Winston P. Nagan, Professor at the University of Florida, United States, member of the World Academy of Art and Science Board of Trustees
Samantha R. Manausa, Junior Fellow at the Institute for Human Rights, Peace & Development at the University of Florida, Levin College of Law, United States
The COVID-19 virus has exposed the cracks, flaws, and vulnerabilities within every facet and on every level of global society. Forming the political background of these issues is our state-centered global political system. In the age of COVID-19, a threat which cannot be confined to any sovereign borders, it has become clear that our system of global governance grounded in sovereign absolutism has outgrown its usefulness. After the Second World War, the United Nations (UN) was established, and its Charter served as the first real constitutional system for global governance. Yet, as the UN system has evolved, the power of the Charter as a binding juridical instrument of global governance has eroded. Thus even before humanity was struck by a global pandemic, the UN system had been unable to adequately manage the salient global issues of our time. We are called to action by the challenge of amending our current system of global governance, especially through the UN system, so that it gives more power to we the people, the constituency of global civil society, by placing limitations on sovereign absolutism. This will require cultural changes within the vast individuals and groups that make up global civil society as much as it will require us to improve the efficacy of the UN system and enhance the juridical capacity of the UN Charter.
The current crisis has brought to the forefront of public consciousness two major flaws in our global system: on a global level, there exists rampant inequality bolstered by a high risk and low resilience economy; and our home planet continues to be plagued by global warming and climate change, in spite of UN efforts towards a “greener” and more sustainable economy. Within the general problem of economic, social, and political inequality, the rapid spread of the virus makes clear the danger of politicizing healthcare rather than recognizing that access to it must be treated as a human right. Just as COVID-19 ignores sovereign borders, it strikes the insured and uninsured indiscriminately, and those whose access to healthcare is restricted often experience more serious, or even lethal, consequences of contracting the virus. It is clear that corporate-run healthcare systems such as that of the United States can quickly endanger the lives of the citizens it is supposed to serve during a time of crisis.
The spread of COVID-19 also highlights an under-considered consequence of modern civilization’s relationship with the natural domain of planet Earth; the mass slaughter and inhumane exploitation of animal life on the planet produces environments within which zoological diseases, such as COVID-19, can be transmitted from animals to humans. As such, global civil society must strive to practice more humane and sustainable animal practices. At the industrial level, corporate leaders must make serious steps toward production and distribution methods grounded in genuine accountability and social responsibility. The same unmitigated greed that drives corporate-run healthcare systems is the same motivating energy that leads to industrial-level air pollution and environmental degradation. It is pertinent that human co-existence with the world become sustainable.
On the level of global leadership, the virus forces us to revisit the structure and the organization of the UN itself. Although the Charter depends on its global constituency (we the people), national delegates to the UN are nominated and appointed by sovereign states. Thus it may be useful for the UN to consider whether a portion of its delegates should be directly elected by the citizens of those states; this may enhance the participation of individuals within global civil society in global constitutionalism. The UN Security Council also requires some reconsideration; its structure and functioning directly contributes the weakening power of the UN system. The Council provides five permanent members with veto power, allowing for the possibility that a single sovereign can halt the progress of the UN. Thus the UN may consider requiring that several members of the Council be in agreement before a veto can be used, or perhaps the number of permanent members on the Council should be increased.
Ultimately, the virus has made clear the urgency of the global project to curb sovereign absolutism and find innovative, sustainable, and human rights-oriented solutions to the salient problems of our time, those which have now been brought into greater focus because of our current crisis. This will require a cultural, values-based shift within global civil society; it is the responsibility of every individual member comprising we the people to forge onwards towards a more equitable and eco-friendly future. And yet we must also reimagine the structure and function of our global system of governance and constitutionalism, especially through the apparatus of the United Nations. As it stands, our state-centered global system of governance has proven to be an “pre-existing condition” that has only intensified the deadliness of the virus, rather that protecting global civil society from it.