In an extraordinary July speech titled “Tackling the Global Inequality Pandemic,” at times sounding more like a biblical prophet than the UN Secretary General, Antonio Gúterres said that COVID-19 has been like “an x-ray, revealing fractures in the fragile skeleton of the societies we have built.” The pandemic, he said, is exposing “the myth that we are all in the same boat.”
Gúterres offered an incriminating list: anger against inequality fueling the anti-racism movement in the U.S.; women worse off than men across the world simply because they are women; the world’s richest 1% gaining 27% of the world’s income growth; a digital divide resulting in a “two-speed world”; the countries contributing the least to global warming suffering the worst of climate disruption; and African countries being underrepresented in international institutions which are deformed by legacies of colonialism. With unusual public candor, Gúterres said, “The nations that came out on top more than seven decades ago have refused to contemplate the reforms needed to change power relations in international institutions,” and he named the UN Security Council as a case in point. “Inequality, he concluded, “defines our time.”
Yet the UN’s ability to tackle global inequality is constrained by the general truth that for its 193 member countries, as Sri Lankan theologian Vinoth Ramachandra recently put it, “national interest … narrowly conceived, always outweighs human rights and the global common good.” Case in point: When asked how the coronavirus will change the world forever, 12 leading global thinkers name a reshuffling of power from West to East and from U.S.-centric to China-centric globalization; a battle between democratic versus authoritarian rule; and governments turning inward at a time when international cooperation is more important than ever before. “We are headed toward a poorer, meaner, and smaller world,” says Indian diplomat Shivshankar Menon.
In these bleak forecasts, global inequality will accelerate. Yet the human tragedy of COVID-19, said Gúterres, has also created a “generational opportunity” for change. In the face of the inequalities we must go further to say this is also a generational moral crisis – and opportunity. If the pandemic has revealed, as Francis Fukuyama writes, how much governments matter, what kinds of governments, for better or worse, will prevail? Is there is any hope for collective moral imagination and leadership?
One source of hope Gúterres describes is a dynamism in civil society and young people in the Me Too, anti-racist, and climate change movements. But can “single-issue politics,” as Ramachandra puts it, provide language for a broad vision of transformation “founded in a political narrative more expansive than mere self-interest?”
Another source of collective moral imagination may be in the fresh politics of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand where, according to one scholar from the small country, “the only kind of leadership that we can offer globally is moral.” Ardern has signed multilateral treaties on climate change and to discourage nuclear weapons, and called for a politics combining empathy and strength. Another source may be French President Emmanuel Macron, who led recent efforts for a worldwide ceasefire, a moratorium on debt payments for African nations and mobilizing aid for devastated Beirut. Macron’s starling claim is that in politics “the human factor is the priority and there are notions of solidarity that come into play … the economy follows on from that, and let’s not forget that economics is a moral science.”
Ramachandra sees a historical example of a national vision beyond narrow interests in Martin Luther King’s “Beloved Community.” King wove the “prophetic tradition of the Hebrew Bible … with the popular founding narrative of the American nation” and sought to shape U.S. public policy toward “a reconciliation that went beyond justice for his own people without bypassing it. While confronting the guilt of white oppression and repentance were necessary, the healing of relationships was the ultimate goal.”
The x-ray of the global pandemic has revealed not only inequality, but moral truth. Theologian Stanley Hauerwas said in a recent interview that for Christians the pandemic reveals “that we’re a catholic people. That we are bound to one another around the world in a way that how Christians fare in China makes a good deal of difference for how we fare in North Carolina. And that we are joined in a common life that gives us a sense of obligation to one another. That doesn’t mean that we are not also bound to those who do not claim to be Christian. We are all creatures of a good God.” How can the best of the religious culture within each nation promote a political vision for the global common good that takes a claim like this seriously?
In a recent MCC conversation with leaders of the Middle East Council of Churches about crises facing Syrian refugees and Palestinians threatened by Israeli annexation, they called for a kind of UN diplomacy they find sorely missing – based not in national self-interests but in ethical values of mutual respect, love for the vulnerable, and peace and justice across divides. If we face a generational crisis of global inequality, by whose imagination and sacrifice will that diplomacy emerge? Without such moral courage, the vulnerable of our world are in grave danger.
Chris Rice is director of the Mennonite Central Committee United Nations Office. He is co-author of the book Reconciling All Things: A Christian Vision for Justice, Peace, and Healing.