Will the COVID-19 pandemic be remembered as a time when everything changed, as a unique moment in history that all can personally relate to? It has already changed a lot for many – while many people have been hit very hard, almost all have faced totally new situations, having to adopt new daily routines, think differently. A new routine sets in, perhaps even quickly starting to adopt new ways of doing. New thoughts and ideas may result, new opportunities may come up. Can an unprecedented crisis be a window of opportunity of some kind? Can one catch the moment to do something important, something that was not possible before?
No doubt one also misses the time before the crisis and feels sad for all the missed opportunities. But also gratefulness sets in. I am thinking in particular of the 57th meeting of our World Council of Churches Commission of the Churches on International Affairs in Brisbane, Australia, in February. How lucky we were to be able to travel and meet! Now that one sees colleagues on the screen only, the richness of the meeting days, the ease of communication when you share the same room seems like a special gift for us.
Our meeting agenda was, in an afterthought, also very fitting, as if in preparation for what was to come. We arrived in Australia right after the terrible bush fires and ensuing floods, something that we had all been watching on the news at home. In the meeting, the word ‘apocalyptic’ was used for what people had seen and experienced – in its basic meaning of something that reveals how things really are, how our world actually is.
We learned a lot about crises, and about the role of the churches in helping people with traumas, helping with anxiety and hopelessness. We heard about the consequences of climate change particularly in the Pacific region, and we heard from aboriginal people about their situation and their ways of addressing the problems, of respecting land and nature.
We heard how catastrophes and crises now tend to follow one another much more frequently than before – leaving you no time to recover in between. We heard about past catastrophes left unattended: the nuclear tests in the Pacific, 322 in all between 1945-1996, carried out in an atmosphere of indifference as to the impact on the health of local people.
We also spoke about situations that are simply overwhelming, where you cannot actually do much – but where you might be able to tell stories, tell to others that eventually could be the agents for change.
So, did we arrive at the pandemic better prepared? And how would we continue from this? Could we be now more able to focus, to catch the moment?
One of the large questions on our table is the role of international organisations and governance. We witness less respect to treaties and organisations and more focus on national response, even increased rivalry. It would almost seem as if some big players were catching the moment for improving their own standing rather than helping solve the problems. The United Nations seems underperforming. UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres made an appeal in March for a global cease-fire that would let aid workers and health experts assist the affected communities in conflict zones. The UN Security Council, however, has been unable to agree on a resolution on the security consequences of COVID-19 that would endorse this appeal. Richard Gowan and Ashish Pradhan of the International Crisis Group note the obstructing disagreement not ably between the US and China on what the resolution should say about the World Health Organization or about the origins of the virus, if anything.Would these countries be catching the moment to paralyze the organisation?
Another major issue our commission has been working on, and perhaps its greatest success thus far, has been advocacy for the treaty banning nuclear weapons, now ratified by 35 countries of the 50 needed for it to enter into force. Again, unfortunately, it would seem that some think of catching the moment for restarting the testing. Tackling this issue in the coming WCC General Assembly is thus even more needed than before.
In my own research work on the European Union, I see a huge catching challenge, too. Some say this is an existential crisis for the EU that is seen as unable to act and too divided. It risks losing the rest of its popularity having to give up on its basic principles from free movement to solidarity. But what if it managed to catch the moment for renewal? What the crisis may lead to is an EU with a larger budget, with considerable financial possibilities for helping member countries in need, but also with fiscal power and capacity actually both to defend its citizens’ rights and impose stricter rules for green economies; perhaps also a union with new health competence, and new areas of cooperation opening with partners in Africa.
We might not always be good at catching the moment. It may be hard, it may be tempting to go back to what was before as soon as we can.
But I have admired the demonstrative effect, so to say, of these past months. This time is definitively telling us something and illustrating it very concretely. Look, it says: if you reduce traffic and industrial production of the kind you have now, you will have cleaner air to breath, you will be seeing the far-away mountains you had forgotten about already for the smog that hides them. Look: some of your rights have been taken away to curb the pandemic; are you keen on them being given back to you, and how will you use them in the future? And look what you get when you realize you are all in the same boat: what if you rowed in the same direction, joining forces?
The share possibility to see differently even for a short time is a great opportunity, a great gift for us all.