By Professor Robert DUSSEY
Minister for Foreign Affairs, African Integration
and the Togolese Nationals Abroad, Togo
ACP Group Chief Negotiator for the post-Cotonou Agreements
The coronavirus pandemic challenges us and reminds us of the sad and distressing human experience of pandemics: the plague of Athens, which caught the attention of Thucydides in his book History of the Peloponnesian War, claimed tens of thousands of lives in the Ancient Greece from 430 to 426 BC; the Antonine plague or “galenic plague”, which struck the Roman Empire under the reign of Marcus Aurelius and Commodus between 165 and 190, killed millions; the justinian plague, between 541 and 767 of our era, caused 25 million deaths; the black plague, from 1347 to 1353 killed between 75 and 200 million people worldwide, decimating almost half of the European population; the yellow fever formally identified in 1648 on the American continent (Guadeloupe and Yucatan) was one of the most deadly diseases; the great plague of London from 1665 to 1666 killed between 75,000 and 100,000; the ravages of the different waves of cholera are known; the Spanish flu from 1918 to 1919 killed 50 million; the Asian flu (H2N2) in 1956: 2 million deaths; the Hong Kong flu : 1 million deaths from 1968 to 1969; the HIV AIDS: more than 36 million deaths and it continues to kill; 1.5 million 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 blocked 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 mobilized human, logistical, financial and economic resources and national solidarity. Contrary to all expectations, we are witnessing, for the occasion, the great 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 brought back on the agenda the issue of the model of society we want and it forces us to meditate without complacency on the motivational foundations of our economic and political development choices. The crisis will undoubtedly have implications for the post-coronavirus world, 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.
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The power of history, whether ancient, recent or in the making, is that it teaches us to see better. Friedrich Hegel, in his book Lectures on the Philosophy of History, believes that ” kings, statesmen, the peoples are recommended to learn mainly through the experience of history. But experience and history teach us that peoples and governments have learned nothing from history; that they have never acted according to the maxims that we could have drawn from it.” Aldous Huxley takes over the Hegelian diagnosis and states in collected essays that “the fact that 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.
As early as Antiquity, Protagoras already affirmed that Man is the measure of all things, of those, which are and those, which are not. 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” engraved on the temple wall at Delphi remains applicable today and appeals to every human person as a categorical imperative. Who are we? Reasonable beings. The human being is an end in itself and must remain so. “Reasonable beings are all subject to the law, according to which each of them must never treat itself as means, but always at the same time as ends in themselves” (Kant). Kant rejects self-denial for any reason whatsoever relating to the inclinations of the world of phenomena, but also and above all he rejects the alienation of any human being “who is beyond price”, “who does not admit any equivalent”, “who has dignity”. To say that the human beings admit no equivalent and that they have dignity is to say that they belong to the field of Noumena, which escapes empirical determinations. Human beings have intrinsic and absolute value just because they are human beings (Ricoeur). 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 center of our concerns.
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 it 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 civilization 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 or continents do not have the same resilience or the same means in the fight against the pandemic.
Social and global inequalities are dangers and challenges for the world. We can ask ourselves the question, in the words of economist and philosopher Amartya Sen: “inequality of what?” But what is certain is that there is in the world both country-level and global-level inequality and there is what Joseph Stiglitz called “the price of inequality”. The poorest States and citizens are paying the price for inequality. The global response to covid-19 is inequality-proof in many parts of the world. We must work to reduce country-level and the global-level inequalities. To reduce inequality at the State level, John Rawls advocates the redistribution of resources to the most disadvantaged citizens. Amartya Sen recommends that it should be useful to strengthen the capacities of agents by emphasizing, 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.
The economic models we choose must be consistent with the values of the kind of society and world we want to live in. Our world is certainly sick with an insufficiently social, political and ecological vision of the economy. By coming out of social control, what Karl Polanyi called “disembedding” in his reference book The Great Transformation, the economy has gained its freedom, but it plays less of a human role today. We need a socially and humanely responsible economy, or better yet, an economy with a humane 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. We can no longer continue to do the same economically in a world we want sustainable by looking only at the GDP and growth figures. We must break away from a consumer vision of society.
Human, social, economic and environmental 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 posed to the world one of the worst economic crises of modern times. If we do not get out of 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 weighing the sword of Damocles on the world. 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.
We must quickly reconcile with nature. We must relearn in the near future to respect the great balances of nature. We only reconcile entities, which were once together, which made a world together, and which afterwards, are struggling to share a common cause. To put it bluntly: we are currently in a state of advanced discomfort 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 pacification of the relationship 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 in the historical adventure, 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 civilizations, 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.
Global health emergencies as problematic as the one currently induced by the coronavirus severely strain the medical profession, scientific and pharmaceutical research. The health emergency puts to the test the classic methods of validation of research in the medical field, the essential scientific patience is put in difficulty in a situation, where it is necessary to act in emergency to save human lives or let them perish for lack of care . 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 either. The only peculiarity of the controversy between supporters and non-supporters of chloroquine is that it takes 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.
It is vital for the world to strengthen human education in the context of the harm of misinformation caused by the fake news. Misinformation can deconstruct and paralyze national pandemic strategies. By developing in citizens a critical and discerning mind, education prepares them to orient themselves in thought and behavior, to resist fake news and to assume the responsibilities of their generation. We must work to strengthen the ethical education of humanity, to further humanize man. 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 “extra soul” that education and ethics can provide. Silo’s exhortation to “humanize the earth” remains topical.
Each human society or State being a part of the All-World that has itself become global, its fate, 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 a Chinese city. It has become a global issue in a matter of months. The coronavirus, wherever it is, threatens human health no matter where it may be on 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. “I am a man and nothing that is human is foreign to me,” said the famous Latin poet Terence in his book The Executioner of Self.
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. It is not about underestimating the importance of national solutions under the pretext of global risks, but these must be supported by international cooperation around 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 several lessons to be learned from the covid-19 crisis for a new world order: anthropological and civilizational, 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 civilizational 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 human at the center of our concerns and economic choices, have the audacity to put 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 hurting a large part of humanity. By learning from the covid-19 crisis, we could 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 a work of 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 cosmopolitical awareness to underpin the functioning of the world. Refusing cooperation in a “finite world”, where everything is relationship is to lack of sense of history.