Humanity, politics and politicians in Covid times

Europe's World

Citizens' Europe

Picture of Dharmendra Kanani
Dharmendra Kanani

Director of Insights at Friends of Europe

People are singing from the balconies in Italy and Iran. Others are clapping from their windows, playing bingo or volunteering to serve in health services. In local communities, citizens are delivering essentials for the vulnerable and elderly. These are echoes of the human spirit as old as time. Isn’t it interesting that people and communities have crossed the borders of their apartments and their streets, beyond their Wifi, to connect with each other whilst EU leaders find supporting each other so difficult?

The people that, each day, make a simple connection with each other give effect to a primal desire – to connect and support each other in times of danger and stress. They do not know each other, their origins, nationality, religion or class. Yet it happens, every night across Europe and across the world in different ways.

How is it possible that EU leaders cannot see this and bounce off of this sense of community to act differently and better? Are they so inured by politics and received wisdom or, at worst, a sense that what happens ‘out there’ doesn’t match with what polls and focus groups tell them? Or perhaps it is internal political wrangling and party politics that determines what they do?

This received wisdom serves little purpose in our current context

This moment in time feels like a watershed moment on all fronts: from the behaviour of political parties to the role of governments, through to absolute fundamentals such as the market and the  welfare state. It has sparked new debates on the use of nationalisations and public-private partnerships. After all, what is the proper role for the private sector? Can a different sense of what profit means emerge, given that this determines how the private sector operates and, to some extent, how governments respond? Can a different kind of relationship emerge with the forces of supply and demand which is not predicated on traditional economic concepts borne out of a very different set of circumstances?  These are the fundamental questions that the current crisis poses, or should be the questions we are forced to think about as we travel through and emerge from it.

Perhaps for too long there has been a simple orthodoxy in our political debates: ‘big vs small government’ and ‘markets vs governments’. This received wisdom serves little purpose in our current context. And it’s not just about being defunct in the present circumstances – these divisions have been laid bare and seem to have been irreparably dissolved.

Given that the 21st century will present us with a series of crises – from climate change to the technological revolution – we need to rethink everything we know. This pandemic does not mirror anything on a scale we have witnessed to date. While the past century’s social, economic and technological progress yielded a significant positive impact on humanity and its survival, it also precipitated some of its biggest potential for destruction. Coronavirus is just one example – the climate and technology catastrophes are waiting in the wings!

We need a new sense of (global) governance fit for the many challenges yet to come

So, how should we go about re-evaluating our shibboleths about the role of markets and the national state? What we know from Covid is that something global has to be implemented. This must be something that does not adhere to old norms. We need to hatch a different order that is not moored by how things have previously been done.

We must also take this opportunity to redefine what ‘gain’ means. This is not to suggest some sort of Marxist ideal – that would be a mistake and miss the point of the implications of this enormous crisis. Rather, it means having a re-think about the fundamentals of society and how it operates, sustains itself and survives. We need a new sense of (global) governance fit for the many challenges yet to come.

Whatever shape this takes has to be rooted in the ability and capabilities of people to do good,  whilst ensuring there are safety mechanisms in place to constrain human capacities for greed, corruption and the intoxication of power.

If the power of human connection and goodwill, as evidenced now, can be harnessed into a governance model for the future, then we will have learned. Otherwise, this will simply fade away as a distant memory when the good times return. Societies will go through the motions, do the ceremonial commemorations with pomp and glamour, without having learned anything!

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