Covid-19 and international solidarity

principles of cooperation

What has Catholic Social teaching to say about the Covid-19 pandemic? As the Church reflects on both the ethics of healthcare resource allocation and the running of the economy, there is quite a lot for us to say; but here I simply want to look at how the United Kingdom’s international policies, and the attitudes underlying them, have affected the country’s response to the crisis. Some policies have been mistaken because they stem from flawed moral attitudes. We have a duty to question and challenge policies: while we are trying to ‘pull together’ governments and public authorities need to be held to account, particularly if mistakes have cost lives. For Christians this is in the best tradition of the Old Testament prophets.

principles of cooperation

I want to draw on a new document from the Pontifical Academy for Life, Global Pandemic and Universal Brotherhood and in particular these words:

‘Precariousness and the limits of our understanding also appear as global, real and shared; there are no real arguments that allow some civilisations or entities to consider themselves sovereign, better than others and able to isolate themselves when convenient’ (p.2 of the official English text).

This is in line with so much Church teaching about the need for international cooperation and sharing, the working out internationally of the principle of solidarity; this has been emphasised repeatedly since St John XXIII’s encyclical Pacem in Terris and stressed constantly by Pope Francis; it underlines Catholic support for institutions such as the United Nations and the European Union.

But we can see approaches from some world leaders, often loosely described as from the ‘populist, Right’ at odds with this; as far as the current crisis is concerned, in the West the most glaring examples are the presidents of the United States and Brazil: they exhibit clear hostility to international structures which try (not always successfully) to foster international cooperation and solidarity. It is not surprising if this political approach dictates responses to a serious international crisis and sadly some of the same attitudes can be seen in the UK government.

As a country we seem simply no longer to be interested in international co-operation, the sharing of resources and expertise, or solidarity – at a time in history when these things are needed more than ever.

In the first place, it led to an early and in some cases persistent denial of the seriousness of the crisis. Covid-19 was portrayed as something ‘out there’ which would not apparently cross seas or continents. When the seriousness has finally been admitted very optimistic assessments are made about when the crisis will end, not in line with medical and scientific evidence. Underlying this failure to act early on has been a suspicion of other countries, an obsession with national sovereignty; some countries are so important and powerful that they have nothing to learn from others.

A result of this in the UK has been a failure to follow the advice of the World Health Organisation (WHO) over the need for widespread testing – which in some countries has led to lower death rates; similarly health workers here are now at risk because there isn’t enough protective clothing in hospitals as recommended by the WHO. It is the same attitude: arrogance in relation to the rest of the world. It also accounts for an inability to purchase supplies we need from the EU and may well limit our access to a vaccine if it is developed elsewhere in Europe. There many possible reasons for this floundering, such as the type of advisers the government has used; but it is clear that hostility to international cooperation and a disdain for other countries and for international bodies are part of the problem. As a country we seem simply no longer to be interested in international co-operation, the sharing of resources and expertise, or solidarity – at a time in history when these things are needed more than ever. Even if we believe that there are problems with particular international organisations, as a responsible and influential country, we should engage with them and seek to improve them.

This is a long way from the outlook of the Academy for Life:

‘In international relations (and in relations among the members of the European Union) it is a short-sighted and illusory logic that seeks to give answers in terms of “national interests.” Without effective cooperation and effective coordination, which addresses the inevitable political, commercial, ideological and relational resistances firmly, viruses do not stop.’ (p.4)

Later on the academy calls for ‘the introduction of global coordination in health care systems’ (p. 6), which seems to be echoed in a report (6th April) from the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee (whose chairman, incidentally is a Catholic. Is the government likely to support this?

Some have argued that Brexit is now an irrelevant political issue. But in the light of Catholic Social teaching the attitudes behind the whole enterprise, particularly a turning away from the principles of cooperation and shared sovereignty at the heart of the European project, have been worked through in this crisis: and this has led to policy errors. What a price we have paid!

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Author: Ashley Beck

Published: 7th April 2020

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© Catholic Social Thought 2020