Now is When We Negotiate Our Common Future


Maria Green, Visting Professor, Human Rights and Development, on Covid-19 and our future. 

Last week I wrote a post about human rights and the Covid-19 response. It was geared towards public decision-makers of good will who are grappling with the sudden changes that the pandemic has brought upon our various societies.

Now I am writing this follow-up. This one is geared towards all of us.

It is a way to ask, through the lens of human rights, what world do we want to live in tomorrow, in six months, in sixty years?

The Covid-19 crisis is both a tragedy and an illumination of other tragedies. The global disruption is making it harder for anyone, whatever our country or circumstances, to look away from the reality of the wildly unjust, unsatisfactory present and future that we humans have generally accepted for ourselves and each other.

Covid-19 is not the first or the worst illness to affect huge swathes of people in modern times. It is not even the worst in my adult lifetime.

But is the first to upend the entire world, rich countries as well as developing countries. It is the first to make starkly and unmistakably clear,   all around the world, which health situations and which avoidable deaths our collective communities treat as “normal” vs “an emergency for which we are willing to take extreme measures and change the way we live and the way our systems work.”

The HIV-AIDS epidemics of recent decades were not generally treated as an emergency of that kind in wealthy countries.  The hundreds of thousands of lives that are lost each year as a direct result of air pollution have not generally been treated as an emergency of that kind.  The fact that entire populations are currently experiencing drought, fire, flooding and famine as a direct result of climate change has not generally been treated as an emergency of that kind.  The brutal fact that, no matter who we are or where we live, the small children in our lives today will likely not reach old age in a world that fully sustains humankind has not generally been treated as an emergency of that kind.

When we look at the Covid-19 deaths and see the disparities in who has died so far, and realize the enormous number of other deaths that those same disparities represent, we cannot pretend to ourselves that those other deaths are things that just happened to happen.  That rich people have been dying less in this crisis;  that people in less-polluted communities have been dying less;  that members of ethnic majorities have been dying less; that even as countries have disrupted everything to allow most people to shelter at home we have too often failed to protect those whose jobs make that possible for everyone else;  all of that is evidence that much of what we experience as human beings is decided by human beings.

A human rights approach focuses specifically on those aspects of the human experience that are shaped by human decision-making.  Universal human rights standards are a tool that we humans collectively created, mostly starting in the period after the second world war,  to define the formal boundaries of what we owe to each other at the societal level.

Rights are just one of many systems of thought about how the world should be.  There are others that resonate deeply with me personally: for instance, Martha Fineman’s “vulnerabilities” theory, which argues that we need to fully accept the universal vulnerability of humans that comes from being living animals with bodies that go through childhood, old age, and a wide range of sicknesses and incapacities.  We are not divisible into“normal” people and “vulnerable” people, this theory says, but rather are all vulnerable in different ways at different times, and ultimately all dependent upon each other.  We should organize our laws and systems accordingly.

There are also religious approaches that I value because they focus on the preciousness of the individual human being as well as the human fellowship.  And literary ones that ask relevant questions with great emotional precision.

I am dismayed when the poet Philip Larkin, in his poem “Continuing to Live,” asks whether it matters to finally understand the patterns of one’s own life when they belong only to oneself, a self who will eventually die.  And galvanized when the poet Mary Oliver demands exuberantly, in her poem “The Summer Day,” “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

I come back to human rights as a frame because it focuses so completely on us as humans creating and maintaining societal structures.  International human rights law does not concern itself with any situation or aspect of the world that is beyond the purview of human action and intervention.  There is nothing in it but us and the societal choices we make to respond to the world as it is.  Human rights law asks, what are we going to do with our one wild and precious world?

The historian Timothy Snyder, in a talk at Lund University last year, spoke of politics as a way we collectively negotiate the future. One aspect of the Covid-19 disruption is that many countries are suddenly transforming or reevaluating their health systems, business models, food security, social protections, long-entrenched societal disparities and injustices, and more.  Our collective future has abruptly become more visibly a matter of choice.

The world has been briefly upended, and will soon return to some kind of relatively stable status quo.  What that is will be largely driven by what we humans collectively decide to do.

Now is the time for all of us, whether we are elected officials or those who do the electing, to focus with great attention on what those decisions are and on their implications for now and for later — and to foster the ones that match our desires for the common human future.

It is a good time to ask: what is it that we want, for our one wild and precious world?