Covid-19 Is a Call for Universalism

by Juha Leppänen | May 10, 2021 | Thought Pieces

Crises are by definition breaking points. Something that we thought would hold – peace, health, transit system, electric supply, a way of life, a society – shatters. While dealing with the crisis, our understanding of the vulnerability of our world increases, as does our understanding of how to prevent the catastrophe from happening again. The first-hand experience spurs innovation and recalibration that will, if built correctly, lead to increased resilience.

The industrial revolution, although a source of unforeseen material wealth, was a crisis of sorts. Its success is not only due to new technologies but also to a new social contract in which the state provides basic necessities for everyone and alleviates the pain caused by disruptions. This new model was adopted determinedly in the Northern European countries, but also elsewhere. Interestingly, this development was only given a boost by the pandemic of 1918.

Now, a hundred years later, the digital transformation combined with globalization is the industrial revolution of our time. Its social consequences must be addressed. Covid-19 makes the need for this more visible and compresses the timeline for what some have called reimagining the social contract.

The current wave of social problems and their manifestations on the streets started well before the pandemic. The 2008 financial crisis triggered Occupy Wall Street. Then Arab Spring and the Umbrella Movement followed, and later the Yellow Vests. Now, during Covid we’ve seen Black Lives Matter gain momentum, but also many other groups have taken to the streets. 

We tend to focus on what goes on on the street level, but the unrest is probably worse in palaces, parliaments, and boardrooms. The virtues of a digitally connected world and globalization are challenged. Who would have believed a few years ago that a Chinese video distribution platform populated by teens would be banned in America? At the same time, Russia is building its own Internet. Trade wars are the new normal. Walls are going up around the world. Most borders are practically closed. 

It took us roughly 200 years to get through the industrial revolution. At best, we have 20 years to deal with its unwanted result – climate change.

Humans are struggling, nations and transnational institutions are fragmenting. At a time when we have the best technologies and the best reasons to come together, the world appears to be disintegrating quickly. And while we fight against the pandemic and its ramifications on health and social conditions, there’s a growing, painstaking consensus that Covid-19 is just a prelude. Climate crisis will bring with it new fights for survival. It took us roughly 200 years to get through the industrial revolution. At best, we have 20 years to deal with its unwanted result – climate change.

Regardless of the negative trajectories, there are reasons to believe in a more positive tomorrow. One of the ideas with the greatest potential lies in reinventing the idea of universalism. Just before Covid-19, the concept of Universal Basic Income (UBI) gained attention. During Covid-19, we’ve seen some national social policy revamps that echo the ethos of universalism i.e. decisions to help the needy swiftly and unconditionally. We are also seeing international initiatives that call for cooperation around humanitarian values. There’s clearly emerging vibration around the concept of universalism.

Universalism is not a nostalgic concept, but instead an ever-evolving way to look at societies. In the industrial era universalism was mainly about the redistribution of material wealth. Post-industrial universalism should go beyond that, and not only discuss Universal Basic Income as a possible all-inclusive right. It should address the broader questions regarding the basic minimums for human life.

But who can we turn to, when individuals are at a breaking point, when many companies are fighting for their lives, and when nations are turning inward? 

But who can we turn to, when individuals are at a breaking point, when many companies are fighting for their lives, and when nations are turning inward? Who in this world has the legitimacy to set agendas we desperately need. Who will start and host conversations around these agendas? I would turn to organizations that check the following boxes. First, they must have, over the years, established a reputation as international operators with unquestionable dignity. Secondly, they must be doers, focused on accomplishing concrete grassroots level change where it’s most needed. Third, they must base their actions on the needs of the most vulnerable – that’s where true universalism starts. And finally, they should have access to the world’s decision-makers.

As I write this list, my thoughts gravitate towards the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent (IFRC). For over a century, it has stood for alleviating human suffering, no matter who’s, where, and in what circumstances. This is universalism in action. In a world where just about every individual’s intent is questioned and almost every organization’s legitimacy is attacked, very few would challenge the purpose and the accomplishments of the Red Cross and Red Crescent.

Since nation-states and their unions are currently somewhat crippled at sustaining a conversation on the 21st century interpretation of universalism, IFRC could help to initiate that. While universalism itself can be seen as a timeless philosophical and societal approach, its applications must be rethought when the environment and the challenges change. Today we should attempt to define and find ways to guarantee human dignity in the age of pandemics and climate crisis. 

This discussion would and should not be a political push, but rather a dialogue rooted in the reality of the least endowed and hosted by the IFRC. The ethos of solidarity is still alive. However, what is lacking are the platforms on which it can be organized, amplified, and turned into constructive action. The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement with its millions of volunteers has the opportunity to be the movement that drives us not only on the practical and grassroots level, but also on the societal and international levels towards universal decency.

This initiative would also help to answer a fundamental question at the heart of our time: how each one of us can seek to find a purpose in times as foggy and as disillusioned as ours. It is not joining in the rage, but rather joining in the dialogue and the work to manifest the best in us.

Juha Leppänen is the Chief Executive of Demos Helsinki, a trusted partner of IFRC Solferino Academy

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