Ideas

In a COVID-divided world, how to avoid 'drift into a new normal'

In November, a virtual gathering of policy makers, academics, business leaders and civil society from around the world discussed how to "build back better" in the wake of COVID-19 amidst vaccine nationalism, isolationism, rising poverty and unequal access to health care.

Local, more inclusive government, transgenerational approach keys to bridging divides

A masked man reads a newspaper while walking in downtown Vancouver. In November, a virtual gathering of policy makers, academics, business leaders and civil society discussed how to "build back better" in the wake of COVID-19. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Vaccine nationalism. Isolationism. Rising poverty and unequal access to health care. 

The Coronavirus era has already left its mark on the global stage, dividing the world in ways so stark you can easily trace them on the world map.

There's been a lot of talk about how to "build back better," the opportunity for a "reset," the need to dispense with the status quo. But how practically can all this be done on a global scale?

The Victoria Forum — a gathering of policy makers, academics, business leaders and civil society that addresses the day's most pressing challenges — considered these questions over three days of virtual meetings in November 2020.

This year's version was jointly hosted by the University of Victoria and the Senate of Canada.

The forum started with an opening plenary moderated by CBC Ideas host Nahlah Ayed.

It featured Akinwumi Adesina, president of the African Development Bank group, who was in Abidjan in Côte D'Ivoire, Hakima El Haité, the 14th President of Liberal International and former minister of environment in Morocco, who was in Rabat, Morocco, and Ontario Lt. Governor Elizabeth Dowdswell, who was in Toronto.

What follows are excerpts from their opening remarks, edited for length and clarity.

Akinwumi Adesina, president of the African Development Bank Group
Abidjan, Côte D'Ivoire

African Development Bank President Akinwumi Adesina says that the divide between nations when it comes to labour and healthcare must be addressed. (Michele Tantussi/Reuters)

There's a huge divide in the global health care systems and the capacity to contain the pandemic. Africa had a very weak health care system before the [pandemic] started — the continent had an average of just nine hospital beds per ten thousand people, two equipped labs for COVID-19 tests and an average of 20 physicians per ten thousand people.

Now think of that in terms of developed countries. They had 10 times [the] number of physicians and nurses, and they spend 60 times per capita on health. The pandemic without any doubt has stretched Africa's health care systems beyond their limit. 

Developed countries spent trillions of dollars on stimulus packages to contain the pandemic. All [Africa] needed was just $145 billion dollars for additional spending due to the effects of the pandemic. And so far, we are working very hard, [but] that has yet to be realized. 

The digital divide has also grown. Countries with poor internet penetration, low education rates, and without access to internet broadband, they couldn't stay open and transition into the business model we all have now.

As the nations began to retreat into isolationism and export restrictions, it simply worsened Africa's market vulnerabilities.- Akinwumi Adesina, African Development Bank Group president

Women in Africa face a great risk of job and income losses from the pandemic as the majority are employed in the service sectors such as food and beverage, air travel, hospitality, tourism. These are the sectors actually most affected by the pandemic. 

The pandemic has also laid very bare the divide on jobs and the labour market based on level of skills and the degree of formality or informality. In fact, we estimate at the bank that 25 to 30 million jobs in Africa will be lost by the end of this year. 

And finally, there exists extreme concentration in global manufacturing for health care equipment and supplies, including pharmaceuticals. Africa today imports all of its medical equipment, 70 to 80 per cent of all pharmaceuticals. So as the nations began to retreat into isolationism and export restrictions, it simply worsened Africa's market vulnerabilities. 

The bank launched a $10 billion COVID-19 crisis response facility to support African countries. We also launched a $3-billion COVID-19 social bond on the international capital market, the largest social bond ever in world history to support Africa. 

We must bridge the divide, and we must ensure health security and prosperity for all. If we can do that, that will be a much better world. 

Hakima El Haité, president of Liberal International
Rabat, Morocco

Hakima El Haité says that multilateralism is the only answer to ensure peace and security in the world. (Fadel Senna/AFP/Getty Images)

Before COVID-19, we all knew that life on Earth will become impossible if we don't act now because of climate change.

We all knew that 80 per cent of our biodiversity is at the risk of extinction, threatening the equilibrium of the whole earth ecosystem, which can lead to new diseases and pandemics. And COVID-19 will not be the latest pandemic if we don't act now. 

We are placed in a historic moment where we have a chance to rethink and reinvent our shared future. Business as usual will not allow humanity to correct its mistakes. The world needs to turn this health crisis, which is originally an environmental crisis, into an opportunity to reduce inequalities and to foster to empower education, to foster within the recovery plan the low carbon investments needed to reach global transformation. 

We believe that in every crisis there is always an opportunity to recover stronger and wiser than we were before.- Hakima El Haité, Liberal International president

When slavery was abolished, many people in the establishment were concerned that the world would stop because it would lose its workforce. But what happened [then]? Political will, new policies and innovation took the lead. This is how we see life at Liberal International.

We believe that in every crisis there is always an opportunity to recover stronger and wiser than we were before. We believe that the world is borderless and humanity is a community with a shared future. We believe that even the most powerful nation in the world cannot reverse the digital globalization, climate change or stop the waves of migrants. And we still believe that globalization, which has lifted millions of people out of poverty, if retooled smartly and fairly, will continue lifting out people of poverty. 

Dear friends, I will conclude by asking you to join me in proving that the only way out of this crisis is by cooperating even more. Join me in showing the world that multilateralism is the only answer to ensure peace and security in the world. Join me in creating a world where education, civic education and now digital education are the priority and where innovation towards a radical solution is the way to accelerate our transition to allow us to build a sustainable would. 

Elizabeth Dowdeswell, lieutenant-governor of Ontario
Toronto, Canada

Ontario Lt.-Gov. Elizabeth Dowdeswell says the pandemic has vividly illustrated our global interconnectedness. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

I want to make four observations that focus directly related to the theme of bridging divides. 

The first one has to do with collaboration among orders of government. 

I was also struck by the very visible role played by municipal governments. These are the order of government that's often forgotten, taken for granted. Yet it's closest to people and absolutely crucial in building cohesive communities during a time of crisis. 

The second observation has to do with the evidence that we have about trust and confidence in science that's actually resulting in evidence based decision making. 

Overall, there has been general acceptance of the states of emergency and singular focus of our scientific researchers racing to develop a vaccine and treatment. The concurrent lesson learned is the absolute necessity of clear and consistent communication. It really has been said, and I agree with it totally that we make progress only at the speed of trust. And that trust is in our scientists, but that trust also has to be built with our decision makers. 

We will be coexisting with this virus for some time. My sincere hope is that we will not simply drift into a new normal.- Elizabeth Dowdeswell​​​, lieutenant-governor of Ontario

The third observation is that the pandemic has illustrated vividly the fact of our interconnectedness. Few of us in Canada can ever recall any circumstance in their lifetimes when everyone everywhere has been affected by an event. The closing of borders for us is unthinkable, and the repatriation of our citizens from around the world was most challenging. Who knew about the fragility of our supply chains and how very dependent we are on other nations? 

Governments, as they plan for a restart of our economy, are realizing that effective recovery may well be dependent on things we used to call social issues, women's issues, and that is an effective system of child care and education. We've even had a new word added to our vocabulary: she-session. The bottom line is that systemic thinking is demanded as never before as everything really is connected to everything else. 

The fourth observation and perhaps the most important one is around the fundamental question of inequality that has been fully exposed. 

This pandemic is being experienced very differently by the rich and the poor. We're all being forced to examine systemic racism of indigenous, Black and people of colour. 

So finally, as we see an unmistakable hunger for normalcy, the primary source of stress that I see is the lack of clarity about the end point and what it's going to look like. We know that we can only stay in survival mode for so long. And yet we know intuitively that recovery is not going to be normal. We will be coexisting with this virus for some time. My sincere hope is that we will not simply drift into a new normal. 

I wonder if we can maintain the momentum of the lessons that we've learned these last nine or 10 months and avoid collective amnesia. Will it be a green recovery, will we create the conditions for sustainability and resilience, and will we really be bold and ambitious enough?

Lord John Alderdice, member of the U.K. House of Lords, a key negotiator of the Good Friday peace agreement in Northern Ireland, and director of the Centre for the Resolution of Intractable Conflict

Lord John Alderice, left, says that, based on history, pandemics change things "profoundly." (Alejandra Brun/AFP/Getty Images)

As I think about the situation we're in now, bridging divides in the wake of the pandemic, which I'm struck, of course, by the division between English people and Irish people, which I spent a good deal of my life trying to deal with. But I'm also struck by the history of pandemic.

You see in this part of the world, we didn't just have the 1918 to 1920 flu pandemic, but we also had in the 14th century the Black Death. And there are still some villages around here with no one living in them anymore for the last few hundred years because all the people died in the Black Death.

These are complex problems, systemic issues, questions of values as well as of science, and they lead us to situations where we do not agree upon what is the 'good.'- Lord John Alderdice, member of the U.K. House of Lords

Pandemics aren't new, but one of the things we know about them is they change things profoundly. Not everything — some things get carried through. But you were talking just a few minutes ago about the fact that cities were developing and maybe indeed moving away from nations to cities and city states. After the Black Death, many people moved from the land and from villages increasingly into cities and of course, with industrialization that developed further.

After the flu pandemic, and, of course, the First World War, empires disappeared. And we had the possibility of the United Nations because we moved to nation states. Prior to that, we didn't have nation states. We had empires and colonies. And so there are going to be big changes. 

The second thing is there are going to be big changes for all of us. There's been a lot of talk about democracy but in the last ten years more countries have moved away from democracy, than have moved to democracy, and we have to ask ourselves why is it that things are becoming more problematic and difficult in this territory. 

These are complex problems, systemic issues, questions of values as well as of science, and they lead us to situations where we do not agree upon what is the "good." And that's why our future has to be found in the pluralism of accepting difference and finding ways not of conflict and violence, but of cooperation, even with those with whom we disagree. 

Among the conclusions:

Take inspiration from Indigenous transgenerational approach and strive to become good ancestors.

The importance of civil society and private enterprise in complementing government in coping with crisis and building back.

Find more active and creative ways to renew democracy, such as national service or citizenship ceremonies for all members of the population.

Pursue incremental as well as transformational changes on adapting to climate change.

Where institutions and governments are concerned: embracing transparency, independent rule of law, inclusivity and gender equality.

The urgency of improving resilience of societies for future shocks.

Guests in this episode

Akinwumi Adesina is the president of the African Development Bank Group. 

Hakima El Haité is the 14th President of Liberal International, climate scientist and former minister of environment in Morocco

The Honourable Elizabeth Dowdeswell is the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario.

Lord John Alderdice is a member of the U.K. house of Lords and director of the Centre for the Resolution of Intractable Conflict.

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