Archive | March, 2020

Denial Land: Resisting the Allure of the Normal, Dr. Robert Zuber

29 Mar


Life went back to normal after that, as it will do if you’re not careful. Michael Montoure

Everything was perfectly healthy and normal here in Denial Land. Jim Butcher

Maybe everyone should talk to themselves. Maybe we’re all just afraid of what we’d say. Katie Kacvinsky

People have gotten used to living a botched-up life. Jaggi Vasudev

All of us prayed for normal. But so far, normal only meant more misery. Katie McGarry

Normal is the recession of our hopes and dreams. Natalie Gibson

Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got ‘till it’s gone. Joni Mitchell

Sitting in my little room with my little red computer, I had a conversation recently with my longtime friend and downstairs (NY) neighbor about the need to use some of this “viral time” to think about the world that will emerge at some point or other, a time to prepare for decisions we have to make about the priorities of our institutions, the health of our agriculture and oceans, the transparency of our politics, the strength of our multilateral arrangements.

As I concluded my not-so-enlightened rant, she interrupted me with a reminder: that the reform of our politics and economics is largely predicated on the type of people we want to be, the inner reform that (as we at Global Action have actually maintained for some time) must accompany structural reform; structures that can otherwise offer only promises of relief from the burdens of misery and danger that so many in our world experience, the “recession” of the hopes and dreams that so many of us have simply forgotten how to realize.

This inner reform constitutes the basis for the talks that we need to have with ourselves about ourselves.

And we need to have them as a matter of urgency.   Five years ago the UN settled on a set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as part of a 15 year commitment to create a world that was cleaner, healthier, fairer and less violent. Joining those many who cheered adoption of the goals and targets, we lamented only that there was so little in the agenda that was focused on ourselves, the erstwhile captains of the boats that we keep steering treacherously close to the rocks despite our lofty intentions to do otherwise.

Five years in, many of the SDGs are lagging significantly behind their promises. We have given precious more than lip service to ending food security, gender balancing our institutions, providing universal health care access, and fulfilling other core commitments.   We have continued to expend vast fortunes on military hardware, some of which ends up actively fomenting misery, fear, displacement and instability on virtually all continents. We have economies that have stretched the inequalities they could otherwise have narrowed, offering more and more to fewer and fewer, and draining funds for a wide range of essential public services in too many global societies. We have undermined inclusiveness in social and political life and used technology to compromise elections rather than ensure their integrity.

And this was all happening before the COVID-19 onslaught, the immediacy of which has positioned the full implementation of our various SDG commitments even further in the distance. Adding to the trillions we have spent on military hardware and tax breaks for the wealthy, we now must spend trillions more propping up economies whose vulnerabilities have been laid bare, with little left over to effectively tackle the problems that had already brought us to a collective tipping point.

Moreover, due to the spread of COVID-19, we can no longer gather in public places to demand better of our institutions, including relatively straightforward matters such as ensuring broader access to clean water for drinking and hand-washing, or a decent education for our children.   The hopes and dreams of many millions are clearly in “recession” as rarely before and it will take more – much more – than an “all clear” signal on the pandemic from our governments for us locate the track we should have been on in the first place.

If indeed we are to board the right train going forward, we will need more implementing wisdom from our now-stretched institutions, of course, but also more from ourselves. As frightening as the current pandemic can be, the greatest test of our mettle (not to mention our collective sanity) might well come at the end of this threat, when we must decide whether to truly “leave no-one behind,” or return to the faux-comforts of “normalcy” – the resurgence of old habits — some of which are related to faith, family and community, but also those related to economic predation and pollution, of political and climate instability, of xenophobia and discrimination, of armed conflict and the evermore sophisticated weaponry with which it is waged.

We know that, especially in the West, “normal” is one of those things against which we are “privileged” to rebel until we know longer have the things that normally fill up our zones of comfort. And as we sit in our places of quarantine struggling harder than usual (for us) to procure some of what we have become “accustomed to”, unable to socialize, or find toilet paper, or even to offer a hug, the allure of the “normal” is rearing its head once again. People ask “when can we get back” to that time when we now imagine that, for us at least, everything seemed to be just dandy; how can we reincarnate that selective memory of ourselves being more or less happy and content, a time when we could walk freely in our parks, sample copious amounts of restaurant food,  and expect reasonable levels of attentiveness from our doctors and grocery clerks, some of the very people whose lives are now literally on the line for the sake of the rest of us?

In this current, romantic longing  for a return to normalcy, we’ve forgotten how much we’ve accommodated often “botched up” lives; indeed how the choices we’ve made in the name of “normal” have created ripples of misery for others – those close at hand and others far away — that we have resolutely refused to acknowledge. Most of us don’t have the skill to rescue desperately sick virus victims or enjoy access to government officials with the power to free prisoners incarcerated for political reasons and now terrified of a viral death sentence. But we can begin that conversation with ourselves about what we truly care about, the deeper values often buried under superficial habits and self-delusional memories, and to consider seriously how we are able and willing to contribute to a more sustainable world once this current threat abates.

A primary attribute of “Denial Land” is the belief that “normal” was better than it actually was, that it is something to which we should now aspire rather than something to scrutinize and revise.  The suffering that we have too-often accommodated or explained away does not need to dominate our post-COVID reality. The decision about what that reality will look like lies largely with us, based in good measure on the conversations that we are now willing to have with ourselves.

Reflecting on the Corona Virus in South Africa: Time for Critical Introspection, Dr. Hussein Solomon

27 Mar

Editor’s Note:  Hussein Solomon is one of the most thoughtful and productive interpreters of contemporary affairs to whom we have access.  As he reflects on the lockdown imposed in his home country, the value of his reflections speaks for itself. 

I write this as South Africa enters the first day of a 21-day lockdown period. With South Africa surpassing more than 1000 infections and recording its first deaths from the COVID-19 virus, now is a time for critical introspection. The crisis has laid bare the challenges we ignored or papered over for much too long – specifically as they relate to governance.

For much too long, our porous borders drew too little attention. Yes, Pretoria knew that millions of migrants streamed across these non-existent frontiers and we ignored it. We knew organized crime syndicates trafficked people, drugs and other contraband across these frontiers and we ignored it. As I watched spell-bound as my government, like many other governments, cancelled flights from landing and cruise ships from disembarking in the light of the global pandemic, I hoped that we as South Africans could once again exert control over our almost 10,000 kilometers of land borders.

For much too long, we knew that our health system was faltering. Despite these failings we have sought to bring about grandiose plans like a National Health Insurance system knowing full well that we were building castles on quick sand. The economic costs were unsustainable and the idea of an inept state controlling such a complex process was apparent to all except the state apparatchiks with their misinformed ideological zeal. Health professionals, meanwhile, were voting with their feet and sought emigration, rather than confront the looming calamity. The shortage of masks to nurses in hospitals as a result of COVID-19 has made these failures all too apparent. This, being perhaps the most visible manifestation of the crisis in this early stage of infections. As the country emerges from this crisis, however, we need to seriously re-examine our health system, how we prioritize our available funds and overcome the various inefficiencies.

For too long, South Africa ignored the crisis emanating from our dysfunctional, inefficient and dangerous public transport system. On this first day of the national lockdown, health care workers had difficulty traveling to work. Mini-bus taxi drivers, meanwhile, flouted government regulations on how many passengers they could transport in a single vehicle.

This flouting of laws has indeed become a national characteristic of South Africans. Whilst complaining about rampant criminality, ordinary South Africans are criminal in their negligence of or deliberately violating the laws of the land – from routine traffic violations to students engaging in violence on the country’s universities to striking workers destroying property. On the first day of the lockdown, several South Africans ignored government warnings to stay home. Such behaviour is not only selfish but constitutes a danger to all South Africans. This is particularly salient in light of the many South Africans who have compromised immunity systems as a result of being HIV positive and/or having tuberculosis. Commentators have noted how countries with law-abiding populations tend to substantially slow down the spread of the virus. This selfish behaviour and more general lawlessness on the part of all South Africans has to end.

Whilst government has deployed police and the defence forces, it is increasingly obvious that these forces are spread too thin. Given the need for public order and the inability of South Africans to practice self-discipline, what the country needs is a gendarmerie on the French model to assist the police.

One hopes that the current pandemic allows South Africans to engage in some critical self-reflections.

Spring Forward: A Season for Beauty and Bravery, Dr. Robert Zuber

22 Mar


Listen, behind the factory noises of your panic. The birds are singing again, The sky is clearing, Spring is coming.   Richard Hendrick

Then from those profound slumbers we awake in a dawn, not knowing who we are, being nobody, newly born, ready for anything, the brain emptied of that past which was life until then. Marcel Proust

When this ultimate crisis comes… when there is no way out – that is the very moment when we explode from within and the totally other emerges: the sudden surfacing of a strength, a security of unknown origin, welling up from beyond reason, rational expectation, and hope. Émile Durkheim

We are the missing ingredient in the solutions needed for all that ails us, if we but awaken to the nature of our own souls. Michael Meade

Emotional exhaustion follows fast on the footsteps of physical and mental depletion. Kilroy Oldster

Indescribable beauty is all around us. Showtimes will not be announced. Be on the lookout. Sama Akbar

Yet we only move through life through the process of change, reinvention and renewal, and so bravery is our quintessential rebel for pushing us past our own limiting beliefs and behaviors. Christine Evangelou

There is a cleansing from winter darkness the moment we sink our fingers into spring’s fresh earth. Toni Sorenson

A fair vision had welcomed him in this land of disease. J.R.R. Tolkien

Spring has come to the northern hemisphere, a time to cleans ourselves from winter’s darkness and prepare for the coming of flowers and longer daylight, the beauty that surrounds us always but that, in this particular season, even the most cynical and closed-off among us can hardly miss.

But this year many of us are looking beyond the blossoms and sunsets for other manifestations of cleansing, for some “fair vision” of what we might expect in a season of distancing and quarantine, how we can best help those on the front lines of supply and response, what we can do to preserve the sanity of ourselves and those family members we now see more often than we ever thought we might.

At the UN, we wait for some word that Security Council members grasp the broader peace and security dimensions of this threat, a virus that is already collapsing economies and will surely ravage those many thousands of displaced parents and children who have already lived more than enough trauma to last several lifetimes, a virus that is closing both borders and minds while opening opportunities for those who would exploit the current vulnerabilities for purposes of political or even military opportunism.

We also wait for some word that governments — which willfully disregarded health-related cautions and turned “prevention” into a cynical catch-phrase — can get us up to speed on response while resisting any and all authoritarian temptations.

And we wait to see what will emerge on the other side of what might be a longer season than many of us could have imagined, a season that will continue to exact a particularly heavy toll on those who keep our clinics and markets open and who can no longer rely on schools to keep their children safe and occupied while they do so.

Our failures, yet again, to heed the warnings of those entrusted with paying attention to worrisome trends and threats have created vulnerabilities beyond our grasp –now affecting broad swaths of the global population –with implications especially devastating for those homeless or otherwise displaced whose “viral burden” will simply be added to a long list of traumas that accrue from a life lived largely “in the elements.”

As a species, we seem to have trouble once again learning what we need to learn, tapping into the full resources of our souls, managing the emotional “exhaustion” which is a byproduct of too many frantic movements, desires and distractions, exhaustion which is ill suited to surviving the current restrictions that our own behavior has now rendered necessary. There is danger here that the “noise” enveloping our current levels of panic might keep us from one of the important tasks at hand — discerning how our lives just might have gone “off the rails” and how we might create a framework for more sustainable living once the metaphorical trains are up and running again.

There was an auto-repair commercial that ran a few years ago, the tag line for which was “you can pay me now, or pay me later.” In the most obvious sense, it was a call for drivers to change the oil and top off the fluids in their cars. But taken in a larger sense, it was a not-so-subtle reminder that being vigilant about “maintenance” reduces the burdens of expense down the line. If we care better for what we say we value – including each other – the costs associated with breakdown can be minimized.

What is true for automobiles is true for our politics and our economics, our climate and our supply chains, our health care systems and our food systems.   We can pay now with our compassion, inner-strength and vigilance or, as we are experiencing in the present, pay later with our social isolation and empty market shelves, our overwhelmed health care resources and the needless deaths that inevitably follow in its wake.

In writing this, I resisted the temptation to simply fill the pages with quotations from people smarter than I will ever be, persons who have often survived deprivations far greater than mine and have reflected well on the powers that we still have at hand and that will be gravely tested in these coming months. Perhaps I should have done so.   But the current context also requires some contemporary reflection on challenges and responsibilities: not only how we can get ventilators and toilet paper but how we can preserve what is left of our personal and collective sanity, sanity that will surely be a highly prized commodity as we “spring forward” into a period when most everything is likely to have changed — and which will require us to change along with it.

This “new dawn” is not, as some on our public airwaves are blithely suggesting, a return to our “normal lives,” but rather it is a call to display the “bravery” needed to firmly shift our “limiting beliefs and behaviors,” and to insist on leadership that can demonstrate the same.   There are, indeed, fairer visions afoot in this “land of disease,” but they will be visions largely of our own making – and our own sustaining. This is a test of our collective mettle that we would do well not to fail.

The “cleansing” associated with the coming of spring will take longer than a season this time around and will require more than merely running our hands through the now-thawed earth. May we at least recognize that, for as long as it takes and whether we like it or not, the “missing ingredient” in getting beyond our current predicament lies largely within ourselves.

Priority Mail: Delivering on Multiple Global Threats, Dr. Robert Zuber

15 Mar


A crisis is the sum of intuition and blind spots, a blend of facts noted and facts ignored. Michael Crichton 

Truth is always a turning point. Sheila Walsh

Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things which matter least. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

If we want to embrace life, we also have to embrace chaos. Susan Elizabeth Phillips

The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear. Antonio Gramsci

The real problem of humanity is the following: We have Paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions and godlike technology. Edward O. Wilson

The virus teaches us that security in the end is human security. Jan Eliasson

This is a week when the “embrace of chaos” took many forms, from people on the hunt for disinfectants and toilet paper to government officials ducking allegations of incompetence and reluctantly turning over control of COVID-19 response to medical professionals who actually know what they’re doing – even if much of the medical infrastructure needed to predict and prevent outbreaks has long been eviscerated.

Indeed, we are in a period where broad public confidence in our often–medieval institutions has taken a hit, as rumors are more readily available than truth, families struggle to reassure children whose lives have been upended through school closures and social distancing, and many millions who live paycheck to paycheck, if indeed they are fortunate enough to receive a paycheck, make gut-wrenching choices between attending to the threat of virus and providing a minimal sustenance for their families.

And as we now seek to “flatten the curve” on outbreaks, we know at some level that that there is more to come, more from this particular virus but also more from other viral threats lurking in our cities, in our melting ice, in our equatorial forests. At least in the US, we have yet to face the full force of social isolation, the degree to which “touching” has become both a social violation and a medical emergency, the distancing brought on by this virus that merely compounds that already solidified through our previous economic and political choices. And all of this is being reinforced by institutions that at times seem hell-bent on suppressing the expression of our better selves, institutions which act as though they have our confidence when they actually have little more than the wary resignation we now liberally bestow on all who are not in our own “tribe.”

There is something genuinely unsettling about the sight of people standing on two-hour lines just to get into supermarkets and then yanking virtually any cleaning agents or non-perishable foodstuffs off the shelves in a particularly frantic search for wipes and masks we collectively should have known we would need and which are now needed most by the various “first responders” who have to try to referee our newly-minted panic based on (in)decisions they had no hand in making. At the same time, a  Palestinian writer recently reminded western colleagues this week that the sight of empty shelves is a common one, not only in Gaza, but in many parts of the world where violence and displacement affect wider swaths of the population than this virus is likely to do, a reminder that this deprivation that rightly unsettles many in so-called developed countries is merely a taste of what many millions of families experience on a daily basis.

Indeed, one of the potential (if preventable) casualties of this current virus is a massive breakdown of what remains of our solidarity with the parts of the world (including in our own countries) where shelves are often bare, where health care and housing are always elusive, where children are perpetually in danger of a stolen childhood.

Like many institutions at present, the UN is flying at half-mast, trying to both protect staff from infection and find a way to keep our collective eye on issues that the virus might have made worse, but certainly didn’t make disappear. Families are still fleeing violence in Idlib and northern Yemen. Ice caps continue to melt into increasingly warming oceans. Migrants continue to face intimidation in multiple forms rather than welcome mats. Children are still being deprived of liberty or recruited into armed groups. So-called peace agreements continue to fail basic tenets of inclusiveness and transparency. Biodiversity remains under threat across the life spectrum. Governments and others continue to misuse resources, including their intentional mis-allocation, in ways that bolster some interests and devastate others.

But this virus is our preoccupation now, and not without reason. Indeed, it is almost shocking to hear conversations and broadcasts, about toilet paper to be sure but also about social policy, that do not in some fashion or other reference COVID-19.  And while we hold our collective breath in the US and await a peak in infections that is almost sure to come and which will likely be confirmed by even our barely-adequate testing regimes, there is plenty of incentive – driven in part by our stubbornly “paleolithic emotions” – to block out all but what we consider to be the most urgent of matters, allowing this virus to take up too much of our collective bandwidth, providing cover for our grabbing and hoarding, our suspicions and conspiracies, our distrust and indifference.

In this context, it was a bit comforting this week to see the UN take a longer if no less urgent view, one that focuses on remaking the institutions we need and don’t yet have, institutions that are able to both respond to crisis and, perhaps more importantly, anticipate crises yet to materialize.

During a debate on Wednesday on the “role and authority of the General Assembly” chaired by Ghana and Slovakia –this at a time when expectations of UN shutdown were rampant — delegates discussed ways to make the Assembly (the most representative of UN bodies) fit to address current and future threats in a manner that better integrates and energizes the priorities, energies, skills and initiatives of global constituents. A theme that resonated throughout the conference room was the importance of (as the European Union noted) setting sharper priorities for our work, eliminating the “noise” and “clutter” of the GA agenda such that it can become more than a “catch basin” of issues, more than a producer of resolutions that (as Costa Rica maintained) are often without clear implications for constituents.

At a moment in time consumed by a strange and unpredictable virus, it was refreshing to hear the UN vet its own limitations and “blind spots” in a manner that promised better communication, clearer priorities, greater policy effectiveness and (as the UK suggested) a firmer focus on “what is most relevant to others.” Mexico noted that “we know what we mean” in this chamber, but few beyond the chamber can decipher our methods and strategies aside perhaps from concluding that such methods are not yet up to the challenges and expectations that have long been mandated for this policy space.

In a moment when people are too often avoiding each other, strategizing around each other, grabbing from each other, it felt right to hear Malaysia challenge the Assembly to “get closer to the people.” The question now is how to get closer, how to engage people without “infecting” them, how to offer reassurance without subsequently engendering cynicism? Perhaps there is some policy version of the elbow greeting now used to maintain connection without handshakes! In any event, this is not the last of the health or other crises knocking at the door. We need institutions that can warn of what seem to be an ever-present laundry list of (mostly self-inflicted) dangers, but that can also demonstrate the will (with sufficient resources) to address threats (both on and off our collective radar) at their earliest possible stages, and that can facilitate the birth of structures and their policy prescriptions that we badly need but don’t yet  have.

We also need institutions that can encourage our better selves, the “selves” that enable community sing-alongs from otherwise isolated Italian balconies, or the sharing of health supplies with perfect strangers, or enduring the current “nightmare” of food shopping to make sure that the elderly and other vulnerable persons have what they need to survive the current threat, or advocating for prisoners and the homeless whose options for fending off sickness are limited at best.

If Wednesday’s discussion was any indication, the General Assembly seems determined to be one of those institutions, one of those that can predict more effectively, inspire attentive responses, set clearer priorities, and act with greater resolve alongside a wider range of skills and voices. We will help that process along in any way we can.

Identity Theft: Restoring Access and Dignity for Millions, Dr. Robert Zuber

8 Mar

Without dignity, identity is erased. Laura Hillenbrand
Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.  Oscar Wilde
Living a lie will reduce you to one.  Ashly Lorenzana
We experience ourselves our thoughts and feelings as something separate from the rest. A kind of optical delusion of consciousness. Albert Einstein
I find I am constantly being encouraged to pluck out some one aspect of myself and present this as the meaningful whole, eclipsing or denying the other parts of self. Audre Lorde
You are a thousand things, but everyone chooses to see the million things you are not. m.k.
One of the most interesting aspects of life inside UN headquarters these days is the diversity of conversations and events focused on what the Secretary-General has designated as the “Decade of Action” regarding fulfillment of our responsibilities to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).  This decade seeks to make clear that while the SDGs require us to “stop doing things” such as polluting our oceans and discriminating against migrants, it also requires us to raise the bar to ensure food security, promote the rule of law,, create decent employment opportunities and much more.
From alleviating the impacts of violence on children to the statisticians charged with monitoring progress on goals from gender to environment, the UN is indeed making a good faith effort — and must continue to demonstrate even more — to honor its unprecedented promises to bring sustainable dividends to those for whom such dividends in the past have largely been a mirage.
And yet, sitting through these UN discussions of varying levels of interest and passion, there are several trends that we frequently notice.  First, there tends to be more problem sharing than problem solving. This “Decade of Action” is admittedly still in its infancy but it has not yet sufficiently permeated the “culture” of UN conference rooms.  Parallel reforms to the UN’s resident coordinator system offer the promise of development that is more tailored to circumstance and better coordinated with national development priorities.  But at headquarters the talk is still much about the logistics of forthcoming meetings or policy guidance on actions still to be taken rather than on states inspiring other states to do more for those genuinely in danger of being left behind.
The second thing we notice is a failure to clearly articulate the ways in which parts of the UN system are still “in the way” when it comes to fulfilling our common SDG commitments.  The primary culprit here might well be the Security Council, whose half-successes on preventing and resolving conflict (see Iraq or Yemen) contribute to enormous pressure being place on UN agencies responsible for humanitarian and development assistance.  Of the looming threats in the world that have the potential to wipe away development progress and drive humanitarian need to the breaking point, the persistence of armed conflict and the trafficking and excess weapons production which provide its oxygen remain as major culprits.  Indeed it seems as though more sustained policy reflection is in order regarding the “drag” on sustainable development coming from within the system responsible for ensuring such development.
And finally we notice that so much of the policy discourse focused on SDGs comes from the mouths of persons, like myself, who surely live under threats from climate change, ocean degradation and weapons of mass destruction, but for whom the bulk of needs and access issues associated with SDG commitments do not directly apply.  Indeed, even a cursory review of the 2019 Sustainable Goals Report reveals this often gross disparity between those in danger of being left behind yet again and those, like me, who are virtually never left behind.
For instance, according to the UN report, food insecurity is on the rise in many global regions, yet my own food access is both abundant and stable.  Access to fresh water is under threat in many places, but the quality of New York City drinking water is virtually unmatched among major global cities.  There have seemingly been some significant health-related improvements in recent years — notably with regard to tuberculosis, HIV infection and under 5 mortality rates — but health care access for many millions, especially those homeless or displaced, bears little or no resemblance to the doctors to whom I have access and who find ways to keep this now-aching shell of a body intact. Millions of children lack access to schooling and adults to literacy training, but my own educational profile is unassailable.
One can go up and down the line, across all SDGs and indicators to reveal a truth that those who make development policy live in very different realities than those who seek development assistance; that we in the policy community inadvertently put on display some of the very inequalities we profess to address. This is, at least in my own context and surely for others as well, a manifestation of privilege largely undeserved, a function of skill that surely exists, but skill that has also found its points of access to opportunity and resources far beyond its portion.
One such “portion” especially caught our eye this past week during a side event hosted by the UN Statistical Commission focused on a manifestation of inequality that is largely off our collective radar but which creates uncertainties and threatens dignity at depths that most of us could scarcely contemplate — and that is the matter of identity.
Identity is something we think about often in “developed” societies, though not in the same way that its deficit implies for the quality of life of too many in our world.  In our islands of privilege, we tend to see identity largely in terms of access and attention.  On the one hand, we generally possess multiple indicators of identify — birth certificates, marriage licenses, school diplomas, drivers licenses, credit cards, passports, social security cards, home and business addresses.  On and on it goes, pieces of paper that allow us to board airplanes, cross borders, access loans and medical attention, keep our increasingly complex lives in order, and  lay the groundwork for the next levels of success and privilege.
On top of this abundance is our other identity-related obsession, the “identity” that helps us to build a brand, get noticed, make sure “people are watching” both in the sense of earned recognition and in the sense of attention more akin to celebrity than substance, attention that “eclipses” as much of the self as it reveals.  In such instances we are more likely to exercise those “muscles” of separation and distinction than of complementarity and respect. The enormous personal benefit of being identified in this world as a diplomat, teacher, designer, farmer, nurse or even an NGO, is both a manifestation of our professional success and a privilege tethered to our worldly status, in response to which we now tend too often to skew the balance between the “optical delusion” of personal pride and the larger truths of gratitude and service.
But beyond the bloated contents of our wallets and egos, let the reader reflect for a moment what it would be like to survive in a world of constant uncertainty or even displacement, without anything like a proper paper trail to help establish who you are, where you came from, who you are connected to, who (if anyone) is watching your back.  No birth records or credit cards, no forwarding addresses for your personal effects, no national documentation that might be recognized as such by another state’s officials, no way for others to “know” who you are aside from whatever words you are able to successfully exchange with strangers. And, to say the least, no equivalents of the  little “blue badges” that allow those of us privileged to have one to access UN Headquarters and its many material and identity benefits.
In the Christian tradition this is the season of Lent, a time to do more for others but also to stop doing things which cause harm to the dignity and well-being of others — all in recognition of the gifts that accrue from a sojourn of faith, gifts that we did not earn, could not earn, gifts that have been lavishly bestowed  but in response to which much is also expected. It would be especially appropriate in this season to recall the many contributions from those who have made us who we are, the unearned identity conferred on us which underpins our own dignity and which, in our view at least, should inspire a more humble and just response to the identity and dignity needs of others.
That we in our “advanced” societies and our policy bubbles are literally “saturated” with identity opportunities and resources in a world where millions literally have little or nothing to “show” for themselves is one of the more profound and cross-cutting aspects of global inequality.  During the aforementioned Statistical Commission side event, reference was made to the launch of the UN Legal Identity Agenda. As we contribute as we are able within and beyond this UN policy space to identifying and reducing poverty, food insecurity, employment discrimination and other global scourges, we pledge as well to devote a bit of extra energy to ending the identity deficits which place both service access and human dignity in perpetual danger.

Emergency Room: Seeking Fearless, Science-Based Responses to Global Threats, Dr. Robert Zuber

1 Mar


Don’t play the bus driver when you don’t know how to drive.  Anthony T. Hincks
With the technology at our disposal, the possibilities are unbounded. All we need to do is make sure we keep talking. Stephen Hawking
When pandemics unfold, it’s not just because peculiarly aggressive pathogens have exploited passively oblivious victims or because we’ve inadvertently provided them with ample transmission opportunities. It’s also because our deeply rooted, highly nuanced capacity for cooperative action failed. Sonia Shah
I’m sure the universe is full of intelligent life. It’s just been too intelligent to come here.  Arthur C. Clarke
Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.  Marie Curie
In the last analysis, we ourselves are a part of the mystery that we are trying to solve.  Max Planck
Way back in the last century, I worked as a hospital chaplain in a busy urban medical facility.  Part of my responsibility was being part of the team on call in the emergency room.  I wasn’t much help, as I recall.  I clearly “didn’t know how to drive” this bus that worked so fearlessly, urgently and collaboratively on behalf of patients suffering from heart attacks, gun shot wounds, substance overdoses, and a variety of other ills that routinely afflicted US urban populations in the 1980s.
But I did have a minor role to play in the other piece of emergency room life –the need to help “stabilize” the mood of patients and families whose anxiety levels were, quite appropriately, off the charts.  In this process, I learned about more and less legitimate forms of reassurance, the former consisting of reminders that the team in this hospital knew how to cope with emergencies, understood how to cope together, and thereby gave those now facing grave medical threats the best opportunity to regain health.  The latter, I also quickly learned, lay in a different direction — in pious proclamations about how everything would be OK, that it wasn’t that bad after all, that God would take care of the matter, that there was no need to worry because the people driving the medical bus actually had their drivers licenses…
No, many of these emergency room cases were true, life-threatening incidents, demanding the highest levels of competence from medical and support personnel and, eventually, also some soul-searching on the part of families and patients (assuming they survived) about the changes that needed to occur in their own lives such that hospital emergencies were less likely to recur.  Indeed, one of my vivid memories of that time was the discouragement etched on the faces of highly-skilled nurses and attending physicians who were exhausted from having to cope with the same conditions, over and over, including the fears of patients and families that, this time, recovery was unlikely.
There is a commercial widely played in the New York media for a hospital with a tag line reminiscent of the quotation above from Madame Curie: “more science, less fear.”  This linkage has wide applicability for the times we are living in, a time characterized by a cascading distrust of science and other “expertise,” a willingness to hitch our emotional wagons to any half-baked conspiracy theory that piques our interest, and even leadership at the highest levels ready to debunk or silence altogether the testimony of scientists in an effort to deflect public concern that they are not doing enough, are not serious enough, about fixing what we must and preventing what we can.
This leadership deficit sometimes extends as well to the rooms where we spend the bulk of our waking hours.
Despite some interesting and even hopeful events this week, including from the Committee on Development Policy and the Statistical Commission,  the  UN seemed bogged down in ways that we assume discourage diplomats but certainly frustrate both our small team and the thousands who regularly or episodically follow our reporting.  For instance, in the Disarmament Commission an entire session in preparation for important work on weapons and weapons systems was frittered away due to the failure of the US to grant a visa to the head of the Russian delegation.
But this was a relatively trivial matter compared to the Security Council where the presence of high-level officials from Germany and Belgium this week was insufficient to break deadlocks in policy that have consigned millions of Syrian families to decade-long, almost-inconceivable misery.  In two meetings this week — including an erstwhile “emergency” session on Friday — diplomats convened mostly to share now-familiar positions, examining the matter of crossing-points for humanitarian assistance for those damaged by a conflict we seem unable to otherwise resolve, and (rightly) dismissing the diplomatic effectiveness of the Astana process but without suggesting how we are now going to move forward on cease fire negotiations or address the growing military tensions now flaring up between Syrian and Turkish forces.
And while this was going on, the global headlines were dominated by another emergency that turned cities into ghost towns, quarantined many thousands, damaged supply chains, jeopardized the existence of travel companies, and caused many to resort to mask wearing and other measures that further distanced people from each other. Our coronavirus emergency also opened the door for “explanations” regarding the origins and consequences of the pandemic that are no more science-based than the tooth fairy.
The UN did, this week, circulate a document of “recommendations” for UN personnel, families and visitors.  Moreover, its World Health Organization continues to monitor and advise both on the coronavirus and on the more general threat from pandemics which are likely to remain in the headlines as melting ice releases long-dormant microbes and climate change wrecks havoc on organisms at all levels of the biological chain.  And there is now serious discussion about whether to change the format for the upcoming UN Commission on the Status of Women or to postpone it altogether.
But are such responses sufficiently reassuring? Is this pandemic not also morphing into a serious threat to international peace and security?  And thus is the UN in general, and the Security Council in particular, playing the role it needs to play in this crisis?  Does the Council itself (and Council watchers such as ourselves) have anything more to offer to those anxious about coronovirus than we now have to offer those Syrians fearing more indiscriminate bombing raids and the fresh displacement that often follows in its wake?
These are questions posed to us all the time by the still-growing audience for our writings and twitter posts. Many of these persons recognize that the spread of this current virus constitutes both a stern test of our current policy competence and of our general preparedness to address a new generation of global health threats. At stake here is our ability (and willingness) to move beyond fear and conspiracy; to embrace the science and demand the same of our leadership; to resist the temptations associated with flawed “explanations,” politically-biased communications and compromised capacity for cooperation, temptations that endanger our common survival much more than falling financial markets and quarantined cruise ships.
Our colleagues generally recognize that this is anything but the most reassuring time for the global community, our technological tools and achievements notwithstanding.  Clearly, there are many “mysteries” to address now, many challenges to investigate, resolve and overcome.  And a large slice of that “mystery” is really about us, about our capacity as a species (and the institutions we still rely on) to “drive the bus” towards a future of greater cooperation and competence, of greater commitment to unlocking the potential and participation of all, of greater focus on prevention and science-based responses, of greater interest in “understanding more so that we might fear less.”
This next period will surely determine whether fear gets the better of us or we of it; indeed whether the patient that is us survives or expires. With all that we have and all that we have left, let us choose life.