field to the test – such methods require patience, but here it is necessary to act urgently to save human lives.
This is the basis of the controversy surrounding the use of chloroquine as a remedy for the coronavirus. The scientific world is used to scientific quarrels between researchers and the controversy surrounding chloroquine is undoubtedly not the first and will not be the last.
The only peculiarity of the controversy between supporters and non-supporters of chloroquine is that it is taking place in an emergency situation, where the world is looking for a way out of the pandemic to limit the damage.
The controversy would remain a family quarrel between researchers like many others if our societies were not in a health emergency situation, where the time for action is a key parameter.
Lesson 8: We must work to strengthen ethical education
It is vital for the world to strengthen human education in the context of the harm caused by fake news.
Misinformation can deconstruct and paralyse national pandemic strategies. By developing in citizens a critical and discerning mind, education prepares them to orient themselves in thought and behaviour, to resist fake news and to assume the responsibilities of their generation.
We must work to strengthen the ethical education of humanity, to further humanise mankind. Only ethics allows people to observe a minimum of virtue in their actions without being constrained by material or coercive force.
Our world, as Henri Bergson puts it, needs an “additional soul” that education and ethics can provide. Silo’s exhortation to “humanise the earth” remains topical.
Lesson 9: We live in a highly interconnected world
As every human society and state has become part of a globalised world, the fate of each, on a certain scale, depends on the state of the world.
The balance of the world as a whole may end up being tested by the tragic experience of people in any corner of the earth. In December 2019, Covid-19 was the concern of just one Chinese city. It has become a global issue in a matter of months.
The coronavirus, wherever it is, threatens human health across the planet and the time has come for a cosmopolitan awareness, that is to say the feeling of belonging and living in the same world.
We share a common world and the challenges of international society concern us all. As the Latin poet Terence put it in his play The Self-Tormentor: “I am a man and nothing that is human is foreign to me.”
Lesson 10: We must cooperate
Global risks force us to strengthen international cooperation.
Faced with the global risks, which concern all, to varying degrees, we have no choice but to cooperate. We should not underestimate the importance of national solutions, but they must be supported by international cooperation based on the well-understood interests of humanity and the planet.
In times of global health crisis, we cannot do without or deprive ourselves of international cooperation.
There are therefore a number of lessons to be learned from the Covid-19 crisis for a new world order. These lessons are anthropological and civilisational, social, economic, ecological, scientific, educational, ethical and linked to international cooperation in a world of risk.
The coronavirus pandemic is one of the most serious global health crises of modern times, with multiple consequences. It has confined more than half of the world’s population at home, causing major human and economic tragedies. It has brought back to the agenda, on the human and civilisational level, the issue of human security from a health perspective.
The health crisis has shaken certainties and reminded our world of its vulnerability. On a human scale, we need to draw lessons from the crisis. From the current health crisis situation, we must become aware of our mistakes, learn to place humanity at the centre of our concerns and economic choices, and have the audacity to place the progress of the world in line with the values of society and the world we want to live in.
Today’s world order is harming a large part of humanity. By learning from the Covid-19 crisis, we can move towards a new, more humanistic world order that values the human being and the interests of humanity.
Valuing the human being implies taking human dignity seriously, reducing the dichotomy between acquired rights and lived rights, more responsible investment in human health, the option for a world that cares about its resilience over time.
It also implies reconciliation with nature and a real awareness of our belonging to the same world faced with the global challenges that force us to cooperate.
Now is the time for cosmopolitan awareness to underpin the functioning of the world. Refusing cooperation in a “finite world”, where everything is related, is to lack a sense of history.
Professor Robert Dussey is Minister for Foreign Affairs of Togo and ACP Group Chief Negotiator for the post-Cotonou Agreements