By Vatican News
While the pandemic “has skimmed off everything that is not essential” in the world’s richest countries, in others it risks becoming the trigger for a very serious crisis, especially in places where the coronavirus’ problems only add to others like hunger, war and instability. In a paired interview, two experts of the Vatican’s Covid-19 Commission – Maryann Cusimano Love (The Catholic University of America) and Dan Plesch (director of the “Centre for International Studies & Diplomacy at SOAS”) – explore various scenarios created by the coronavirus in areas where social inequalities are further exacerbated, and call for a global ceasefire as invoked by Pope Francis and UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.
Q: You are part of the Vatican COVID 19 Commission, Pope Francis’s response mechanism to an unprecedented virus. What do you personally hope to learn from this experience? In what way do you think the Commission’s work can inspire society as a whole?
Cusimano Love – Global problems require global cooperation. We have more people on the planet than ever before in human history. So we must create better ways of cooperating than ever before to meet crises like this pandemic. Pope Francis’s Covid-19 commission is a model of global cooperation at a time when many in the world are going in the opposite direction, closing borders, not being inclusive or not prioritizing the needs of the most vulnerable.
Plesch – It’s a huge honour and a privilege to be part of Pope Francis’s commission looking at the responses, the security responses to the terrible developing dangers coming from Covid-19. The work of the commission has been immensely informative to me personally. I’ve learnt a great deal from the wisdom and compassion and practical ideas of my fellow commissioners. And I think one of the key lessons that we have to communicate is that the virus is making worse many existing threats to our safety.
Q: Pope Francis asked the COVID 19 Commission to prepare the future instead of prepare for it. What should be the Catholic Church’s role as an institution in this endeavour?
Cusimano Love – Pope Francis warned us that this economy kills and the pandemic showed this to be true. We cannot go back to the old ways of doing business. For example, we can stop investing over a trillion dollars in new nuclear weapons when money is urgently needed for food and health.
Plesch – The church’s role in helping shape and develop the future has always been extremely important, but the combination of threats that we had before from environment, from greed, from poverty, from World War, from weapons – all of these are coming together in a perfect storm that we have to help prepare humanity to survive.
Q: What personal lessons (if any) have you derived from the experience of the pandemic? What concrete changes do you hope to see after this crisis both personally and globally?
Cusimano Love – The pandemic has shorn away non-essentials and forced us to focus on what really matters. With my children schooling at home while I’m teleworking at home and caring for elders, we spend more time in family and in nature. Nature has rebounded in the pandemic showing us it’s never too late to do the right thing. Our economies and our workplaces can and must promote healthier, richer relationships with each other and the earth.
Plesch – The changes we need to see of course are huge and pre-existing, but the priority, I personally think that we have to ask our governments, our communities, our churches and our colleagues in other spiritual communities simply to stop making weapons, the drive to war – 2 trillion dollars a year being spent around the world on weapons -is already great. And we can see violence in the home and violence in communities and violence between governments already increasing.
Q: The coronavirus crisis has brought not only individual but also national selfish attitudes. This type of nationalism sparks dangerous feelings of anger towards others, even if they too have a nationalist bent. History is unfortunately full of such examples that have led to conflicts. Does this risk exist today?
Cusimano Love – You can’t build peace on an empty stomach. The pandemic has disrupted global food supplies, and it’s caused an economic depression making food too expensive for millions, further endangering the world’s most vulnerable people including refugees and displaced people. Previous global recessions caused food riots. To avert that this time around food assistance must be given across conflict lines to reduce the chances for violence. Glaring inequalities, worsen grievance and violence.
Plesch – The explosion impact of the virus has happened, but we have yet to see the tsunami of social impact and helping prepare for that by reducing weapons and looking for other means of security is essential.
Q: Regarding those who today suffer from hunger: how willing are they to fight for access to healthcare? In various African countries, people say they prefer Covid to hunger. Could the combination of the two, pandemic and hunger, be a dangerous spark?
Cusimano Love – Disease can cause war and conflict. Research shows that countries caught in the conflict trap, cycles of war and conflict and revenge need economic growth to break out of these cycles of violence. But instead the pandemic has done the opposite. It’s tanked the global economy. For conflict countries who depend on oil income, like Nigeria, Iraq and others, these countries now with no budget to build peace among warring groups, to implement the peace accords in Colombia, or buy back guns, or offer jobs to armed actors. Peace doesn’t occur magically. It’s built over time by patient effort. But the pandemic disrupts peace building resources and efforts. It has increased violent nationalist and extremist movements as Covid disinformation and conspiracy theories targets kids scapegoats.
Plesch – The interaction, of course, the interaction of hunger and the virus and poverty mean that more people are going to be fighting for survival, fighting for the bare necessities of life. And the tragedy is that the wealthy have more than enough resources to provide what everybody needs. It is beyond obscene that a tiny proportion of the world’s population control so much of the wealth and hold on to, it while many are in peril of their lives for themselves and their families.
Q: Pope Francis and Antonio Guterres, the Secretary-General of the UN, have launched a ceasefire appeal wherever there are conflicts in the world, in order to foster the fight against the coronavirus. Why have these appeals not been heeded?
Cusimano Love – As the United Nations meets in New York in September, the UN secretary-general and Pope Francis are renewing calls for a global ceasefire so communities can focus their efforts on fighting the pandemic, not each other. There’s been too little attention, public awareness and government leadership on the ceasefire. The upcoming 75th anniversary of the UN is a great opportunity to draw more attention and commitment to the call for a pandemic ceasefire. Peace has been breaking out around the world in recent decades. With declines in major wars and peace accords in places like Ireland, Colombia and the Philippines. But these peace processes are fragile and many countries remain trapped in cycles of war, poverty and instability, such as Iraq, Sudan the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria. Pandemic responses must be conflict sensitive ensuring that vaccines, medicine, food aid and assistance begin across conflict lines in ways that build community, social cohesion, trust and peace
Plesch – The challenge of a ceasefire is one that I think will be responded to. The Holy Father and the UN Secretary-General have led the way in this. We have to make the call louder and louder and as the social impact of the virus unfolds over the years, I think the demand to move away from conflict will become more and more effective.
Q: Several times, even well before the pandemic, Pope Francis has often spoken of a “third world war fought piecemeal”. So, in your opinion, should we fear another worldwide conflict provoked by an invisible virus, or has one already effectively begun that we should be dedicating ourselves to extinguishing?
Cusimano Love – The Catholic Church can help us imagine and build a better world coming out of this pandemic: one in which we are more connected, more caring, in better relationship with each other. As scripture says, “See, I’m doing something new in you. Can you not see it?” The Catholic Church is not a national church. We work across borders in every country. We work with very long timelines to go beyond the next headliner election, and we are the world’s largest private provider of healthcare. Thus, we are all one human family. But too often we act like a dysfunctional family. Against a rising tide of nationalism and extremism, the Church imagines and prepares a future based on a wider view of our connections as one human family.
Plesch – Now, the threats of a third world war: we see people dying all the time from the use of weapons, war planes on villages, small arms, landmines, rifles, but overall of that is the ultimate “Sword of Damocles” the nuclear threat and I think if there’s one thing we’ve learnt is that there are no group of wise people who will emerge in crises to help solve it. We’ve seen it in country after country: our leaders are flawed, the lies they tell are great and the consequences for all of us if this moves into the dimension of major war with armies, navies and air forces and nuclear weapons – that risk cannot be overestimated. It is a very real one and I hope in working with the commission we can do our bit to keep us safe and secure for the future because these conflicts are unnecessary and obscure the tremendous opportunities for the beneficial integrated development of humanity.