It is an honour to participate in this 15th anniversary of the foundation of the Daily News Egypt, the first newspaper that I read in the mornings in Cairo. I would like to share with you some ideas about how our world has been affected by the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, and on how to help develop a “new normal”.
Allow me to start by stating the obvious: COVID-19 has changed our existence in ways hard to imagine only a year ago. Many lives have been lost, leaving a wound difficult to heal. The pain of this loss will weigh heavily on our souls for years to come, and it will certainly condition how we understand reality.
Our economy has suffered a big blow, the current rate of job losses unmatched in recent history. Poverty spreads. Confusion sits in. Fear appears. Our own movements are limited by confinements and curfews.
As Egyptians and Spaniards know well, in our Mediterranean culture, family and friends come first. We love getting together. We feel the urge to embrace and kiss. We enjoy the feeling of belonging. Yes families, extended families, define who we are. And in times of difficulty, families and extended families become, for those in need, a safety net where the role of grandparents cannot be overstated.
But, all of a sudden this has also changed. Not only have we lost our loved ones, because of COVID-19, but we are now prevented or limited from visiting our relatives, with those allowed to visit only being able to do so in very small numbers.
Children cannot put the lives of their grandparents at risk, and the latter are forced to wage a life of loneliness in their own apartments or nursing homes. Our signs of affection, usually expansive, have become so defensive as of late, that instead of hugging, we now shake fists with an outstretched arm, as boxers do just before starting a fight, sometimes bloody and always violent.
Indeed, our life in its most intimate aspects has changed. Society at its basic levels has been dramatically affected. And many warn us that if nothing is done about it, when the next pandemic comes we will be even less resilient. It is only fair to ask what has happened, why we all were caught by surprise.
Since the situation is difficult to understand, there is the terrible and cowardly temptation to say “not my fault”, and look for others to blame, especially those we do not share nation, race or religion with.
Or to affirm in an easy and simplistic manner that Globalisation is guilty, and what we should do is isolate ourselves, put limits to our contacts, and return to our roots.
The reality is that, despite all of the scientific and technological advances, and the economic and social developments of the 21st Century, our health systems were not as solid as we thought.
Our government structures have proven ill-prepared to respond to the dimensions of this pandemic, and our international governance has not been up to the test of a global threat of this nature. So let me comment on these three issues.
Firstly, I think our health systems need to be reinforced within our states. Private initiative is more efficient than Government in most cases.
But when, in the event of emergency, massive responses are required, the government should take the lead. Many if not all of our national health systems were poorly equipped for the rapid reaction that COVID-19 required.
Even face masks were scarce in most of our countries during the first weeks of the pandemic, not to speak of ventilators or basic medicines to confront the plague. Stockpiling excessive quantities of these elements beforehand was probably seen as inefficient and an unnecessary waste of resources.
But markets do not regulate the risks of pandemics. And just as we need to sustain high defence budgets to maintain effective and well equipped armed forces, in case of threat to our borders or our institutions, health budgets should be increased to be able to wage successfully the unexpected battles against pandemics we will confront in the future.
Secondly, the pandemic has proved the importance of government structures and of the adequate coordination among them. Market, on its own, does not properly grant security against dangers and risks of this magnitude.
I am not defending a big state as exemplified in Huxley’s Brave New World, or Orwell’s 1984. In fact as I explained at the beginning of the article, our primary defence structure is family. Indeed our extended families, but also local communities, grassroots organizations are the first to detect anomalies in our coexistence.
The role of these decentralised institutions is essential for our social fabric in times of crisis. It takes more dialogue and exchanges between these lower levels of decision-making and central governments to make states stronger, and to create more possibilities to efficiently confront challenges, as the one we are facing today.
Just as an example, in my country, Spain, during the first wave of the pandemic, the Central Government claimed all powers and competences, in fight against the pandemic. During the second and third waves, and as part of our own learning process, regional communities have been in charge of handling the situation, under the supervision of the central government.
Circumstances differed from one region to the other, and one-size-fits-all types of measures were not advisable. As a result, the consequences of these last waves, though still tragic, have been substantially milder.
Finally, global governance has all but succumbed to “the series of interconnected transnational problems” that COVID-19 created, as described by General John Allen. The specialised international organisations have reacted late, their necessary leading role tainted by unconfirmed rumours that some were working in favour of certain countries. As a result, their effectiveness was affected by the funding cuts decided by others.
If a pandemic is, by definition, global, the response must also be. No one can remain isolated. Successes and experiences should be shared, solidarity being our polar star.
Unfortunately, in this past year we have witnessed everything from artificial price hikes, ineffectual protective gear for health workers, and to this last hour bargaining in the vaccine markets.
Let us hope that the cruel experience we have undergone, with more than 2.5 million people dead, and 115 million women and men infected, will spur the reform of indispensable International organisations. Let us also hope that this will lead to a multilateralism that is really effective.
Isolation might be necessary in extreme cases, but protectionism and barriers are not the cure. As our lack of full cooperation in 2020 has shown, illness will not stop at borders, viruses do not require visas.
Spain’s Ambassador to Egypt, Ramón Gil-Casares