UN chief: Post-coronavirus world will be even more digital

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres delivers his statement at the European headquarters of the United Nations (UNOG) in Geneva on 24 February 2020. [EPA-EFE/SALVATORE DI NOLFI]

The post-coronavirus world will be different and much more digital than before, the United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told EURACTIV’s partner EuroEFE in an interview.

Guterres also called for safeguards to ensure that the societal control mechanisms developed to combat the COVID-19 pandemic are not abused by dictatorships.

Guterres was emphatic in saying the novel coronavirus will mark a ‘before and after’ and that this new state of affairs is already being mapped out.

“One thing that’s clear is that we’re seeing the mass digitalisation of human relations with the crisis, and that will have an inevitable impact,” the 70-year-old Portuguese politician and diplomat said in a long-distance interview in Spanish.

“The future will be much more digital than the past. This is going to provide a major impetus for the development of artificial intelligence, for the development of all the cyberspace activities,” he added.

The flip side, he cautioned, is that there will be a much greater need to create “regulation and other mechanisms so all that development of the digital world is done for the benefit of humanity and that the risks that exist, and are well known, can be avoided.”

“One of the risks, naturally, is that this illness will create societal control mechanisms that can help dictatorships, which naturally we have to try to avoid in the future,” Guterres said.

Poorer south needs massive support

The UN secretary-general said the global community must realise that the novel coronavirus has thus far mainly affected wealthier countries like China, South Korea, the European nations and the United States, but this situation will change.

“We’re seeing its entry into the (southern hemisphere) and particularly into Africa, and the capacity of those countries’ health systems to respond is very, very limited,” he warned.

“Without massive support for the countries of the South, we risk seeing the virus advance in an absolutely dramatic way, like wildfire. With millions of people infected and millions dead,” Guterres added.

The UN chief said this would be “an absolutely unbearable tragedy from all perspectives, including from a moral standpoint.”

Developed countries must show solidarity and not forget that it’s in their own interests to eradicate the illness worldwide due to the risk of it returning to their territories.

The last continent to face up COVID-19, Africa ‘needs to wake up’

As Europe and North American countries go into self-imposed economic and social lockdown to curb the coronavirus pandemic, Africa remains the continent least affected by the virus. Still, a raft of African governments were quick to impose travel bans on airlines carrying passengers from Europe last week.

A positive impact of the fight against the coronavirus, at least in the short term, is a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions resulting from the confinement measures and the abrupt halt to economic activity in many parts of the globe.

In that regard, Guterres said the world must “use this opportunity to provide a very strong push toward sustainable development” and toward meeting the established climate targets, although he stressed that no virus can solve the climate crisis.

Lack of coordination

In the current battle against the COVID-19 pandemic, the UN secretary-general said what has most concerned him is the lack of coordination he has seen among countries.

Many nations such as India, France and Italy have essentially shut down public life while others like Sweden and Japan have thus far avoided a crippling lockdown.

Guterres refrained from questioning the responses of individual governments. “For me, it’s very difficult to analyse the measures of each country,” he said but criticised the fact that each one is acting of its own accord and without “coordination at the global level.”

“If one country takes certain measures and another takes different measures, the virus takes advantage of those contradictions to infiltrate those areas where there’s less capacity to respond,” said Guterres, who warned that some nations are either already facing or will face dramatic ordeals.

Referring to the socio-economic impact of the pandemic and strategies to mitigate the damage, the UN secretary-general called for “direct support” for families and small and medium-sized businesses.

“This is not a financial crisis like the crisis of 2008. This is a human crisis,” said Guterres, who insisted that the typical responses to sharp economic downturns do not apply in this case.

An unprecedented mobilisation of resources equivalent to nearly 10% of each country’s gross domestic product will be needed, the UN secretary-general said.

Furthermore, he said the world cannot return to the former status quo once the recession is over.

“We need to take advantage of this opportunity so that the recovery can ensure we have an economy that’s more inclusive, more sustainable, more capable of resisting epidemics, climate change and all the other challenges we face,” he said.

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[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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