[This article has been written for the Round Table website. Opinions expressed in articles do not reflect the editorial position of the Round Table Board.]
When written in Chinese, the word crisis contains two elements – one ‘danger’, and the other ‘opportunity’. One might ponder how the current Covid-19 pandemic crisis might impact on the Commonwealth – threats but also opportunities?
This may seem an unfair question as clearly this is a worldwide crisis, and the virus is no respecter of any borders, let alone Commonwealth ones, though clearly being one of the 25 small island members helps.
Perhaps the only global player with a voice, inevitably, has been the World Health Organisation, with noise from both China and the USA. Certainly, the Commonwealth as such appears to have had relatively little to say so far, even allowing for its virtual meeting of health ministers, sharing health-related ideas, and its raft of planned co-operation and initiatives. The exception is, perhaps, New Zealand, about which more later.
Nevertheless, our world is changing, and it is surely right to ask how the new frame – AD, After the Disease, as opposed to BC, Before Corona – might look for the Commonwealth, as it struggles to find its place in the 21st century.
Four aspects are worth discussing. First is the central notion of globalisation, which could now stall or even retreat. Anthony Giddens once listed 57 definitions of globalisation, but certainly internationalism, trade, communication, and interdependence are key aspects.
These are also key elements in the Commonwealth glue, alongside, mostly, common language, laws and, above all, liberal norms and values, shaking free from the vestiges of Empire and colonialism.
Covid, though a pandemic, so by definition global, has surprisingly been provoking singular and quite profound nationalistic responses. It is true that our global technology has allowed us to share information, ideas, research, strategies and polemic, daily, hourly even.
Yet our responses and debates have been peculiarly state-bound, wrapped in national league tables, national leadership, national health services, testing or equipment comparison. Should we have learnt from the East? Who is doing better? Who outbid whom for masks? Who is having a good crisis?
Moreover, new mantras are now being touted by politicians: ‘building state resilience’, ‘growing local’, ‘securing self-sufficiency’, ‘trading regional’ – as countries worry about dependency again in any future, and perhaps inevitable, pandemic.
Such nationalistic sentiments may also be propelled by a backlash against China as a perceived reckless source of the virus, but also concerns about its trading pre-eminence, as Australia and the US are already sounding out. Reviving local manufacturing might also offer hope to the so-called working-class Left Behinders who seem to have fuelled right-wing populist movements in the UK and many other countries.
Secondly the Commonwealth, if it has a clear distinction as a global club, must surely emphasize its democratic credentials and values. This is not the place to discuss exceptionalities tolerated in realpolitik. But what has been emerging in recent weeks – including in so many Commonwealth members – has been clear violations of human rights and democratic values, apparently in the name of defeating the viral enemy.
Nothing as bad as in the Philippines, Brazil, Azerbaijan, or Russia, but widespread curbs on dissent, on media freedom, migrant rights, minority and gender rights, labour rights, suspension of human rights laws, are apparent across the Commonwealth.
Women garment workers oppressed in Bangladesh; police brutality in Fiji; corruption in anti-poverty programmes in Nigeria; opposition voices stilled in Ghana; and civic space in India being curtailed in practice with arrests and centralised controls.
Much of this is well documented in the regular briefings of the admirable Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative – and yet it has provoked barely any response from senior Commonwealth sources, or indeed from the Chair in Office, who happens to be the UK’s Prime Minister.
All this comes as the Commonwealth itself has chosen to chart a controversial and sticky passageway via Kigali in Rwanda, host of the next Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. Colombo in 2016 proved divisive; this is not going to be a picnic either.
Linked to this, thirdly, are the special problems that Covid-19 social distancing presents to running democratic elections and procedures. For a number of Commonwealth members, elections can be moments of crisis, when procedures are challenged and results bitterly disputed. One need only recall recent elections in Nigeria, or Kenya, or Fiji, or Bangladesh, or Sri Lanka even.
Legitimate democratic rule should flow from free and fair elections. Some may opt to follow the UK in deferring elections, others may choose if possible to switch to online voting, or introduce sufficient safeguards, sanitisers, masks, and gloves. However, the often essential, external and independent, observer monitoring must still remain a distinct challenge. Malawi is one country that is determined to continue with next month’s election – in current circumstances giving a dividend to incumbency.
Finally, we may wonder how the inevitable and extended worldwide economic recession will hit the Commonwealth. In recent years, much has been made of a so-called Commonwealth trading dividend – sometimes estimated at 19 per cent from shared commonalities. Yet with UK demand, a key engine for such a dividend, facing a massive increase in national debt, maybe 15 %, and GDP set to fall some 10 per cent this year, this is bound to suffer.
India, Canada, Australia, three of the other ‘engines’, are also suffering, and global tourism, the lifeblood of so many smaller Island members, is devastated. Bankruptcy, mass unemployment, poverty, could be on the horizon, with richer Commonwealth members crippled just when they are being called out for extra aid and support.
These are all significant challenges which the Commonwealth leadership cannot ignore. Never waste a good crisis, runs the famous adage. It means that leaders need to convene, think big and outside the box. It is a chance to refresh and reinvent the Commonwealth’s deeper solidarity as only globally can such challenges be confronted.
Of course there are opportunities, maybe silver linings, too. The steady and sensible leadership shown in New Zealand by Jacinda Ardern is an exemplar – perhaps a prospect for future Commonwealth leadership. There are many positive signs from the massive anti-poverty social spending authorized by President Cyril Ramaphosa in South Africa, even to the Seychelles banning corporal punishment in homes to safeguard children during lockdown.
Many also believe and hope that the global lockdown has raised international awareness of the impact of global warning and will refresh our commitment to deal with climate change. That suggests that as a global community we have come together.
Alas this simply does not seem to be the case. Can senior Commonwealth leaders from an influential lead group help here? It would certainly be most welcome globally, not least to the smaller member countries who may face climate extinction. Let us hope.
Paul Flather is a member of the Round Table Editorial Board and Chair of the Web Advisory Group.