Interview with Fethi Mansouri - Advancing a new social contract in the post-Covid-19 era?

Professor Fethi Mansouri, PhD., UNESCO Chairholder, Cultural Diversity and Social Justice at the Deakin University, Melbourne, Australia and UNITWIN Convenor, Inter-religious Dialogue and Intercultural Understanding (IDIU) shares his views on the impact of COVID-19 on intercultural dialogue.
New forms of solidarity and dialogue are emerging at a time when social distancing seems to be the only efficient blockade to the pandemic. At the same time, massive economic disparities and access to health care are being pushed to the limit, with inevitable consequences on the rise of racism and discriminations... Are we ready to engage in a new social contract in view of the post-COVID-19 era?

How is the COVID-19 pandemic impacting the social fabric of societies across the world?

COVID-19 has been a very important event globally, indeed many argue the single most significant event since World War II. True, 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 yet most challenging containment measures has been how to keep social distance in order to minimise the health risks of the way we used to live our lives, and this has previously depended very much on inter-personal contact, mobility and travel. But because of COVID-19 we are all of the sudden in a situation where all of those practices needed to be cut down if not altogether eliminated. People had to avoid coming into contact with others, they had to embark on a social distancing practice that is very much contrary to our human, social nature. On a more practical level, individuals 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 education, places of worship, places of entertainment, places of sports etc.

The challenge has been multidimensional and it has meant that we have had to rethink deeply 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 absolutely essential to manage the pandemic. People all over the world are starting to feel the strain of living and working in ways that do not allow them to separate the personal from the professional nor to engage in everyday inter-personal interaction. And as we know, human beings are primarily social beings: they need the contact, exchange and interaction to be able to sustain what they do but also for their mental and health wellbeing. So a lot of the characteristics that shaped our modern, even post-modern life, have been impacted severely by COVID-19.

But the impact of COVID-19 is not only felt by individuals and their communities. Another challenge has been in terms of how we transition towards remote education for the world’s youth population. Indeed, more than 1.5 billion young children around the world have been impacted by COVID-19 as they no longer can attend schools in person, and therefore need to be educated remotely. That creates significant challenges in terms of how to ensure that those young people continue to receive their education through distance or online teaching, with emerging crippling digital disparities between countries of the global south in comparison to those located in more developed western societies.

There is also the impact on the global economy which is estimated to be in the vicinity of 1% of global GDP in 2020, but could a lot worse in 2021 and beyond. That is a massive hit to the global economy which will impact societies in the medium to long-term, with rising levels of unemployment across many vital sectors. 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 challenges we have seen, at least since World War II.

How does lack of contact and social interaction impact the broader ICD* agenda, which is built on connectivity, contact and exchange?

This is perhaps where COVID-19 presents a direct challenge to the ICD agenda. Intercultural dialogue has, as one of its core premises, contact between people as a pathways towards eliminating prejudice and distrust. The assumption behind intercultural contact and dialogue is that when people interact and get to know one another, prejudice most likely will be reduced, and therefore various manifestations of discrimination will gradually decrease.

Therefore, 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 diverse communities together (and diversity here means diversity of ethnic backgrounds, religious beliefs, nationalities etc.) – all of this is now being impacted because of social distancing. Whether it’s happening locally or transnationally, this means that we have to avoid and eliminate all forms of contact between individuals, between communities and between societies. And as the situation unfolds, we now realise that 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. This constrains the possibility for direct engagement and dialogue between different individuals and groups.

Another related challenge to intercultural dialogue, is that it 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 in terms of restricted interaction and mobility, but it has an important role to play in the post-COVID-19 world that will emerge as we negotiate new terms of our social, economic, political and environmental order.

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

It is interesting that of course societies and communities have responded in ways that reflect the extent to which they have certain local and cultural characteristics, they have certain structures, and they have certain attributes and values. And they responded in ways that reflect the extent to which they are developed, less developed or not developed.

And across, all those types of societies and communities have engaged in very creative ways in responding to COVID-19. Be it responding to the problematic issue of social distancing, where we have seen a lot of online practice of how communities have adapted to maintaining contact with their neighbours, with their loved ones etc. But also we have seen that a lot of communities have mobilized to raise funds, to collect and to distribute goods and resources to those who are in most need.

We have seen many initiatives whereby people have acted in ways that reflect stronger solidarity locally and trans-locally than probably what was thought to be possible. We are still seeing many new initiatives across communities where people are not only spreading the message of needing to keep certain hygiene practices, but also in terms of ensuring that in particular those who are 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. That is a kind of new form of solidarity emerging in the context of COVID-19.

Now the challenge is how we are going to maintain that reinvigorated solidarity and a new kind of global ethics in a post-COVID-19 context.

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 and the primary challenge is how the global community works together to stop the spread of this virus, or to “flatten the curve” as we are now saying. We also know that COVID-19 has really presented itself as a deeply social challenge. What we know from previous experiences with other pandemics is that we have to really involve social science research in order 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.

In all of this, of course social sciences have a critical 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 express public health messaging in ways that reflect our understanding of local specificities, including in terms of cultures, social norms, values, and individual behaviours.

There is no surprise, for example, that now there is a lot of reflection and discussion on why East Asian countries have managed to bring the spread of the pandemic under some sort of control much quicker than western societies. There are many analyses on the cultural values of those East Asian societies, in particular the primacy of the collective, or the collective good – over the individual. In other words, individuals have to always put the community ahead of their own interest.

In contrast, we see that in western societies, we are still very much attached to the notion of individual rights, to the notion of freedoms and liberties and the notion that “I can do what I want to do”, and therefore to get a message that goes counter to this type of social norm is obviously very difficult to sustain. And again this is where humanities and social sciences research have a big role to play.

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

There is no doubt that post-COVID-19 will not be business as usual. At least we hope that it will not be business as usual. Why? Because if anything, COVID-19 has really exposed many realities (many negative but some positive) of the global world order. For a start, the interconnectedness and inter-dependence: if there is a problem somewhere on planet Earth, regardless of where this is might be geographically speaking, this challenge will have serious implications for the global community, and therefore it is in 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 crises and pandemics like COVID-19.

We now realise that 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 diseases such as 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.

Interconnectedness and inter-dependence are key. We need to understand that in many ways. We develop, for instance, economic goals in ways in which we work with less developed and underdeveloped societies, in order to build their capabilities across sectors, including health, education, economics, and employment.

We really need to understand what a post COVID-19 world might look like and how this new world configuration will impact every single individual living across the world so that they will have an equal chance of being able to access similar opportunities and also be able to fight against the spread of pandemics such as COVID-19. Social inequalities, as reflected and amplified in this particular challenge, is one very important dimension that we need to look at differently in a post-COVID-19 context because failure to do so means that the collective risk and associated price is going to be extremely high for the global community.

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

Every individual has a role to play regardless of their location and regardless of their function. We need to start with agreeing to a set of new guiding values and principles ranging from inclusive co-design of local policies, to not only accepting but also being respectful of difference, and of being driven by a set of core values (e.g. respect, inclusion and equity) that reflect our supra-diverse, hyper-connected world.

Unfortunately some of the problems we saw in the immediate aftermath of the spread of COVID-19 such as a spike in racism against particular communities, reflect how far we have steered away from these core values and guiding principles. Therefore, I think all of us have a role to play in ensuring that we do not start fighting global crises as divided communities and disconnected individuals, but rather that we develop and nurture new forms of solidarity that are required for us to face up to challenges, in particular major global challenges. Whether these challenges are at present COVID-19, or whether it will be climate change, or economic inequalities, all of these and other similar crises (the growing digital gap, the growing digital disparities) will require us to re-configure the ways in which we relate to one another, the way we work together and the way we coordinate our responses to emerging priorities in a post-COVID-19 world.

And for these and other challenges to be overcome we will need to rely on every individual, every single citizen, in every single country, 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 car for people who look like us or people who live right next door to us, or for people who share our worldviews.

Diversity needs to be upheld as a core advantage in the face of global challenges such as COVID-19, climate change, and sustainable economic development. What COVID-19 shows is that we all need to rethink the ways in which we operate as individuals, as communities and as a global society.

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Professor Fethi Mansouri, PhD, is Director of the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalization at the Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia. He is the UNESCO Chairholder for Cultural Diversity and Social Justice, and UNESCO UniTwin Convenor for Inter-religious Dialogue and Intercultural Understanding (IDIU).
Email: fethi.mansouri@deakin.edu.au
Fethi Mansouri | Alfred Deakin Institute | UNESCO Chair Cultural Diversity and Social Justice
Recent Books:
(2019), ‘Contesting the Theological Foundations of Islamism and Violent Extremism’.
(2019, 2nd edition in French): ‘L'interculturalisme à la croisée des chemins: perspectives comparatives sur les concepts, les politiques et les pratiques’. UNESCO Publishing, Paris.

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* ICD = Intercultural Dialogue

The ideas and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of UNESCO. The designations used in this publication and the presentation of the data contained therein do not imply the expression of any opinion on the part of UNESCO concerning the legal status of countries, territories, cities or areas or their authorities, or concerning the layout of their borders or boundaries.