Internationales Zentrum für Ethik in den Wissenschaften (IZEW)

International solidarity in times of crisis

We need to consider our ethical duties beyond national borders in the corona crisis

by Maria Pawelec

13. Apr 2020 · The novel coronavirus pandemic knows no national borders. However, reactions to the crisis are revealing – and worrying – when it comes to international cooperation and solidarity. Drawing on the philosophical debate about global justice, we must heed our ethical responsibilities beyond national borders.

The novel coronavirus pandemic knows no national borders; it is a truly global crisis that requires international coop­eration and solidarity. It raises profound ethical questions: Whom do we owe (how much) solidarity to? Is it legitimate to care first and foremost for members of a closer community such as a family, neighborhood or state? Or do we owe the same to all fellow humans? These are genuine ethical dilemmas of international and global justice. There are no straightforward answers. I argue here from a cosmopolitan perspective that solidarity in the crisis must not end at national borders. Currently, however, the pandemic represents a paradox: While the interconnectedness of our globalized world has allowed it to spread rapidly across all continents, current reactions to the pandemic (and infected people) mirror nationalism, regionalism or even localism. They underscore the power of nation states and relative weakness of inter- and supranational cooperation and solidarity.

On 30 January 2020, the WHO declared the COVID-19 outbreak a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern”. It acknowledged the virus’ incipient global spread and the potential need for a coordinated international response. In mid-February, the WHO then initiated a process involving member states and other stakeholders culminating in a global research roadmap. The WHO thus plays a central role for the international research response to COVID-19. Its assessments and recommendations are also monitored closely by the international community and media. However, the international organization lacks sanctioning mechanisms vis-à-vis nation states and thus the power to define national political agendas. Critics also say its initial hesitation to declare a health emergency and its praise of China’s crisis management reveal its weakness and dependency on nation states.

States are in fact leading the political crisis response, imposing (and constantly adapting) a broad range of measures including unprecedented restrictions on public life. Thereby, the crisis is threatening international solidarity in several ways: Populists’ crisis rhetoric is nationalist and often racist, denying the pandemic’s global nature and framing it as a “foreign” threat. E.g., US-president Trump repeatedly called SARS-CoV-2 a “Chinese virus”; anti-Asian sentiment in his administration and the population is rising. Populists in the European parliament already demanded border closures and immigration stops in early February. Hungarian Prime Minister Orbán blamed “foreigners” for introducing corona and is using the crisis to rule by decree, suspending democracy and the rule of law – core EU values. Populists’ COVID-19 rhetoric (and actions) thus reinforces the nation state as a central authority and fuels fears of foreigners (however, some observers also hope poor crisis management and procrastination may weaken populists).

Reactions to COVID-19 also seriously question international cooperation and solidarity, in particular within the EU. Disputes about the economic response (in particular Eurobonds) threaten to reopen rifts manifested in the 2008 financial crisis (the EU has now agreed on a €500bn rescue package, but Eurobonds and the configuration of a future recovery fund still remain contentious). The EU also still has no joint policy e.g. for testing and reporting COVID-19 cases, or on containment measures. Member states are acting unilaterally, at times irritating neighbors (e.g. by unilateral border closures or non-decisions such as Germany’s long lack of what is now a “moderate curfew”). Most strikingly, no EU member state responded to a formal request by Italy in March for the supply of life-saving protective medical equipment (finally, China stepped in). Some EU members even banned the export of such equipment for fear of needing it themselves. All this threatens EU cohesion and may impede international cooperation in the long run.

In this crisis, we need to critically (re)consider our moral duties towards others and exhibit solidarity beyond national borders. An easy place to start is discourse: We must all refrain from populist demarcation, racism and nationalism e.g. in social media or public speeches, and instead employ rhetoric of shared responsibility, mutual care and problem-solving.

But words must also become actions. In the long run, we need a political discussion about the division of responsibilities (and power) in global (health) crises between nation states, supra- and international organizations. Here and now, (non-)state actors must aid countries and societies hit by the pandemic. Hopeful precedents exist (even though their motifs might not always be purely altruistic): E.g. China, South Korea and Taiwan have sent medical equipment and staff to the US, the Philippines and other countries. Russia has donated test kits to Iran; Germany is flying out corona patients from Italy and France. Some companies are also donating and exporting medical equipment; ventilator producers have renounced copyright claims to enable the cheap and life-saving 3D-printing of their machines worldwide. Such international solidarity must continue and be reinforced.

However, we must also understand and reflect upon ethical dilemmas of international solidarity. International solidarity may become contentious when it (potentially) conflicts with duties e.g. towards compatriots: When domestic shortages of protective equipment arose, South Korean president Moon had to apologize for sending such equipment to China in the early days of the pandemic. He is now facing domestic protests and calls for impeachment; anti-Chinese sentiment is rising. Should South Korea have withheld life-saving support for future domestic use? How likely must the latter be to justify such a denial of support, or is there always a duty to help? We carefully need to consider such questions and competing claims concerning our ethical duties beyond national borders. The philosophical debate about global justice provides guidance – but no easy answers – here.

Global solidarity must also extend to the most vulnerable, who are often forgotten in crises. Refugees’ situation in camps around the world and at the EU’s external borders is dire. Cramped and without access to sufficient medical care, they are also defenseless in the face of the pandemic. Despite the state of exception “at home”, affluent countries such as EU member states must evacuate them or at least the most vulnerable including children, pregnant women, the sick and elderly.

The greatest challenge for global solidarity may yet be to come: SARS-CoV-2 is spreading to poorer parts of the world. Weak health care systems, crowded living conditions, poor sanitation and fake news will make the virus hard to contain e.g. in Africa, with potentially disastrous consequences. Averting these will require a just distribution of media attention, great global support and solidarity, and thus recognition of our ethical duties beyond national borders.

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