There has been a lot of talk within the U.S. about meeting COVID-19 on a “wartime footing”—but what would a peacebuilding footing mean? The spread of the virus is both revealing our interdependence, and exposing the divides among us. Our responses can either lead us toward greater polarization, or serve as steps toward addressing other pressing problems—like climate change, violent conflicts, and extreme inequality. Like a pandemic, these require international cooperation, and whole-of-society responses based in our common needs.
We see communities worldwide now connecting with common purpose, even amidst chaos, fear, and suffering. In Ethiopia, where Karuna Center has been leading initiatives to stop communal violence, we’re hearing that divisive rhetoric on social media between different political, ethnic, and religious groups has largely stopped while current attention turns toward the public health. In conflicts in the Philippines, Colombia, and Yemen, authorities report real progress toward pandemic-related ceasefires. In the United States, people are putting political differences aside to reach out to neighbors, elders, and vulnerable community members.
Ethiopian community leaders (pictured here at a February workshop) are now coordinating their peacebuilding efforts through virtual committees.
As we face this together, it will be critical to address the underlying societal conditions that are allowing this pandemic to be so devastating. We are beginning to see that the virus is spreading more easily, and is deadlier, where prior violence has paved its way. Recent conflicts have forced people into crowded conditions with no hope of access to handwashing or personal space, much less sufficient health care. Past wars, environmental pollution, health care and food disparities, the stresses of historical or recent trauma, and structural violence have all created underlying health conditions—from asthma to heart disease—that affect some communities more than others. That same basic pattern is emerging in places as different from each other as Detroit, the Navajo Nation, and refugee camps in Bangladesh.
These disparities make it even more urgent, as economies shut down, that our physical distancing does not turn into isolation: that we care for each other, across social divides, and share what we have.
Karuna Center’s founder and senior peacebuilding advisor, Paula Green, offered these words to help frame our broader thinking about where we can go from here:
I think we are called together to proclaim aloud our interdependence, to give up on the illusion that we are separate. This is the time to care for one another, to remember that compassion strengthens the immune system, that our human needs are universal, and that our generosity is a gift that ripples out and returns to the giver. We are being called to expand our circle of care and inclusion, leaving out none and embracing all. We are especially being asked to serve those millions of us who are vulnerable, perhaps experiencing increased economic hardship, political repression, or health difficulties.
This is a time for the earth, scarred with pollution and toxins, to begin to heal itself. Perhaps we humans, in this time of slowing down, will begin to recover, just as the soil, water, and air around us recovers from some of its poisons. This could be the opportunity to rethink our values and behaviors, to recreate societies that reflect altruism and peace. Those with more could discover how to live with less, and as we reduce our greed, we reduce one of the major causes of armed conflict. We can be inspired by the Secretary General of the United Nations, who called on the countries of the world to declare an immediate ceasefire. “The fury of the virus illustrates the folly of war,” he said. Let us dedicate ourselves to the real fight, which is not with each other, but is to protect our health and the health of our planet.
We know social change is extremely slow and resistant, yet we are aware that the new is always fermenting itself under the old, until finally the old ways crack and new realities emerge. Our shared global experience is producing those cracks. What happens next can be glorious or terrifying. Yes, our minds can take us to negative images of increased authoritarianism, militarism, and injustice. But we do not serve ourselves by focusing on our fears. Focus instead on what your awakened and aware self can see and do. This planet-wide virus, tragic as it is, has the potential to wake up multitudes. Once awake, it becomes harder to return to delusions like walls, borders, hatreds, or an us-them mentality. Once awake, we are all “us.”
Bosnian youth from different ethnic groups continue their shared English lessons over a virtual cup of coffee last week, as part of the STaR peacebuilding program.
As this crisis changes us all, we can together emerge stronger, ready to face the many challenges this pandemic is spotlighting.
Wishing you all good health and strong connection among each other,
All of us at Karuna Center