The tragedy of the past that insists on defining and tormenting us

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By RAFAEL R. IORIS*

Would we be doomed to repeat the atrocities of the past that we wanted to overcome when international organizations such as the UN and WHO were created?

At a time when the world exceeds the number of 13 million cases of Covid-19, in an emotional speech, the president of the World Health Organization, last week, asked why it was so difficult for us to understand that we need to unite in the face of a common enemy who would be killing everyone. The scathing question of Dr. Tedros Ghebreyesus seems to indicate that the ongoing pandemic has only acquired such magnitude because we have not been able to express the degree of solidarity necessary to minimize, perhaps even resolve, its effects.

The World Health Organization (WHO) was created in 1948 on the rubble, and based on the traumas, derived from the Second World War, perhaps the greatest humanitarian crisis in history. Associated with the project of rebuilding the international order led by the United Nations, the WHO, and other multilateral agencies then created, it expressed the belief in the capacity of different human societies to work together for the common good. But while it played a key role in promoting the reduction or even elimination of global endemic diseases such as smallpox and polio, it seems to be becoming clearer that the lack of international, as well as domestic collaboration, is essential for better management or even combat of Covid19, has not been easy to find.

In fact, even though we live today in the most interconnected and interdependent global human configuration in history, we have not been able, as humanity facing common challenges, to act on the same level of collective coordination. On the contrary, the most frequent responses 'to the pandemic have been given by national authorities, via the closing of borders, often with actions imbued with or at least conducive to reinforcing xenophobic and even racist feelings.

Many have asked if we will be able to get out of the current crisis better as human beings and societies, and if we will know how to learn the lessons of a pandemic largely derived from the exhaustion of our natural resources given the current excessive degree of consumerism and individualism. If one considers the behavior of large parts of the populations of some of the most important and populous countries in the world, such as the USA and Brazil – which are said to be the first, a democratic reference, and, the second, in terms of social tolerance, worldwide – the prospects are not are encouraging.

In a similar way to the dynamics of the globalization process in recent decades, an experience that, in turn, accelerated and deepened pre-existing trends, the Covid-19 pandemic revealed earlier human and social traits in a clearer and more acute way. Effectively, if some have volunteered on the front lines to care for the patients who have begun to saturate our health units, others have not only refused to wear masks in public, but are keen to point out that such an act, however absurd it may be, derives from some individual freedom of unquestionable innate character. In addition to the irrationality demonstrated (freedom to put my life at risk!), such an attitude also reveals a high degree of selfishness and, especially in the case of Brazil (as demonstrated in the video of the not so Innocents of Leblon), of structurally rooted privileges.

It is not surprising that these facts occur when Brazilian society is going through its most significant experience of the setback not only of democratic institutionality, but also of the democratic civic culture that had been built since the transition from the military business dictatorship of the 60s and 70s. in a growing militarism in government bodies, as well as in a process of polarization defined by a high degree of aggressiveness and even the demonization of the adversary. Thus, the management of the pandemic found itself shrouded in anti-science political narratives, where the deaths of thousands and thousands of co-citizens are seen, or as inevitable (what do you want me to do? says the great leader), or as something that no longer shocks us as it would have to if we weren't so anesthetized or even stultified by everything that has been happening.

Similar to what has happened in Brazil, we have seen on a global scale the coordinated attempt by many countries, including many of which are adversaries on other issues, such as the US and China, to systematically destroy the global human rights agenda promoted by multilateral coordinating agencies. Part of this agenda, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, also from 1948, postulates the notion of a common humanity where access 'to health must be guaranteed to all. If not even a global pandemic can help us to rescue the notion of a common collectivity, how can we guarantee that the notion of a shared humanity is viable?

In one of his best-known quotes, the American writer William Faulkner said that “the past is never dead, that it has not even passed”. Would we be doomed to repeat the atrocities of the past that we wanted to overcome when international organizations such as the UN and WHO were created? May those who believe in building something new and better in the post-pandemic world have the strength to prevent the atavistic weight of the past from continuing to define and torment us.

*Rafael R. Ioris is a professor at the University of Denver (USA).

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