Coronavirus: Why we should beware talk of global utopia after Covid-19 threat recedes – Alastair Stewart

People are already thinking big about how human affairs should be run after the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic, writes Alastair Stewart.

The United Nations was born out of the desire to secure a lasting peace after the horrors of the Second World War (Picture: Sakchai Lalit/AP)

If you look around, there’s a lot of discussion about what the post-Covid world will look like. Did Uncle Monty in the film Withnail & I call it correctly when he said: “The older order changeth... oh my boys, my boys... we’re at the end of an age!”

Seldom has there been a greater chance for a practical application of Gandhi’s “be the change you want to see”.

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Most people just get on, and pray tomorrow is better than today. Covid-19 and the UK’s response to it is a nuclear blast wave that has torn domestic political possibilities. We might want everything to go back to how it was before, but we’ll never be able to forget the massive economic power that could well eradicate homelessness and a plethora of other ills.

Gordon Brown has touted the genuine possibility of a temporary global government to tackle Covid-19. He’s somewhat deliberately overlooked the United Nations (UN), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the G20, the European Union (EU) and every other acronym out there. Brown’s timing might seem off, but all-new global paradigms and international organisations can follow a period of tumult or war.

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The United Nations was touted as early as 1942 – before its 1945 launch – and the League of Nations in the middle of the First World War. The Congress of Vienna in 1815 was a unified effort to bring peace after the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. The end of the Second World War ushered in calls for human rights norms with the Nuremberg Trials; as did the Balkans Wars and the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. The EU, Nato and the World Bank were all instruments to keep the peace.

A return to normalcy

Full-scale conflict inevitably breeds long-range thinking to unify and prevent future losses of life. If we consider the Covid-19 problem as our first experience of ‘total war’ in decades, it’s a fair expectation to presume there will be some radical thinking. This pandemic is a horror that’s hard to come back from.

But time and time again, the world has shaken under disasters then recoiled back to normalcy almost as quickly as they happen.

Both world wars produced a genuine conviction that this was it; there simply must be lasting peace afterwards which could only be administered by some global system. By the time of the Cold War, no one tried to hide the fact that such a system was anything other than realpolitik and the most reliable system able to impose or shape values. Capitalism, democracy and the liberal hegemony were the talking points.

As sure as others might have said it in decades past, we do, genuinely, have something we haven’t had for years – a tangible, relatable, ubiquitous experience of health horror. Environmental damage, the refugee crisis and poverty were always, always ‘somewhere else’. Now the sheer calamity of these things has become not just a constant on social media but a heart pang. There is very little cultural relativism in this human health scare.

The question is whether there’s a need for a new global organisation when health provision is a national responsibility. If anything, Covid-19 points the way to business as usual because there is no one cause for the health crisis. National boundaries are at once meaningless and everything – the disease is universal, its treatment is local.

Global utopia

The lesson of the 20th and early 21st centuries is that national sovereignty can change hands, but public services are always a hot topic, as the Brexit debate showcased. Resources are finite, scarcity very real. Trade, money and the flow of information are still fundamentals that will not be solved by yet another world body.

Many global organisations, which take a proportion of national budgets to fund operating budgets anyway, are underpinned by chronic fatigue. Any plans for a new world order are more likely to be treated with disdain; any effort called a diplomatic screen for the ideological, not the practical.

Sickness doesn’t distinguish between nationalities, credos or any other human division. We all have an inherent vulnerability to natural problems. It’s a fact of life when viruses like Covid-19 can so easily spread. This is about much more than mere foreign policy, and so it is far less easily resolved by creating some fictitious global government.

Although we can feel sympathy, pain and worry for those in other countries, emergencies like this exaggerate the hyperlocal. This isn’t some warped racist or nationalist creed, it’s a human inability to see beyond our line of sight when we know scarcity dictates our response, if not our sentiment.

If there is a new organisation, it will very likely be advisory but with the charm of a fresh start. The irony of Covid-19 is that despite it being a global pandemic, no one can help us but ourselves; technology is bought and sold as ‘war’ materiel and we try to win that battle. Like campaign alliances, interests can align, tactics can echo each other, but we still must fight the fight. Petty squabbling, once again, isn’t going anywhere and calls for some new global utopia are dangerous and naive.

That said, “you mustn’t be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling”. Maybe words to live by, but words from a film, Inception, about a dream.

Alastair Stewart is a freelance writer and public affairs consultant. Read more from Alastair at www.agjstewart.com and follow him on Twitter @agjstewart

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