Virus offers warring parties a ladder to climb down

Virus offers warring parties a ladder to climb down

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UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. (Reuters)

The UK woke up on Tuesday reeling from the announcement of a series of measures not just unthinkable in peacetime, but barely imaginable even last week. And we are far from alone — maybe even slightly late to lockdown. Although it remains too early to estimate the full effect of the coronavirus outbreak, it is not too early to realize that the world is going through another defining moment, which will divide our lives into the “before” and “after,” like the Second World War or 9/11.

What do we know so far? We know that the virus is no respecter of regime, rhetoric or region, or of unevidenced conspiracy theories. Democratic, authoritarian, or anything in between — all are regarded the same by this silent murderer. 

We know we need greater preparedness and collegiality. States mostly put off until tomorrow the dreadful consequences of cost and alarm for events like pandemics, which are predictable but uncertainly timed. We are going to have to work more closely together, noting who has handled things more effectively than others, and learn from them, with humility and accountability, but without blame — otherwise things will remain hidden. 

We know that, by and large, humanity responds positively. Lockdowns seem to be working because people are responding to them; though exceptions still tend to prove the rule. And sometimes humanity responds in a breathtaking fashion, which suggests why we ultimately survive: From the heroics of medical staff risking their lives, and dying, in fighting the disease to those who refuse to let isolation equate to being alone, and sing their hearts out together from the balconies and rooftops of the world. 

As of now, we do not know the extent of the economic recession to come, but it is likely to be historically unrivalled since the Industrial Revolution. We do not know if states will recognize the urgent and growing demand for a coordinated international response. The G20 could and should step up by the Riyadh meeting in November.

We do not yet know the impact on domestic politics around the world, such as if the US presidential race will be determined solely by this crisis. We do not know if authoritarian regimes will use the crisis to undermine freedoms still further — citing health security as an excuse for the currently necessary tracking and surveillance — or if they will be mellowed by the disaster and realize that transparency and freedom are better protections for the future. 

Nor do we know how bad this will be for the poorest of the world; but we can be sure we are going to find out. From refugees to those living daily with weak health systems, they fear that, when the infection catches them, there will be few places to hide. 

What chance, then, of any success for the clear call of UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres this week for a worldwide cease-fire? He articulated the fears of those in areas of conflict of the impact of the disease on the vulnerable, the displaced, on women and children. But he also recognized the ability of a common fight against the disease to “open doors” for diplomacy. He is absolutely right to do so. Many politicians know the phrase “a ladder to climb down” when a point of stalemate has been reached, and when a party dare not budge for fear of appearing “weak.” 

At this point, when everyone knows that a conflict has become even less understandable than when it started, it is impossible for either side to “win,” or has gone on so long that every avenue to settlement has become discredited, a diplomatic search is mounted for such a ladder to climb down so that progress can be made and face saved. 

If you truly want to end a conflict, now is the chance — and the virus is your ladder. 

Guterres recognized the ability of a common fight against the disease to ‘open doors’ for diplomacy.

Alistair Burt

People all over the world will be urging “take it.” In Libya, recover the humanitarian truce. Stop the onslaught in Syria. In Yemen, no one can win on the back of a broken people. Israelis and Palestinians have been brought closer in dealing with the coronavirus. A checkpoint is no deterrent, so they could take the chance to move beyond the Washington announcement to something more inclusive. And perhaps the US and Iran could both take steps, instead of trading unending accusations and claims against one another. If US sanctions are to be eased, it would be essential for some genuine, verified response from Iran to allow progress. Both steps should be taken, as their respective populations fear tomorrow more than each other. The political differences in the region are real, and not to be minimized, but perhaps they could be put to one side as increasing numbers of families grieve, from Texas to Tehran and virtually all points in between. 

It’s time to heed and act upon the secretary-general’s call. 

  • Alistair Burt is a former UK Member of Parliament who has twice held ministerial positions in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office — as Parliamentary Under Secretary of State from 2010 to 2013 and as Minister of State for the Middle East from 2017 to 2019. Twitter: @AlistairBurtUK
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