Global Solidarity & the Coronavirus Crisis
In the United Kingdom the particularly vulnerability of older residents or those with underlying health conditions has seen an incredible grassroots response. Often at a street level - WhatsApp groups or Zoom chats are used to coordinate the deliveries of essential items and care to those who need it. With little direction or coordination from the authorities, people know how to care for people in a crisis.
As someone who has worked on humanitarian crises for almost twenty years what I’m seeing in the UK is very familiar to what I saw in war zones or areas of the world devastated by natural disasters.
Prior to the war in Syria there wasn’t much in the way of national aid organisations. International organisations present tended to have limited scope with particular focus on Palestinian and Iraqi refugees. The events of 2011 would trigger the retreat of the government from large parts of the country and into the vacuum huge numbers of actors stop up, humanitarian actors amongst them.
The protracted nature of the Syrian conflict and its seeming absence of any ‘good guys’ who stand a chance of winning has seen coverage of the conflict drop off whilst Coronavirus spikes in every sense of the word. One tracker showed how ‘toilet roll’ came to be a bigger headline than ‘Syria’ throughout the media in March.
The economic reverberations from Coronavirus has led charities in the UK to warn that the sudden shutting down of their shops and postponement of fundraising events like the London Marathon could force them to close. With record numbers of people around the world dependent on humanitarian aid this is a critically dangerous time to have Coronavirus shut down avenues of charity and global giving.
However, there is an alternative scenario that could emerge from the current crisis. Instead of further national isolation and the cutting of ties of global solidarity, the reverse could occur as suddenly millions living in comfortable, safe, developed economies experience a brief window of what it is like to live in crisis.
Empty shopping shelves are the norm for many refugees dependent on food from UN agencies. Limits to movement and forms of ‘self isolation’ are the norm for many trapped in internal displacement camps. The continued statistical analysis around hundreds of thousands of infections and deaths would be very familiar to those who’ve tried to quantify the Syrian death toll - the UN officially stopped counting years ago.
Suddenly people may have forms of shared experience whereas previously the horror and carnage of the Syrian conflict may have felt totally alien to so many.
The thread of this potential global solidarity will be tested by the prospect of the lag of infection meaning that countries in crisis may find themselves being hit by Coronavirus weeks from now. Syria has only just acknowledged its first fatality from the virus and its moribund sanction hit economy and devastated health infrastructure - with only a handful of ventilators - is not ready for something that has devastated far more prepared countries.
One charity estimated that we should expect a minimum of 100,000 excess deaths from the virus in Syria. A vast number when you consider that the US, with 327 million people, are looking at 200,000.
The test of whether the Coronavirus has triggered a greater sense of global solidarity will come when countries like Syria and Yemen become deluged with responding to the virus whilst managing all of their own underlying conditions. Such a solidarity must start with financing the UN appeals and NGOs who are delivering essential services in these places - but it shouldn’t end there.
Already there are attempts to leverage the Coronavirus crisis to trigger ceasefires and peace building efforts where previous attempts have failed. There will be a political temptation to focus only inwards in the aftermath of the unprecedented lockdowns we’re currently seeing but putting your head in the sand at a time of such incredible global flux would be a huge missed opportunity.
One commentator asked ‘what will change?’ once the Coronavirus crisis is over - ‘everything’ was his conclusion. In the shadow of such seismic change those with positive agendas and policy solutions must be ready to go harness a new global solidarity rather than deciding to hide in bunkers of isolated nationalisms. levant