If there is one thing the world is learning rapidly, it is that tackling the global COVID-19 pandemic requires acting collectively to manage a collective problem. This has been a lesson that humanity has long resisted as it has stubbornly clung to outworn habits of nationalism and competition fueled by all sorts of fear such as fear of the “other” or fear of insufficient resources.
Over the years, circumstances have afforded us ample opportunity to learn the importance of collective action. We have confronted a number of growing global crises that endanger our peace and security. Climate change, migration, the growing extremes of wealth and poverty, and nuclear proliferation rank high among them. And yet, despite the severity of these crises, we have been unwilling to give up our old maladaptive habits of focusing on our self interest, both on the individual and national levels. We have stubbornly refused to admit that the advantage of the part can only be ensured by guaranteeing the advantage of the whole, and that we are all better off when our primary loyalty is to the human race as a whole. We have failed to understand that if we are to thrive as individuals and nations we must ensure that all nations and all peoples can thrive.
Now, however, the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus is giving us a unique and unprecedented opportunity to learn this lesson quickly. Indeed, we are being given a crash course in the truth of the oneness of humanity and its inextricable interdependence and in the need for collective action. The stakes are high — it's do or die for many. We can and are learning this lesson, albeit slowly: Whether at the city, county, state, national, or international levels, we are being painfully forced to learn this lesson, kicking and screaming as we go.
The good news is that our self-destructive behaviors — including excessive focus on nationalism, xenophobia, and racism — are simply long-standing habits, and habits can be changed. Renowned historian Arnold Toynbee, writing in the second half of the 20th century, concluded that the global community must change its habits if it were to survive. He went on to predict that it would ultimately do so, but only when confronted by an existential crisis — which he believed would be precipitated by the atom bomb. He theorized that, once confronted with such a crisis, humanity would rapidly shed its old habits — albeit reluctantly — and embrace new ones, including the recognition that we need some form of world government with the authority to ensure humanity’s collective interests.
The COVID-19 pandemic is demonstrating one of the areas in which we must have mechanisms of global governance — including collective decision-making and enforcement — to protect the world community against global pandemics. In this regard, we are gradually becoming conscious that we need to engage in collective action, collaboration, and coordination on a scale never seen before. We are learning this at different levels — within countries, such as the U.S., where it is becoming apparent that our response is a patchwork one, depending on which city or state we live in. We are also learning this at the regional level: The European Union is beginning to grasp that there needs to be far more coordination at the regional level to take steps protecting the citizens of the EU. To this end, the EU has taken initial steps such as closing the EU's common borders. And we are beginning to learn this at the global level where organizations like the World Health Organization have been trying to get nations to act but lack the authority to pass binding regulations that governments would have to follow, let alone the ability to enforce their recommendations.
It is time to ratchet up our learning. Just as the virus is spreading exponentially, so too must our awareness of the oneness of humanity and of our inextricable interconnectedness grow, resulting in the acknowledgment that it is time to build a new system of global governance fit for the 21st century and beyond.
The awareness we need is perfectly summed up by the following analogy offered a number of years ago by Kishore Mahbubani, dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore. He observed that there had been a time not long ago when the nations of the world were like self-contained boats sailing on the sea of international life. Each boat had its own captain and crew, and the main purpose of the international order was to create rules that ensured that the movements of these boats were coordinated to avoid accidents. However, time has moved on. Our current reality is completely different. Given the unprecedented degree of our interconnectedness, our situation could more aptly be described as that of a ship consisting of 193 cabins, each representing a nation state. The problem is that, while each cabin has its own captain and crew dedicated to maintaining order within that cabin and serving it, the ship as a whole lacks both captain and crew.
What we may well ask, are the concrete implications of this analogy? The first is that in a time of global crisis, such as the world faces with the COVID-19 pandemic, there is no one at the helm of our ship capable of steering us clear in the stormy and turbulent seas. Nor do we have hands on deck dedicated to the collective good — the business of saving the ship as a whole — rather than the narrow well-being of the members of one or other of the cabins onboard. The second is that the principles and rules by which the inhabitants in one cabin govern themselves could actually prove detrimental to people in other cabins and could cause the ship as a whole to sink. It is not hard to recognize how this plays out in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic where actions taken by one national government such as restricting the export of medical supplies would detrimentally impact the citizens of other nations.
For humanity to survive and thrive all this must change. We must quickly craft new global decision-making institutions that have the authority to pass binding regulations to protect us all in certain narrow spheres where the only solution lies in collective action. We also need global enforcement mechanisms to ensure that all nations comply with these collective rules.