Since the founding of the United Nations in 1945, space for multilateral policy development and commitment has grown. Its growth in the global health field augurs well as we find ways to mitigate the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Multilateralism is a difficult word, often misconstrued to be about the global and not the local and daily life. Perception plays a major role in how the public perceives multilateralism. This is in part due to the complexity of modern global challenges, which are well beyond the capacity of any one state or even a small group of states to resolve by themselves.
The novel coronavirus pandemic may yet change this perception.
As the saying goes, all politics is local. My rejoinder to this is that one’s local is another’s global. The local and the global are simultaneous realities.
United Methodist connectionalism is akin to multilateralism.
As a church we address social issues central to the multilateral agenda, including health, migration, peace, climate, and concerns about global poverty, trading and commerce, sustainable development, social justice, women, children and gender justice, human rights, indigenous peoples, and more.
Holistic health, healing and wholeness are intrinsic to Methodism and its Wesleyan roots. John Wesley attended to both the care for the soul and for the biological body with his abundant tips and remedies for ailments during his time.
Throughout the United Methodist connection, we are doing advocacy on public health policies at national legislatures and multilateral settings. We are in global mission together for sustainable development and humanitarian assistance, building capacity for peoples and communities to manage their healthcare needs.
Our numerous United Methodist-affiliated clinics, hospitals, colleges and universities around the world are training medical, health, social work and pastoral care professionals.
Human rights intrinsic to health, healing and wholeness
Global pandemics such as the novel coronavirus respect no sovereign boundaries or national allegiances. The coronavirus ravages all peoples across races and social classes, but its effects are more devastating on vulnerable populations everywhere and on struggling low- and middle-income economies around the world.
To mitigate the virulent spread of COVID-19, we are called by national authorities to stay at home, wash our hands, stay in place and practice physical distancing. These public health directives imply that we have houses to stay in, water to wash our hands, and some space where we can move around and still maintain six feet distance from each other.
When Philippine government officials issued the directive for Filipinos to stay at home, Norma Dollaga, a United Methodist deaconess and justice advocate from the Philippines, reacted through her Facebook page: “Stay at home. That’s for those who have homes. How about the homeless?”
The reality is that the human rights to health, housing and water, along with human mobility, have long been imperiled in many places around the world prior to COVID-19’s onslaught. Moreover, the health crisis has been used as an excuse in other parts of the world to grab power or tighten national security laws that are assaulting civil liberties and violating democratic rights.
Neither pandemic nor political or economic exigency can derogate from the enjoyment of fundamental human rights.
That the outbreak of COVID-19 started in Wuhan City in China has resulted in undue rise in racist and xenophobic acts especially against people of Chinese origin, or Asians in general. This is on top of an ongoing surge of populism and xenophobic nationalism around the world.
Health is wealth, fund it robustly
If health is wealth, it behooves peoples and their governments to protect it. Health care workers who are on the front line against this pandemic should have all the resources they need without begging for them.
A war may have been declared in the eradication of the novel coronavirus pandemic. But it is looking more like the deployment of war rhetoric and not the funding that real wars have received.
National budgets are moral documents. Health is the true common wealth that we must invest human and budgetary resources to. Yet we know that defense spending today far outweighs the puny investments from national coffers that health care urgently needs and strategically deserves.
Global collaboration is indispensable
The role of the U.N. in forging global cooperation is crucial, in times of crisis or calm. Global cooperation in the surveillance of emerging viruses and bacteria is necessary if pandemics are to be mitigated and diseases eradicated.
Coordinating this global collaboration and leading the development of a vaccine to treat the COVID-19 disease gives the public good reason to trust global institutions like World Health Organization. Think of the eradication of smallpox — and the ongoing programs to eventually eradicate polio and malaria — as examples of how global cooperation benefits us in our local daily lives.
To triumph over COVID-19, comprehensive cooperation is needed on many fronts — medical, pharmaceutical, healthcare workers, mental health providers, healthcare facilities. Public and private coordination is necessary in ensuring that the supply chain for much needed testing kits, ventilators, as well as personal protective equipment like N95 face masks, gloves, gowns, aprons, face shields and respirators remain unbroken.
A successful multilateral response requires a “whole-of-government,” “whole-of-society” and evidence-based public health approach. Mitigation works best when countries share expertise and scientific knowledge about threats to health, to climate, to populations and to peace and security.
Social inequalities imperil public health
The Commission on the Social Determinants of Health established by WHO in 2005 elaborated on the disastrous effects of social inequalities on people’s health. The intersections of physical, mental and social health, healing and wholeness are abundantly clear.
The commission’s 2008 final report stated: “The social determinants of health are the conditions in which people are born, grow, live, work and age. These circumstances are shaped by the distribution of money, power and resources at global, national and local levels. The social determinants of health are mostly responsible for health inequities — the unfair and avoidable differences in health status seen within and between countries.”
The U.N. commemorates its 75th anniversary this year. It is an auspicious time to reaffirm support for its mandates, especially the securing of health for all peoples and the planet. A healthy population makes for a healthy planet.
Nongovernmental organizations, including faith-based organizations like our United Methodist representations at the U.N., are in a kairos moment to help achieve the U.N.’s mandates.
COVID-19 may have been virulent and will forever change the rules of social etiquette and socialization. But the novel coronavirus has done what multilateral negotiations have not done — pause globalization and its unbridled pursuit of profit and capital.
When the world reopens from the ravages of the virus, we have a momentous task not to return to, but to transform, global and local arrangements to protect humanity and the planet, at least from the ravages of pandemics and social inequalities.
It comforts me that not all contagions are deadly. Some are beneficial. Love and kindness are. So are hospitality, mercy and justice.
Bautista is assistant general secretary for United Nations and International Affairs of the United Methodist Board of Church and Society. He also serves as president of the Conference of Non-Governmental Organizations in Consultative Relationship with the United Nations.
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