COVID-19 vs. Intercultural Dialogue: What Impact?, by Fethi Mansouri

28 April 2020

Professor Fethi Mansouri, UNESCO Chairholder, Cultural Diversity and Social Justice, Deakin University, Melbourne, Australia responded to Ann-Belinda Preis, Chief of the UNESCO Intercultural Dialogue.

Ann-Belinda Preis (ABP): How is the COVID-19 pandemic impacting the social fabric of societies across the world?

COVID-19 has obviously been a very important event globally. It is primarily a health challenge but it has also been a deeply social challenge. It has impacted societies, individuals and communities in many ways.

Probably one of the obvious challenges is how to minimise the health risks of the way we used to live our lives, which depended very much on contact and mobility and travel. All of the sudden we are in a situation where all of those things needed to be cut down. People had to avoid others, they had to embark on a social distancing practice. They had to also make sure that they have all that is required for them to survive and to live away from their places of work, places of worship, places of entertainment, places of sports etc.

So I think the challenge has been multidimensional and it has meant that we really had to rethink the way that we operate, as individuals, as groups and as communities.

And the more we go deeper into the pandemic in terms of its spread, the deeper these challenges also become, as people are starting to perhaps feel the strain of living and working in ways that do not allow them to interact.

And as we know, human beings are primarily social beings; they need the social interaction to be able to sustain what they do and they need the exchange and the contact, and they need to move around. So a lot of the characteristics that shaped our modern, or even post-modern life, have been impacted severely by COVID-19.

Part of the impact of COVID-19 is not only the impact on individuals and on communities, but also the challenge of, for instance, educating the youth. And as we know, more than a billion young children the world over have now been impacted and they no longer go to schools, and that creates a lot of challenges in terms of how to ensure that those young people continue to receive their education through distance or online teaching, and there is obviously the impact on the global economy which is estimated to be in the vicinity of 10% of global GDP. That is a massive, massive hit to the global economy which will impact societies in the medium to long term, and again those kind of disruptions really reinforce and highlight the extent to which COVID-19 has been a challenge to the global community that is very much unlike any other challenge we have seen, at least since World War II.

ABP : How does lack of contact and social interaction impact the broader Interculturla Dialogue (ICD) agenda, which is built on connectivity, contact and exchange?

This is perhaps where COVID-19 presents a significant challenge to the ICD agenda. Intercultural dialogue has, as one of its core premises, contact between people. And the reason why we have contact as a core premise is because there is an assumption that when people get to know one another, prejudice might be reduced, and that issues of discrimination might disappear.

So COVID-19 and its emphasis on social distancing means that a lot of what we would like to achieve through intercultural dialogue, in particular in bringing people together, bringing communities together, bringing diverse communities together (and diversity here means diversity of ethnic backgrounds, religious beliefs, nationalities etc.).

I think all of that now is being impacted because social distancing, whether its happening at the local level or whether its happening, as we know now, globally, means that we eliminate all forms of contact between individuals, between communities and between societies. And as we now know, not only are there restrictions on mobility and travel between countries, but there are restrictions even within countries, between cities and there are restrictions within cities between neighbourhoods and between communities.

The other challenge to ICD of course, is that intercultural dialogue is in itself an essential tool that we will need in the post-COVID-19 environment. We will need to renegotiate a new global compact, a new social contract, and I think dialogue will have to play a key role in that. So it is being perhaps compromised right now but it has a big role to play in the post-COVID-19 world that will emerge.

ABP : How are communities overcoming the access and support gaps recorded across societies?

It is interesting that of course societies and communities responded in ways that reflect the extent to which they have certain characteristics, they have certain structures, they have certain attributes, and also the extent to which they are developed, or not developed, or less developed. And across all those types of societies, communities have engaged in very creative ways in responding to COVID-19.

Be it responding to, really the problematic issue of social distancing, and weve seen a lot of videos of how communities have become creative, and how they maintain contact with their neighbours, with their loved ones etc. But also weve seen that a lot of communities have mobilised to raise, to collect and to distribute resources to those who are in need. And weve seen many initiatives whereby people have acted in a way that reflects a stronger solidarity locally than probably what was thought to be possible.

And we are still seeing many new initiatives across communities where people are not only spreading the message of needing to keep certain hygiene practices, in relation to washing hands and to getting the message across, but also in terms of ensuring that in particular those most vulnerable in our societies, the elderly, the disabled, those who are lacking in economic means, are able to access what they need to be able to survive in isolation. And I think we are seeing that kind of new form of solidarity emerge in the context of COVID-19. Now the challenge is how we are going to maintain that post-COVID-19 in terms of a new kind of global ethics.

And in all of this, of course social science has a very important role to play in understanding the dynamics of certain societies and why certain actions or certain initiatives might work better than others

ABP: What is the role of humanities and social sciences research in all of this?

COVID-19 is primarily a public health challenge, we all know that. It is about a very quickly-spreading virus and the challenge, the first challenge, is how the global community works together to stop the spread of this virus, or to flatten the curve as we are now referring to it. But also what we know is that COVID-19 has really presented itself as also a deeply social challenge, and as we know from previous experiences with other pandemics, we have to really listen to social research to understand how messaging works, to understand how human behaviour works, to understand how certain strategies may work in particular conditions, and other strategies do not work in those same conditions, and what we need to do to adjust the settings so that certain policies, certain strategies, might be optimally successful.

And in all of this, of course social science has a very important role to play in understanding the dynamics of certain societies and why certain actions or certain initiatives might work better than others. We need to be able to couch the public health messaging in ways that reflect our understanding of the local specificities, both in terms of cultures, in terms of social norms, in terms of values, in terms of behaviours.

There is no surprise that now there is a lot of reflection on why East Asian countries have managed to bring the spread of the pandemic under some sort of control much quicker than other societies in the West. There are many reflections now on the values in those East Asian societies, in particular the priority of collective, if you like, of the collective good that someone has always to put the community ahead of their own interest.

Whereas in Western societies, we are still very much attached to the notion of individual rights, to the notion of liberties and the notion of I can do what I want to do, and so to get a message that goes counter to that is obviously very difficult to sustain. And again this is where we think that humanities and social sciences research has a big role to play.

ABP: How do we envisage a post-COVID-19 global community? What challenges lie ahead?

There is no doubt that post-COVID-19 it will not be business as usual. Well at least we hope to not be business as usual. Why? Because if anything, COVID-19 has really exposed many positive but also many negative aspects of the global world order.

For a start, the interconnectedness is there to see; if there is a problem somewhere on planet Earth, doesnt matter where it is, it will have serious implications for the global community, and therefore it is in the interest the best interest of the global community that we work together to build and scale up the preparedness of all societies to the dangers of pandemics like COVID-19.

As we know, the strength of the health preparedness will be as good as the least strong public health system in the world. That is, if we allow a particular society not to have the requisite means to really combat the spread of COVID-19 for instance, it means that the virus will not be suppressed and it means that the virus will re-emerge at some point in time and it will keep on presenting a challenge to all of us globally.

So that interconnectedness is a key message that we need to understand, but we need to understand in ways that we develop, for instance, economic goals in ways that we work with less developed and underdeveloped societies, to build their capabilities across a whole lot of areas, including health, including economics, including employment, including creative innovation.

So I think we really need to understand what we need to do differently post COVID-19 so that every single individual living in every single country in the world will have a fighting chance of being able to fight against the spread of pandemics. So I think social inequalities, as reflected in this particular challenge, is one thing that we need to look at differently post COVID-19 because failure to do so means that the price is going to be extremely high for the global community.

Diversity is a core advantage and it needs to be upheld as a core advantage in the face of global challenges

ABP: How can we all contribute to building a more equitable global community post-pandemic?

Every individual has a role to play and regardless of where you are located, you have a role to play. I think starting with issues of inclusive design of policies, also issues of being not only tolerant but respectful of diversity. And unfortunately some of the problems we saw in the immediate aftermath of the spread of COVID-19 is a spike in racism against particular communities, and so I think all of us have a role to play in ensuring that we do not start to be even more divided as communities, more divided as individuals, and that we develop the solidarity that is required for us to face up to challenges, major global challenges.

And this time it is COVID-19, but we know that climate change will remain as a big challenge, we know that economic inequalities will remain as a big challenge, we know that the digital gap, the growing digital gap globally, will remain as a critical challenge.

And for those challenges to be overcome we will rely on every individual, every single citizen in every single jurisdiction to do the right thing, which is to embrace an ethics of care towards all human beings regardless of race, religion, ethnicity, nationality, rather than simply to say that we will only reserve our care, or all the good values, for people who look like us or people who live right next door to us, or for people who share our worldviews.

Diversity is a core advantage and it needs to be upheld as a core advantage in the face of global challenges. COVID-19, climate change, economic sustainability; all of these challenges will require us to operate differently as individuals, as communities and as societies.

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