The COVID-19 pandemic and the reinvention of the spirit of solidarity and cooperation

The COVID-19 pandemic and the reinvention of the spirit of solidarity and cooperation

An invisible adversary has thrown the world – Global South and Global North alike – into disarray. The psychosocial and economic consequences of the COVID-19 crisis will remain with us long after it has been overcome. There will be no anti-viral return to the pre-coronavirus status quo, nor can we afford to idly wait for a viral transformation of our world. The future is not inevitable, abstract promise – it will depend on our collective readiness to forge it, or to be forged by it.

Although it has been claimed that no one could have foreseen that in 2020, over 1.5 billion students would be forced to stay at home because of a virus, experts worldwide have repeatedly signified that just such a crisis was indeed conceivable. For the prevailing short-sighted, boom-and-bust economic system, excessively geared towards short-term profits, has left no margin for societies to address social emergencies. Even now, the same analysts and international actors who, in the name of economic efficiency, have undermined our common public goods for years, are promising us new global solutions. Our global challenges, however, do not require global solutions. They require a shared vision, underpinned by contextual policies and supported by efficient, solidarity-based mechanisms of international cooperation and coordination.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed, and exacerbated, the social and economic divides between, and within, societies. But it did not cause them. To argue that the laissez-faire policy prescriptions enforced by our international institutions have fuelled this crisis would, in fact, make for a better case. And as we now wage an absolute war to contain the virus and mitigate its consequences, we must be willing to learn the lessons being taught to us by this crisis, if we are to reconstruct – and not merely reproduce – our international and national systems. 

From underfunded and understaffed healthcare systems to the estimated 154 million people who find themselves homeless and unable to self-isolate, passing by the professionals living pay-check to pay-check for whom self-isolation protects life but endangers livelihood,  and the 1.5 billion out-of-school students worldwide with unequal access to e-learning portals, the injustices which devastate our societies are more than a mere moral concern: they are threats to our common future. Several initiatives have already been announced to mitigate the effects of this crisis: recalling retired health professionals, providing safe-spaces for self-isolation, suspending foreclosures and evictions, and commitments by technology giants to provide software and equipment free-of-charge. These measures, amongst others, are necessary. But they are also insufficient. If we are to overcome, once and for all, crises such as the current pandemic, we must be unwavering in our determination to address the injustices it has exposed.

We must, therefore, protect the right to free, quality universal healthcare; enshrine dignified, affordable housing as an unalienable right; ensure material and immaterial security for the peoples of the world; protect the right to paid sick and holiday leave as well as a living wage for all workers; and bridge the techno-digital divide. This requires an unprecedented mobilisation of intellectual, human, technical and financial resources. It also calls for our initiatives to emancipate themselves from stale concepts so as to construct authentic, effective alternatives. Free, quality universal healthcare and dignified, affordable housing will not be achieved as long as we continue dismantling them as private commodities from which to profiteer, rather than investing in them as common public goods which ought to be protected. Material and immaterial security, living wages, and socially conscious labour laws will not be realised without an international system which consecrates human dignity and contributes to the implementation of holistic, humanistic, and progressive social policies. The techno-digital divide will not be bridged by relying on expensive, imported technologies – often ill-suited to national and local contexts – nor by generating nationwide technical dependency on private multinational companies, when such technologies are donated. We must develop local, endogenous technologies – more affordable, sustainable, and contextually relevant – which harness the creative potential of communities and stimulate national economies.

In a world in which the collective wealth of 6.9 billion people constitutes less than half of the wealth amassed by the richest 1%, and the market capitalisation of a single company such as Apple Inc. surpasses the GDP value of entire economies – including those of countries in the Global North, such as the Netherlands, Switzerland, Belgium, and Sweden – , the feasibility of such measures does not seem any more outlandish than the sustainability of this present state of affairs seems preposterous. This does require, however, international platforms of solidarity-based cooperation acting as instruments and catalysts for a sustainable, prosperous and equitable development, that is inclusive of the perspectives, priorities, and needs of the majority of the world’s population.

If ad-hoc multilateralism and lack of global solidarity continue to administer the international system, which seems more preoccupied by its own survival than by achieving our collective aspirations, the current COVID-19 pandemic will only be a preview of future crises to come. And it is highly unlikely for those who have institutionally enabled such an international system to also be those who will reshape it – good intentions notwithstanding. The development models emanating from the Global North having failed, it is now long overdue for the assumptions permeating our international institutions to be challenged, and for a third, alternative, inclusive way of development to be constructed from the Global South.

It is with this motivation that African, Arab, Asian, Latin American and Pacific Island countries, as well as international civil society organisations, founded the Organisation of Educational Cooperation (OEC) to “contribute to the equitable, just, and prosperous social transformation of societies by promoting balanced and inclusive education, in order to attain the fundamental rights to liberty, justice, dignity, sustainability, social cohesion, and material and immaterial security for the peoples of the world”. The OEC is not, accordingly, an international organisation for education, but rather an international organisation for development through education, since true development cannot be compartmentalised, and the transformative power of education is only true insofar as it is itself transformed.

This new, proactive, multilateral framework of cooperation which we are constructing places the concerns and aspirations of countries and peoples at the centre of global policymaking and at the forefront of development efforts, respecting and adapting to national priorities, local aspirations, and socio-cultural contexts. The COVID-19 pandemic is both a tragedy and a test in crisis management for the entire world. It is also a reminder of the importance of renewing and reinventing the spirit of true solidarity and multilateralism in the 21st century. The time has come for new, innovative international mechanisms and platforms, not only designed to keep the peace, but also achieve the justice of which peace is the fruit.

Armed with a sense of duty, an impulse of solidarity and an intransigent determination, it is now our historic responsibility to heed the warning of this crisis and give ourselves the means to collectively forge the future to which we aspire, and which we deserve.

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Sheikh Manssour Bin Mussallam is the Secretary General-elect of the Organisation of Educational Cooperation (OEC), an international governmental organisation established on 29 January 2020 at the International Summit on Balanced and Inclusive Education by African, Arab, Asian, Latin American and Pacific Island countries and civil society organisations from across the Global South. He has previously served as the President of the Education Relief Foundation.