ACB’s Executive Director Mariam Mayet looks back at the first half of the year

We are mired in a world shattering pandemic of unprecedented magnitude and virulence. The architecture of global economic, environmental, human rights and political governance institutions and rules established in the 20th century are in the process of atrophying. The crisis is restructuring international power structures in ways still not fully known or understood by us. However, what we do know is that permanent changes are taking place in the international systems and balance of power as we once knew it.

Large parts of Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East are very seriously being affected by the pandemic and the crises it has precipitated. As COVID-19 began to spread, some of the earliest and strictest lockdown policies were imposed in the Global South, long before cases were reported in many of these countries. At the same time, the Global South has limited testing capacity; hence the epidemic has and is advancing undetected well before the waves of death. Further, the availability of basic personal protective and life-saving equipment is out of reach; even more so when wealthier countries are seizing these for their own populations. Compounding this, factory closures left other manufacturers – as well as hospitals, pharmacies, supermarkets, and retail stores – bereft of inventories and products.

Fragilities of the corporate-industrial food machine utterly exposed

The pandemic has exposed vulnerabilities in the corporate-industrial food system on which many billions in the world have become dependent. This dominant global food system is implicated in the pandemic itself, through decades of encroachment of large-scale monocultures into diverse ecosystems from the Brazilian rainforests to the savannahs of Africa and the plains of the US. The living biosphere has been under attack, with novel viruses and pathogens being released from forest destruction on a massive scale.

The crisis has also brought home the over-dependence on international trade for food. World Trade Organisation (WTO) minimum market access rules since the 1990s have resulted in the displacement of local and regional food production systems, with less self-sufficiency and populations more vulnerable to supply disruptions in emergencies. Ships and planes have transmitted the virus across the world. Increasing public and political pressure to meet carbon emission reduction targets had already called into question many companies’ reliance on long-distance supply chains. Now, COVID-19 is forcing governments, companies, and societies to strengthen their capacity to cope with extended periods of economic self-isolation.

The United Nations World Food Program has projected that more than a quarter of a billion people might suffer acute hunger by the end of the year. In the world’s least developed countries (LDCs), 900 million people are at risk from coronavirus. Most healthcare systems of countries in the Global South serve populations under constant health, economic and political crises. The International Labour Organisation has warned that up to 200 million jobs have been lost in what it says is the worst crisis since the Second World War.

There has been glaring and profoundly disappointing absence of leadership and global coordination through effective multilateral response and recovery efforts. This is evident in the Global South as well, where a project of solidarity in working to restructure the global economic order after decolonisation has given way to competition in the existing financial and economic architecture.

Facing a stark choice

Either we must find a way to move forward towards an egalitarian world built on international co-operation or allow isolationism and nationalism to take further root. If the latter scenario occurs, not only will it further crash the world economy and increase international tensions, but we will see an unwillingness of a global community to tackle regional or global problems, including and especially climate change and biodiversity loss/erosion, given the perceived need to dedicate resources to rebuild at home and deal with economic consequences of the crises​. This approach needs to be distinguished from a progressive project of what Walden Bello has called ‘de-globalisation’, in which countries and communities enjoy the economic and policy space to pursue human (and ecologically) centred development and transformation programmes in a world order connected on the basis of solidarity.

We therefore desperately need renewed political will and commitment towards fostering a greater spirit of international co-operation because substantial recovery will require it. Such global co-operation must address the multitude of social, political, and economic questions that the pandemic has framed in stark relief. These include repercussions for human rights and human security, for inequality within and across societies. The pandemic necessitates a fundamental rethink of global rules. Certain aspects of globalisation, such as the movement of people, may face unprecedented controls; other aspects, such as digitalisation, may flourish as never before. State and non-state actors may already be leaning towards the weaponisation of interdependence, which will likely affect future production patterns, trade flows, and security alliances. Multilateralism, already under threat in recent years, may face its most serious challenge. This crisis may trigger the long-needed reform of multilateral institutions as it demands meaningful multilateral action. International cooperation thus needs to be about addressing the interconnected ecological, social and economic crises of our time, to which the COVID pandemic has added fuel. Global cooperation should be based on the need to build new ecological and economic relations from the ground up, which requires recrafting the global economic and political order to give countries, and communities, the financial and policy space to undertake these necessary shifts.

In every country, however, there are many examples of the power of the human spirit – of health care workers, community activists, small producers, and ordinary citizens demonstrating resilience, effectiveness, and leadership. This provides hope and examples that the world can prevail in response to this extraordinary challenge. It also points to the possibility of renewing a global project base on uniting movements for progressive social change, predicated on solidarity and maintaining the ecological conditions to sustain life on a planetary scale.