News item | 24-04-2020
By Leonardo Párraga, Youth Ambassador of the Peace Palace
If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am for myself alone, what am I? If not now, when? were the questions from Rabbi Hillel, one of the best-known sages from the knowledge of the Torah. His reflections from back in the day that now seem more relevant than ever before. In the middle of a pandemic reaching all corners of the earth, I am left wondering if human solidarity can be as viral as the current virus. The Ubuntu philosophy – I am because we are, becomes more salient now. It was a guiding principle that helped South Africa transition and reconcile after the apartheid period. Might this be the time we realize our humanity is inextricably bonded to that of our fellow companions?
Many countries have ordered a lockdown as an attempt to slow down the spread of the virus. While a portion of citizens can stay at home, inequality sheds light on who gets the chance to do so and who does not. Those who do not have a home, are facing great challenges. In Las Vegas, rectangles were painted on an asphalt parking lot to remind homeless residents to sleep two meters apart.
In her short story The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, Ursula Le Guin writes how the utopian city Omelas has sophisticated architecture, delightful music and advanced science, however, with a caveat. Omelas needs to keep one small child in utter degradation in a damp, windowless room in a basement for the whole system to function. Every citizen knows about the child and “the child is the price of the utter joy and happiness of the rest of the city”.
The coronavirus pandemic makes us stop and wonder: What is the price we are paying for the current system to keep running? Are we as a society willing to sacrifice the dignity of certain citizens for the incommensurable happiness and privilege of others? As in Le Guin’s story, the suffering of some appears to be the foundation of a model of prosperity and development – similar to the one we have pursued globally in recent years. Under this narrative, inequality is like the air that we breathe, necessary for our lives to keep going, yet rarely we allow ourselves to notice that it exists and how it impacts each person.
For many people, work has stopped, but the bills have not. The working-class, homeless people, and migrants are bearing a disproportionate share of the pain caused by the coronavirus shock. In my country, Colombia, informal workers represent 47% of the population, 13 million people whose source of income is endangered during the crisis – a figure equivalent to the whole population of Moscow suddenly have their economic safety being shaken. Observing how “we are all in this together”, but perhaps riding a different ship to stay afloat, the major of Soacha, a city south of Bogotá, suggested that “more people can die from hunger than from the Coronavirus itself” during the period of the lockdown.
These days it is not rare to see quite a few teleworking and jumping from a Zoom meeting to another in the comfort of their living room, but the pandemic has suddenly forced us to reconsider how different roles in society are interconnected. Previously overlooked and not fully appreciated, nowadays it is easier to see who are the essential workers that are performing crucial jobs to keep our countries moving: truckers, delivery workers, nurses, doctors, supermarket workers, recyclers, and farmers, just to name a few. There is an intrinsic dignity in the role that each citizen plays to build our societies. How is this time of slowing down going to allow us to honour that?
Social leaders: Invisible during the pandemic
Yet, there are some that I have not mentioned so far, the ones that are usually forgotten in my country, the ones that when hope is in short supply, fill our tanks with the vision of a new tomorrow, a farsighted picture of a transformed Colombian society. With a role so relevant, it is hard to understand why they mostly make it to the headlines after having gone.
Michel Forst, special rapporteur of the UN, mentioned how Colombia is the country with the most deaths of human rights defenders in Latin America, with an impunity rate for homicides of 95%. Indepaz, the Institute for Peace and Development Studies in Colombia, states that since the 6th of March, when the first coronavirus case was reported in the country, 15 social leaders and 6 ex-combatants from the FARC have been killed. Violence against those trying to implement the peace agreement has been a virus spreading since this document was signed in 2016. The vast majority of assassinations happens in vulnerable villages, thus cultivating the seeds to continue the vicious cycle of violence in rural areas.
Peacebuilders in my country have something sacred to live for, but not enough protection to live by. Are we going back to ‘normal’ after the crisis has passed us by? The UN Secretary-General recently declared: “Our world faces a common enemy. We are at war with a virus.” But is it just one? Are not indifference and inequality as widespread as the microorganism that made 7 billion people stop worldwide? This is a nudge towards the new kind of society we can start to build right now.
Never before we have seen the whole community coming together to find a solution to a common problem. Never before we have seen solidarity spreading so steadily, with random acts of kindness losing their traditional random character, being it musicians performing from their windows, citizens coming together to raise food for those in need or enterprises producing sanitation products for free to manage the crisis. Dr. Rieux, the main character from The Plague by Albert Camus says that “it may seem a ridiculous idea, but the only way to fight the plague is with decency”.
From that angle, heroism, rather than an individual act, is a mutual effort of each person to decrease the magnitude of the shared suffering. The degree of uncertainty we are experiencing certainly encompasses fear, but knowing that others care and act with positive intentions helps to reduce the collective burden. This week, the Colombian Ministry of Defence decided to channel $250 million US dollars destined to buy weapons to tackle the health emergency. Isn’t it high time for a transition from buying war weapons to investing in widgets to wage peace?