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The great crisis before us

When a crisis happens and cuts deep into our lives, our greatest strengths and weaknesses are exposed.

The virus came like death itself—silent, imperceptible, inevitable. There were those of us who escaped, there are those of us who are still with it, fighting for life, and there were those of us who brought it with them forever.

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Those of us who remain have a duty not only to remember, but also to understand what the virus means for humanity—in terms of the way we live, and the way in which we organize ourselves in a world where borders are constantly bending. It is an illusion to think that there are no borders; only lustful capitalists see blindly.

As human beings, we live in communities, and we decide who belongs, no more than the way we as individuals each decide whether we wish, or not, to belong. The virus has made us look at the borders we have put up and pulled down and the people we have pulled apart, ironically so that we could, as it were, “go on with life.”

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But how do we “go on with life” now? There is so much talk about “the new norm.” What is “the new norm”? Is it “social distancing”? Is it “Zooming”? Or has the virus simply put into relief the hubris of humanity to think like God, be like God, in a world without God? “This world is ours. We can do with it as we please. And if it gets broken, we fix it or get one new.” We cannot be sure. What is certain, however, is that the virus is a near-death experience, and it would be foolish to dismiss or forget its lessons.

First, in a world of so-called super, middle, and small powers, America is nowhere more powerful than China, and neither of them is less vulnerable than Singapore or Sweden, South Korea or Taiwan.

The real threat came from the power of the state: how it was going to mobilize its resources to contain the pathogen and save lives, as many as it possibly could. Size did matter—not in the way the state organized itself, however, but in terms of the proximity and speed in which people became the real “frontliners.”

The closer communities were within and among each other, the more readily and effectively people put to work the many modes of social distancing. Rule is a function of space. Governments and their publics must reflect and decide on new forms of territorial organization in consonance with the pace human communities are growing and the way the Earth is changing. We must, once again, have to adapt.

Secondly, the tales of human endurance, heroism, and ingenuity will be told over and over, but they stand in disquieting contrast to the hope we are losing in our international organizations. The World Health Organization was, possibly, put to its most challenging test.

The WHO stood in the middle of a finger-pointing match between America and China, and failed to act swiftly, resolutely, and independently, so that national governments, at least those that could, given that nearly all health care systems and services were collapsing, were ultimately left to their own devices.

Pandemics are an old problem. But we have not been able to stop this one even with the wisdom of experience. What makes the appearance of this virus even more perplexing and alarming is the realization that we are perhaps complicit in its path of destruction.

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To call this experience the “Third World War” is quite frankly wrong. We created wars to kill each other. The virus does not discriminate between man, woman, and child; friend and foe; young and old. We wage wars against each other for specific reasons. This time, death came alone for the entire human race. We are facing new problems and we need new institutions.

Third, we are failing in our political imagination. The dominant models of international cooperation are based on states and their capacity to use weapons and command economic growth.

To eschew them would be political naivete. But it is time to break away from the political structures of international organization that were designed as responses to a particular place and time. We need to think, on the one hand, in terms of groups, networks, alliances, and coalitions; and on the other, such new polities as those who survive and show “expertise,” “openness,” and “resilience” to forms of collaboration on problems that would erupt and threaten our survival as a species and the sustainability of the planet.

If there is a G7/G8 of the world’s biggest economies, why can’t we call upon a G3/G4 on pandemics, on natural disasters, or on humanitarian relief operations? We need not one leader, but leaders for each one of these fronts.

Finally, it is worth asking, who are “we”? Are we the rich or poor, the blacks or the whites, from the East or the West? I think “we” belongs to all the above, because no one has been left untouched by the virus. But we have yet to speak out the truth: This is the first global problem of its kind. All others before had stopped at our doorsteps. A problem is global if it is, for everyone, a local problem, and for which the solutions, therefore, lie potentially in the hands also of everyone.

We have been extremely fortunate in our cards. The search for an elixir is on, but I am afraid it will only be as good until the next pathogen awakens in our midst. It sounds trite to speak of this as an opportunity, but what else does a crisis hold? The darkness of fear, loneliness, and desolation—or the break of day, the song of the bird, and the eternal sky? If we have cried to the heavens for this great crisis to end, where shall we rest our greatest strengths and weaknesses?

Dr. Kevin Henry Villanueva ([email protected]) is a thinker and essayist on global politics at the University of the Philippines. He is now visiting professor at the Institute for Strategic and International Studies at National Chung Cheng University in Taiwan. The Philippine recipient of the 2018 Asean Fulbright Visiting Scholar, he holds a Master of Science in International Relations from the London School of Economics and a Ph.D. in International Politics from the University of Leeds (UK). The views expressed in this piece are his own.

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