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  • Writer's pictureMartin Punaks

Fear and Loathing in Las Virus: Covid-19 as an opportunity for international development

At a time when many of us are getting used again to renewed restrictions to curb a rise in Covid-19, I have been intrigued by the emerging protest movement against these restrictions. So I decided to try and understand better what this new counter-culture movement is about. I was to discover that behind its bizarre pseudo-scientific theories that the virus “doesn’t exist”, there is a sincere and deep-seated fear that the pandemic is being used by authoritarian governments to subjugate and take away our freedom and individuality. Furthermore, the protestors view face-masks as symbolically representing the suppression of freedom of speech, and social distancing as a covert means to keep us apart and make us fear each other.

Whilst I certainly do not share the counter-culture view that the virus is a myth, I can understand why – in the context of lockdown weariness, collapsing livelihoods and surging mental health problems – these critiques, which focus on loss of control and individuality, are compelling to so many people. Although it is sad to see how fear has gripped these people and led them to conspiracy theories as a means to regain a sense of control.

Meanwhile, in more mainstream thinking, there is a preoccupation with blaming decision makers for where they went wrong, and projecting doom and gloom scenarios for how the pandemic will play out. The irony of course being that these narratives are also deep-rooted in fear.

I am not suggesting here that we should not be holding our leaders to account, or not highlighting how current Covid responses may be harming vulnerable communities – of course we should. I am also not saying that people should not feel fear and anger at a time like this. What I am asking is if there is a way we can counterbalance these critiques with a more empowering narrative which focusses on the opportunities being created by our current situation? Can we better frame the pandemic as a chance for paradigm-change to rebuild the world in the way we want it, rather than mostly focussing on what we are losing? As I discussed in a previous blog, history often follows cycles of destruction and creation, and I believe that if we can embrace this outlook it may actually help us overcome some of our fear and loathing.

Through my work in international development, my personal take on the Covid-19 story has been one of sadness, but also of optimism and hope. I have seen in it a chance to reinvent the world. So in keeping with my call for more positive narratives, I am sharing here five ways I view the virus as an opportunity.

1. A new global level playing field

From its beginnings at the end of World War II, international development framed the world as being made up of two camps: the Global North and the Global South. Whilst the Global North was characterised as having superior knowledge, ideas and technology (because it was ‘developed’), the Global South was characterised as the grateful and passive recipient of these offerings (because it was ‘developing’). This was basically a euphemistic reframing of an earlier patriarchal colonial relationship. Whilst this binary framework has dominated international development for the last 70 years, it was starting to lose meaning in recent years with the economic and political rise of countries like China and India, as well as increasing inequality and anti-globalism in Europe and North America. However, the framework was finally sounded its death knell with the onslaught of Covid-19.

For the first time in history the Global North and Global South have a common terms of reference through which they are both experiencing suffering. This has created a space for a more equal dialogue, shared empathy, and a shared understanding of vulnerability and uncertainty. Furthermore, Covid-19 has shone a spotlight on the so called Global North’s own development failures – its inability to control horrific Covid-19 infection and mortality rates, and it’s innate and structural human rights abuses brought starkly to light by the BLM movement. Meanwhile, in the so called Global South, Africa has defied sceptics with its ability to prevent anywhere close to the level of Covid-19 fatalities experienced in Europe and the US. In Ghana - a country nearly half the size of the UK and with far less resources - merely 112 people had died of Covid-19 by early July. Ghana built on its prior experience of managing its Ebola outbreak to implement simple but effective community-based contact tracing systems and public communications, which countries in the Global North could learn much from.

We have an opportunity here to finally leave behind the divisive and power-laden labels of North and South, and instead see the world as a complex ‘global whole’ where learning and support move in multiple directions between equal partners.

2. A less interventionalist approach to development

Historically humanitarian emergencies have prompted an influx of foreign experts to emergency zones to advise the locals on how to respond to their earthquake/flood/epidemic/war [delete as appropriate]. With the Covid-19 pandemic, however, exactly the opposite has happened – the foreign experts all flew home. They may have continued their projects remotely, but fundamentally they have left the locals to respond to the emergency by themselves. Significantly, this has not yet led to the development disasters we would perhaps have expected from a model based on the assumption that foreign experts have to be in-country for development to work. In some cases we are seeing examples of local development actors responding better than they may have done if the usual foreign ‘experts’ were there to guide them.

An NGO I am involved with in Nepal has reported seeing local government child protection workers showing much higher levels of commitment and engagement than usual in case managing and supporting vulnerable families affected by lockdown. Through my remote work with Kenya, I have also witnessed a similar surge in commitment by local child protection professionals, largely managing the Covid-19 child protection response by themselves without the usual entourage of foreign advisers. We have been talking about the need to empower local development actors for decades, and now it is happening by stealth, and mostly because people like me are not there!

3. A refocus on the local

Unable to travel internationally, Covid-19 has forced many international development workers to properly notice the poverty, inequality and social injustice in their own societies. In normal times you’ll find me advocating for responsible volunteering and development in places where I don’t live, but during lockdown I have actually done some practical volunteering in my own city (London) for my community mutual-aid group. Whilst I very much enjoyed volunteering, I was also ashamed at how naïve I had been to the suffering of vulnerable people on my own street living with chronic poverty and illness, with little state support. It seems that whilst I had been busy telling India, Nepal and Kenya how to ‘develop’, I had failed to spot the log in my own eye. BLM has similarly brought to our attention the need for us to address structural racism in ourselves, before perhaps we go criticising others for their human rights abuses and discrimination.

4. A chance to build back better

A lot of my work in development is around the interface between child protection and tourism. Over the last ten years I have been an active player in the campaign to end orphanage tourism and promote more responsible forms of tourism and volunteering, and it has been a pleasure to see tourism companies increasingly aligning their practices with child protection principles. Unfortunately though Covid-19 has been disastrous for the tourism industry. Yet despite the challenges, many in the tourism industry have responded with a call to ‘build back better’ with a renewed engagement with climate justice, social justice and diversity and inclusion. The industry is not just doing this because it’s the right thing to do, but because it is what its customers want.

Tourism is a huge contributor to the world economy and cultural life – it employs one in every ten people on Earth. So if tourism can be just a bit more successful at changing its modus operandi, the positive impact this would have on the world could be phenomenal. Furthermore, the tourism industry’s embracing of development and sustainability principles creates a bigger space for more traditional development actors to engage on these issues so we can use our knowledge and experience to influence better outcomes.

5. Bigger communities, stronger individuals

Despite conspiracy theorists’ claims that Covid-19 is making us lose our sense of community and individuality, the evidence is that the opposite may in fact be happening. The shared global experience of lockdowns and restrictive rules has helped millions of people in wealthy countries – where usually everything goes to plan – to learn what it is like in other parts of the world where certainty and freedom are in short supply. So rather than our communities shrinking, they have in fact expanded by enabling us to emotionally connect with families experiencing the same or similar to us in Wuhan, Sao Paulo and Bangalore.

Yet, simultaneously, something quite different has also been happening. We have been given a rare opportunity to be alone to face our demons without the normal distractions of life. It is said that when Jack Kerouac went into self-isolation seeking spiritual insight, he expected to “come face to face with God or Tathagata (Buddha) and find out once and for all what is the meaning of all this existence and suffering”. But instead he admitted to a friend afterwards that he came “face to face with myself, no liquor, no drugs, no chance of faking it… face to face with ole hateful… me”. Jack Kerouac’s words may strike a chord with many of our experiences over the last six months, and yet this is not necessarily a bad thing. Only by facing up to our demons head-on can we attempt to defeat them.

The American Buddhist nun, Pema Chodron, describes this as a process of fearlessness, and compares it to removing the armour which hides our inner wisdom and gentleness. We perhaps don’t know yet what effect isolation has had on us long-term, but in a world where normally we are complaining of being too busy and stressed, we may yet find that isolation has changed us for the better on a deeper and more personal level.

Of course, these opportunities are just that – opportunities. They are not a guaranteed path which fate will lead us down. They depend on us being able to recognise them, invest in them, and turn them into forks in the road where our grandchildren will look back and say “that decision was what led us to have the lives we enjoy today”. There is no given that the world will change as a result of Covid-19, many people will want it to go back to how it was before. But we do have perhaps the best opportunity since WWII to make the changes we so badly need, and it is up to us whether or not we take it.

These ideas were inspired by a couple of events I was asked to speak at recently. What NOT to Restart, and Opportunities Moving Forward: Global Engagement Post-COVID on 25 September 2020, which was part of Haverford College Center for Peace and Global Citizenship’s 20th anniversary series, and the Discover International Development launch event on 30 September 2020 which was run by London School of Economics and Political Science.


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