By José Ramos-Horta
I have read the bloggers who say that the silver lining in COVID-19 is that we are realizing that we are all part of one family. Sure, we are a human family, and some are the rich relations. And the richer relatives probably rarely speak of, much less to, the homeless cousins in Los Angeles, in the banlieus of Paris, the brown ones, Asians and Latinos. If you are one of the few Asian super rich, you are reminded of the miserable existence of your outcast relations when you look down from your penthouse.
Writing from my home at the edge of the world, in one of the poorest countries in Southeast Asia, I understand. It makes you uncomfortable. He or she might ask you for money. With exceptions, nations are not so different.
Much too late into the COVID-19 pandemic the US Administration and Congress finally mobilized trillions of dollars to address the extreme social upheaval and economic meltdown. And sadly, there was not one word about sharing some of that staggering amount with its humbler neighbors and others across the globe. Instead, the current US administration has proposed massive cuts in Overseas Development Aid and frozen vital funds to the United Nations and the very institution - the World Health Organization - most of us are dependent on to help contain the pandemic. This mobilization of money was all about America first and America last.
The European Union though usually slower to move on any issue did mobilize nearly one trillion dollars to salvage its citizens and economy. Again, there was no mention of sharing a meaningful portion of it with Europe's neighbors.
I understand the difficulty of having to stay inside when one is used to moving. For many it has been nerve wracking, not being able to find toilet paper or flour to bake bread with their newly found time. According to the World Food Programme, 135 million people in our world face crisis levels of hunger. Now as economies are collapsing due to this global COVID-19, exacerbated by regional conflicts fueled by Western and Russian arms producers, an additional 130 million people are on the edge of starvation leading us into what the Executive Director of World Food Programme has called famines of “biblical proportion.”
The five permanent member of the UN Security Council – the US, Russia, UK, France and China – thrive in times of war and the business of killing. In the last five years in Yemen, 80,000 children died of starvation, while both US allies Saudi Arabia and the Houthi rebels erected blockades of food and medical supplies, shamelessly sacrificing the lives of innocents for negligible territorial gain, motivated by fantasies of religious supremacy. In Syria, more than 20,000 children have died; in South Sudan, an estimated 100,000 children.
I realize that these figures are numbing. They are not friends or even people or children who look like you. But any sense of global connectedness brought about by the isolated moments in our lives as a result of COVID-19 must include reflection on whether you live in a country that traffics in slaughter of civilians, and a responsibility to communicate to your leaders and fellow citizens the horror of these ill-gotten funds.
We have an opportunity to come out of this disaster of unprecedented magnitude with new priorities and a plan of action to rebuild our countries and societies.
Will there be a second opportunity? If this one is missed, we will all too easily move on, forget this catastrophe, as we have forgotten past catastrophes, and return to indulging ourselves in the extremes of decadent wealth and gut-wrenching poverty. The wars in Syria and Yemen will continue, with Western powers, pious Canada included, Russia and other smaller weapons producing countries continuing to profit from the killing of women and children. The poor, the destitute, will continue to die from cholera, malaria, dengue, hunger. In one form or another, their misery will land on your doorstep.
If there is an overriding lesson from COVID-19, it is that with families and nations alike, the health of the unit is only as strong as its weakest link. The other lesson is that no walls are high and thick enough to prevent millions of desperately poor to march towards the affluent North, the US or Europe. We have seen how the wretched of the world, the unwanted, will continue to venture through the unforgiving deserts of North Africa, defy storms and die on Mediterranean beaches. The strongest and luckiest ones having survived unscrupulous human traffickers and the unforgiving wrath of nature, exhausted and hungry, camp at the gates of Europe.
Across the world, we have all had agonized moments when we have come face to face with the prospect of our own mortality and our fragility.
There is an approach that has worked in the past and could work again. After World War II, up to the fall of the Berlin Wall, the wealthy faced another threat to their security, the rise of totalitarianism in the West. There were, at two different times, two different strategies to address this threat. One proved to be a dismal failure. The other a resounding success.
One strategy was to fight the rise of communism at the doorstep of the wealthy included the establishment and funding of the Contras – the US armed and trained mercenaries in Central America to fight new generations of romantic youth inspired by El Che and Fidel, with funding and arms from the Soviet Union. In a proxy battleground, both sides trained youth and sent them to kill. When the Cold War ended, US and Soviet military advisers went home, with no thought to repairing or rebuilding the debacle they had helped to create, leaving behind a cache of weapons, and culture of violence as their legacy. Those trained in murder and torture became useful assets for drug lords. The results are the women and children in the caravans from Central America fleeing their ravaged nations towards the illusion of El Norte. The cruelty with which they have been treated continues to damage the United States as much as it does the children who have been treated with such heartlessness.
The other challenge was to address the threat of totalitarianism in post-World War II Europe. In 1948, the US enacted the Marshall Plan sustained by 5% of the US GDP to finance the rebuilding of Europe. When one looks at the Europe that emerged, and the vibrant markets for US goods that were created in the process, it was clearly a resounding success.
One program answered a threat with fear, violence, and death. The other rebuilt the health of the nations and fostered freedom and strong democratic institutions and traditions.
If we are truly one family, I issue a challenge to my wealthier “cousins” to nourish the health of the entire family, lift the survival potential of all with a modern-day Marshall Plan not for one single region but for all regions. This would require the combined leadership of the G7 + G20 countries. In addition, I propose that we solicit the active engagement of the 1000 biggest banks in the world, 1000 biggest companies, 1000 richest men and women, 1000 richest Foundations, 1000 Universities, and 1000 richest Churches to invest in the green and blue economy, sustainable agriculture, clean water, education and health, modern clinics and hospitals, science and medical research institutes, create meaningful jobs in every country in the world.
For starters, I plead:
- That the US lifts all sanctions on Iran, Cuba, Venezuela, and North Korea to kick start these economies severely damaged by COVID-19 and the global economic meltdown, not of their making.
- That the world’s financial institutions, creditors nations, and commercial banks write off the entire debt of all Least Developed Countries and of the so-called “Highly Indebted Countries”. Relieved from the debt burden, countries should invest more in infrastructure, education, and health, employment creation, fostering of small business and agriculture, green energy, and blue economy.
- Freeze ALL weapons exports to ALL developing countries, for the next 10 years... Remember the slaughter of human beings that you enable with your weapons sales. You argue that you attach strict human rights conditions to your weapons exports. Oh pls, spare me this which you know is a lie.
- A worldwide mandatory end of torture and a 10-year moratorium on the death penalty. We are promising to start anew after this global pandemic, aren't we? This is the least we should do to show our humanity.
- Last but not least, move further on the Paris Agreement, set a more ambitious 0,5 C temperature increase instead of the ridiculous 2-1,5 °C.
Some will say I am naive, that I am proposing the undoable. To them, I will say: Please spare me your old platitudes of realism and pragmatism. They brought us this mess. The luxury of reflection on our connectedness is only of value if it is followed by a plan of action to lift the state of our connected world in tangible ways. Anything less will continue to leave us all blindsided, while the economies of the West are buoyed by weapons sales and the death of innocent women and children on the other side of this world we share.
José Ramos-Horta is an East Timorese politician who was the President of East Timor from 20 May 2007 to 20 May 2012. Previously he was Minister of Foreign Affairs from 2002 to 2006 and Prime Minister from 2006 to 2007. He is a co-recipient of the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize.