Op-eds

Pandemic for peace

  • Geoff
Picture the scenario: it’s winter in Europe. Snowing. Young men – soldiers – are in the trenches, at war with one another. And then midnight strikes on 24 December, and for a moment, they are just young men, very far from home, celebrating Christmas.
by GEOFF SIFRIN | Mar 12, 2020

In World War I, on Christmas day during the early period of the war, French, German, and British soldiers crossed the trenches to exchange seasonal greetings. Men from both sides ventured into no man’s land to mingle and share food and souvenirs. They sang carols and played football. And then, all at once, it was over, and the men got back behind their cannons and bayonets to continue the war business.

A positive similar side-effect to global crises today like the coronavirus is that, in a world which doesn’t seem able to end its disputes, the virus might create a form of “peace” because it doesn’t respect borders. Your foe is as vulnerable as you. What happens to him might directly affect what happens to you.

International co-operation to fight the virus is occurring on a scale almost unprecedented in history. Although the pandemic hasn’t yet come anywhere near previous major pandemics in which the death tolls were staggering, the warning signs are there. The death toll crossed the 4 000 mark on Monday; the infection rate exceeded 113 000. Spanish flu, however, which occurred after World War I, caused 50 million deaths, according to the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The most deadly epidemic of contemporary times, has been AIDS, which UNAIDS (the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS) says caused 32 million deaths from 1981. Fiery sexual politics stirred by moral grandstanding, religious dogma, and exploitation initially bedevilled the response to AIDS, as it has with coronavirus in the rhetoric of some religious figures.

Politics creeps in where it can, and coronavirus is no exception. In the United States, disputes between health officials and President Donald Trump over whether his administration has done enough to combat the coronavirus are rife. He says he has everything “under control”. In a tweet, he blamed the media for trying to damage his government’s image, saying, “The fake news media is doing everything possible to make us look bad. Sad!”

It was reported by Ynet last week that when Israel was considering adding America to a list of countries from which visitors would be required to spend 14 days in isolation upon entry, the move was delayed by some government ministries for fear of compromising ties with the US and concern about Trump’s response.

But on Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told a press conference that he was instead considering a wider step. On Monday evening, Israel drastically ratcheted up its efforts to protect the country from coronavirus, requiring all those arriving from any country to go into self-quarantine for 14 days with immediate effect. Crisis can sometimes force even politicians to do what’s necessary, even those who don’t normally agree.

Similarly, the climate crisis has the potential to cross borders, and bring people on opposite sides together. Increasing droughts in sub-Saharan Africa, new hurricanes in the Indian Ocean, and a rise in the global temperature are signs that if humankind doesn’t get its act together for the environment, the future is bleak. Through all the haze, a common enemy is becoming identified: the people who spew carbon into the atmosphere, plastic into the oceans, and the international companies supporting them. Will climate change, coronavirus activists, and World War I Christmas revellers be a model for how to handle other human disasters?

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