Updated: May 18, 2020
More than any other recent global health crises, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the need to embrace a new sense of global interdependence and stronger forms of social solidarity, beyond our commitments to political groups and individual nations.
Only in terms of other people does the individual become conscious of his [her] being, his [her] own duties, his [her] privileges and responsibilities towards himself [herself] and towards other people… What happens to the individual happens to the whole group, and whatever happens to the whole group happens to the individual. The individual can only say, “I am because we are; and since we are, therefore I am”. J.S. Mbiti, African Religions and Philosophy (2008)
This statement, which originally referenced key moral values held in African societies, now speaks about the urgent need for shared morality amidst the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the rising death toll in countries around the world. “We are facing a global health crisis unlike any in the 75-year history of the United Nations — one that is killing people, spreading human suffering, and upending people’s lives,” states The UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN DESA) in their assessment of the social impact of the disease. What started as an epidemic of a new infectious disease in one part of the world - in Wuhan, China, an area remote to the most severely affected countries today - has now become a global burden affecting 188 countries and regions, with 4,695,231 confirmed cases and 314,215 deaths as of May 17th. The global scale of COVID-19’s impact means that no individual, whether sick or healthy, has been left unaffected by the disease; and no country, rich or poor, has been able to avoid the economic and social impact of this unprecedented crisis.
In an urgent attempt to contain the spread of coronavirus, most countries have largely focused on emergency measures to protect their own populations, but in some cases were forced to rely on international aid and cooperation. As countries rally to find solutions to their own local situations, lockdown procedures, shelter-in-place protocols, and social/physical distancing have become the habitual first strategy. Amidst the global scramble over limited resources (e.g., personal protective equipment (PPE), ventilators, and other supplies) to locally contain the pandemic, one other crucial revelation from the crisis has emerged - our survival as countries and as individuals heavily depends on others.
Here are just a few examples of solidarity and international cooperation. At the peak of coronavirus outbreak in China, Canadian government supplied approximately 16 tonnes of personal protective equipment, such as clothing, face shields, masks, goggles and gloves to help in containing the initial epidemic in Wuhan. Later on, China reciprocated this gesture after its initial success in containing the outbreak. As the situation in Canada worsened, Chinese government donated thousands of medical supplies to aid in the fight against COVID-19, according to the Chinese Embassy in Ottawa. The aid consisted of 30,000 medical masks, 10,000 sets of protective clothing, 10,000 goggles and 50,000 pairs of gloves. China has also provided similar support to other badly affected countries, including Pakistan. At the height of Italy’s COVID-19 crisis, Cuba sent a contingent of medical personnel to help fight the disease. This Caribbean nation has also sent medical professionals to other countries severely affected by the epidemic. In a similar fashion, Germany provided support to France and Italy by availing their local healthcare facilities to treat several critical cases of Covid-19 patients flown in from both countries. Austria, France and Germany also sent millions of face masks and protective suits to Italy in support of the response effort.
These acts variously reflect the call to global solidarity made by the WHO Chief and reiterated by the UN Secretary General earlier in 2020: " [The] same solidarity, built on national unity, is needed now more than ever to defeat COVID-19." In a virtual press conference, Antonio Guterres further emphasized the need for increased solidarity: "Our voice has been clear… We will continue calling for solidarity, unity and hope”. This call has also been re-echoed in the daily messages of Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer, Dr. Theresa Tam: “Self-isolate if you may have been exposed to COVID-19; stay connected with neighbors, friends and family; when you take care of yourself, you take care of others.” One may argue that the reverse is also true: when others take care of themselves during the COVID-19 pandemic, they are taking care of you.
It is important to note that the idea of solidarity envisioned in the fight to end the COVID-19 pandemic goes beyond the common understanding of solidarity as “an agreement between and support for the members of a group, especially a political group”. In broad terms, solidarity is construed in terms of altruism or reciprocity, where action is motivated by a sense of obligation to address a common problem. However, the ongoing pandemic has more fully awakened our realization of the strong communitarian dimension of solidarity:
…based on reciprocity, [and] motivated by the desire to live a compassionate, generous and interdependent life… [as] our humanity is not defined by our biological composition or capacity for rationality, but by our capacity to identify, commiserate and share with other members of the community. M.J.Tosam et al., Global Health Inequalities and the Need for Solidarity (2018)
As a response to the current crisis, some envision a universalistic notion of solidarity, which implies that "all human beings have a moral duty to work together for the benefit of all.” This new vision of solidarity emphasizes the significance of a global community united in the fight for the sustenance of humanity in the face of a ravaging pandemic. While we await the discovery of a viable vaccine for Covid-19 and monitor its development, the most effective strategy remains the communal solidarity approach of physical and social distancing and self-quarantine, which has been widely adopted by countries across the globe. Here, nations are relying on a process whereby individual members voluntarily self-isolate or minimize their movements and physical contacts with others in order to curb the communal spread of the virus. Individuals are urged, and legally required in some instances, to take actions that may inconvenience them, but will benefit the whole community by reducing viral transmission and help flatten the curve. The well-being of the individual is important; yet, what is even more important is the health of the whole community or the entire nation, and more so of the global community. Hence, individuals’ freedom of movement, for instance, is trumped by the will to sustain the broader health of the community, nation or the globe. This, in the long run, advances the health and well-being of those individuals whose convenience is now being sacrificed.
The world is now more aware that national or regional approaches are unlikely to end the COVID-19 pandemic. Canada, for instance, would not be safe, even if no new infections are reported, for long as other countries continue to experience a rising number of coronavirus cases. The world must unite as a global community to find lasting solutions to this ravaging disease. More than ever, COVID-19 awakens us to the fact of our existence as members of communities, and not simply as individuals; and of our embeddedness in a global and interdependent community of nations. This new awakening of solidarity needs to be pursued beyond the COVID-19 pandemic to other ongoing and future global health challenges, especially those affecting low and middle income countries.