We are in a moment of existential consequence. Even before COVID-19 shifted our realities, 2020 was already going to be a monumental year — the beginning of the 10-year countdown for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the start of what science tells us is our last best decade for averting climate catastrophe, the year of a seismically significant election in the United States, and a year of churning politics and polarities across much of the world in this 75th birthday year of the United Nations.
This was a year when every sign was already pointing to our profound interdependence and our need for solutions that tap each other’s greatest talents and strengths across communities and countries, even as fear, distrust, and vitriol threaten to drive us apart.
Then came COVID-19 — a particle all of 125 nanometers that brought the world to its knees and put all of us to a fundamental test: will we fall prey to our worst instincts, or are we prepared to come together against a common enemy and embrace a shared future?
Global cooperation is being put to the test
This is the test of our times, and it is a test we must urgently pass. It is also a test we have passed before.
When the United Nations was created from the ashes of the Second World War 75 years ago, it was in many respects a far worse time. Almost 3% of the world’s population had perished — nearly 80 million people. We had reason to coin a new word — “genocide” — to describe new depths of human cruelty. Half the world lived on less than a dollar a day, much of the world was colonized, fewer than half of all adults on the planet could read and write, and nearly a quarter of children died before the age of 5.
That was the context when nations — with the U.S. in the lead — came together and chose cooperation over conflict, building a network of institutions to tackle the most pressing problems and deliver critical global public goods to benefit all humanity, and an infrastructure for cooperation that might allow our better instincts to prevail.
That multilateral system — with the UN at its heart — has lasted ever since and helped deliver incredible gains over the decades. It has supported the path to peaceful independence for dozens of countries, helped define and strengthen human rights standards, eradicated smallpox and reduced the suffering of millions from other diseases, closed the ozone hole, underpinned decades of economic growth, banned landmines, and established global rules and standards for air safety, international shipping, internet domain names, even mail.
Today, that system of cooperation, indeed our sheer potential to cooperate with each other, is being put to the most severe test in our lifetimes, just as we need it the most.
Consider the future as it fans out before us.
No country can defeat COVID-19 alone
It is a simple undeniable fact that no country can defeat COVID-19 alone. We need the thousands of scientists and clinicians working across dozens of countries to discover a vaccine, we need public health systems to work everywhere in order to defeat COVID-19 anywhere, we need the World Health Organization (WHO) to coordinate the global response, and we need the world’s economies to join forces in recovery so that the cure is not worse than the disease.
We must be equally united in striving to protect hard-won progress in other areas hit by the pandemic. Up to 80 million children are again vulnerable to measles, polio, and other preventable diseases because routine immunization programs have been halted, 1.6 billion students are out of school, domestic abuse against women has risen, hunger is on the upswing, and over 70 million people risk falling back into poverty amid the deepest global downturn since the Great Depression.
And we must be no less unified or resolute in confronting the toughest issues on our horizon, from the fight for racial equality to the imperative of harnessing technology for good to the climate emergency that will make COVID-19 look like child’s play.
The stakes are even higher when we think about the possibilities of this still-young century. Just a generation ago, a billion more people lived in extreme poverty than today. Just five years ago, world leaders adopted the SDGs — the set of 17 goals they pledged to achieve by 2030 to create a better world for people and planet. Just last week, Africa was declared free of the wild poliovirus. Each of those gains has required global cooperation, and with renewed collective determination, the possibilities for human advance are staggering.
NEW FORMS OF LEADERSHIP
But even as we renew our faith in global cooperation, we will need to reinvent it for our new, fast-moving, and interconnected era. Here, even amid turbulence, we see hopeful signs.
We see new forms of leadership, like the growing cohort of business leaders who are doubling down on climate action and sustainable business practices because they know that it is the economy of the future, or the governors and mayors who are working to leverage their collective influence, as in the case of the U.S. Climate Alliance of bipartisan state governors committed to the Paris Agreement, which now encompasses more than half of the country’s population and more than half of its economy.
We see new forms of power, like the youth activists around the world mobilizing to hold older generations to account, and popular social movements that have brought millions into the streets worldwide in a common struggle against racial inequality and discrimination.
We see new ideas and solutions, from the Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator that is working to make equitable access to safe vaccines and treatments a reality for all, to our own experience with the COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund, which has shown us a powerful other side to the pandemic. Through the Fund, over 568,000 people and organizations from more than 190 countries and across all sectors have come together to provide the single greatest source of financial support for WHO’s efforts to combat COVID-19. From people giving just a dollar to multinational corporations giving $10 million, their solidarity has helped WHO rebuild supply chains, deliver vital equipment where it is needed most, coordinate trials for treatments and vaccines, and ensure that countries with the weakest health systems can cope.
This is a glimmer of what solidarity looks like at scale and in ways we could never have conceived, and it should inspire us to bring similar determination to a whole host of other shared challenges. After all, the climate emergency, systemic racism, extreme poverty, and inequality should unify us no less than this virus.
The SDGs even give us a road map. Why wouldn’t we make girls and women equal, inside of the 99.5 years experts tell us we will have to wait? Why wouldn’t we eradicate more diseases starting with COVID-19? Why wouldn’t we consign racism decisively to the past? Why would we be tempted by beggar-thy-neighbor politics when we can be brave enough to move forward further and faster together? Why wouldn’t we act to save our one and only planet for our children?
Looking ahead to UNGA75
When world leaders “gather” for the first virtual opening of the UN General Assembly, their agenda will span the critical issues of our day, from defeating COVID-19, to recovering our economies, renewing our democracies, and raising ambition to tackle climate change and accelerate the SDGs.
For all the power of new forms of leadership, we must also continue to demand that world leaders actually lead. That is their job. There is no substitute for it, especially from those who lead the world’s most powerful countries. Even if national leadership alone is no longer sufficient, Stan Lee had it right — with great power comes great responsibility, and we need leaders to exercise it.
That’s what the UN’s founders did in 1945. They were battered by war and sobered by deprivation, and they didn’t share every value. But they did understand that their peoples all had more to gain from cooperation than conflict, and that they needed institutions to give practical effect to that conviction.
Today we are in a crisis different, but no less deep, than the world faced in 1945, and we confront a similar test. Even if our own traumas deepen before they lift, can we show the foresight that the founders of the UN did 75 years ago to anticipate our deepest interests? Will we summon the imagination to invent and envision new ways of working together? And will we have the courage to reach out across borders to build partnerships and coalitions that will be resilient in the face of future challenges?
COVID-19 has set us the test of our lifetime. Our only choice is to pass that test.