President addresses Global Asia Matters Summit

Thu 26th Nov, 2020 | 09:00

Thursday, 26th November, 2020

Speech by President Michael D. Higgins ‘Asia Matters’ Global Conference Speech by President Michael D. Higgins ‘Asia Matters’ Global Conference

26th November 2020

A chairde,

May I thank Martin Murray, Executive Director of Asia Matters, for the invitation to speak to you today at your annual summit, taking place as it is in the context of a global pandemic, and thus your gathering by necessity is a virtual event.

The Asia-Europe relationship of the future must be one, I believe, based on the relationship between peoples who have an understanding of each other’s history, culture, beliefs, as a prelude, as it were, to sharing global challenges and concerns which, of course, can be mutual. It cannot be one built solely on economic ties. 

While the fostering of trade and cross-border investment is important, the relationship of people in a shared, historical time of great change is even more important. It is a relationship based on the movement of people, as well as envisaging a working together in research and co-operation in areas of mutual interest – a building of a sustainable connectivity between the two continents. Co-operation has perhaps never been more urgently needed, as we continue to wrestle with the great challenge that is COVID-19.

A new world of sustainability, if it is to emerge, requires a paradigm shift in intellectual and policy work, particularly on the connection between ecology, economy and society. 

The United Nations has provided us with a multilateral framework for such a paradigm shift in 2015 through the 2030 Agenda. The Sustainable Development Goals that emanate from this moral milestone agreement are the blueprint to achieve a better, more sustainable future for all, a moment of global solidarity and empathy, addressing the international contemporary challenges of poverty, inequality, climate, environmental degradation, prosperity, peace and justice.

Global politics are changing, creating a context that holds both challenges and opportunities for EU-Asia relations. Efforts under way, from both sides, to bridge the geographical distance and facilitate an ever-deeper cooperation are to be welcomed. It is critical, however, that any increased trade or investment that is yielded from such efforts are aligned with the 2030 Agenda and assist us as we work together to create a new economic paradigm based on sustainability and inclusivity.

COVID-19 and Co-operation

As our world, in all its different circumstances, struggles to respond in times such as these to the threat to families, communities, economy and society, it is hard to overstate the toll that the COVID-19 pandemic has taken – lives cut short, the space and time for the expression of grief curtailed for those who have lost loved ones, lack of access to those experiencing severe illness or who are vulnerable, livelihoods made insecure or lost.

Yet perhaps the most important lesson for us is in how interconnected, interdependent in a global sense, we are; how the quality of that interconnection and interdependence matters and will affect our very survival.

COVID-19 reminds us of the need to affirm and strengthen our Asia-Europe ties so as to achieve mutual understanding and positive engagement as we confront, together, the shared global challenges we face.

This pandemic has demonstrated that new ideas are now required, ideas based on equity, sufficiency, sustainability. It has demonstrated an unequivocal need for a new eco-social political economy, of having universal basic services that will protect us in the future, of enabling people to achieve sufficiency in what they need. 

Yet, we must ask, how is such a global project likely to fare within the existing networks of relationships of power? Have we grounds for any optimism? What might we do to advance our best thinking and policy? 

As to what is immediate, COVID-19 is a global problem, and thus requires a global response. Now is not a time for withdrawing behind borders. A realisation exists that societies differ in their capacity to respond, such as those societies in a more perilous position in terms of resources that might be utilised in responding to COVID-19. While the pandemic is a global threat, the most vulnerable are most at risk.

The World Health Organisation’s Dr Mike Ryan frequently reminds us that, “no-one is safe until everyone is safe.” There is, thus, a moral imperative to Asia and Europe working together, in a spirit of collective ingenuity.

Of course, COVID-19 now presents new, additional challenges in terms of its effects on poverty, inequality and hunger, challenges to which we all have a responsibility to respond. According to a recent United Nations report, COVID could double chronic hunger in poorer parts of the world like Africa, with up to 800 million people at risk. Both the virus and the restrictions imposed to curb its spread are disrupting planting, harvesting, the movement of farm labour, and the scale and distribution of produce. 

There are urgent calls for borders to remain open for essential agri-food trade in order to avoid a hunger pandemic. Closed borders, restricted markets and the economic turmoil that has resulted as a consequence of the response to COVID-19 all have potentially disastrous effects on the world’s poorest. We cannot avert our gaze as a global community.

Global Poverty

Extreme poverty and suffering persist in many parts of the world. One billion people struggle to live on less than $1.25 a day. What a moral outrage this is in 2020, indeed, what a great failure, with all the material resources available, that our boundless capacity for creativity and innovation, and the fruits of enterprise, science and technology, remain focused in so many parts of world, not on the ending of global hunger or famine, or the promotion and preservation of peace, but on the pursuit of the technologies and instruments of war, and the promotion of a paradigm of consumption and accumulation as a suggested, desirable, even inevitable, form of a life of fulfilment. 

Co-operation for Healthcare 

These issues are now urgent. For example, COVID has highlighted, without discrimination as to borders, how universal access to healthcare is essential. The only effective, enduring approach to healthcare provision is one founded on real multilateralism and solidarity that enables us all to be ethical partners in the necessary structural change that can deliver universal access to COVID-19 health discoveries. 

The possibility of safe, effective and affordable diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines provides vital hope of overcoming COVID-19, but unless such medical tools are accessible to all on an equitable basis, the world remains at risk. Unequal responses to the pandemic will widen inequalities already exacerbated by the impact of COVID-19. This inequality will turn economic hardship into further loss of cohesion where it existed. We must therefore ensure the equitable distribution of any future vaccine against COVID-19. 

As traditional markets have acknowledged that they cannot deliver at the scale needed to cover the entire globe, solidarity within and between countries and the private sector is essential if we are to overcome challenges presented to us by COVID with regard to accessing appropriate medical treatments.

Co-operation in Research

It makes so much sense to co-operate in research. A recent cross-country investigation by Han et al., published in The Lancet medical journal in September this year, underscores the vital importance of co-operation as a basis for an effective response. This comparative analysis presents important lessons from the experiences of countries and regions in Asia and Europe, finding that countries that continue to share their experiences with others are more effective at shielding their populations and suppressing virus transmission to save lives.

Research such as this highlights the need to continue to work together to share clinical medical data and public health best practice as a means to effective treatments, suppression and potential elimination of the virus. 

Co-operation to Learn from Each Other

There is much for us to share in terms of the experience of responding to this global pandemic. For example, Vietnam is recognised as having one of the best-organised epidemic control programmes in the world, along the lines of other notable Asian nations such as South Korea. Despite economic and technological constraints, these Asian countries’ response to the outbreak has received acclaim for its immediacy, effectiveness and transparency. The collective social response and disciplines evident in countries like Vietnam is illustrated in the form of the response, with community volunteers partnering with State services to protect society successfully and rapidly from the virus, preventing its spread.

Yet, once this crisis is over, we must remember that there will be other crises and other pandemics with which to contend in the future. In addition, all of the structural impediments to development in the poorest nations remain based on current policy, including a wall of debt payments that awaits least-developed, debt-ridden nations, such as those in Africa. 

Lost Cohesion

With the negative trends in poverty and inequality, which damage the possibility of social cohesion and erode trust, it is hardly surprising that we now have a democratic crisis that is borne as a social consequence of such a narrowly focused paradigm of economic development.

With many directly experiencing the consequences which followed from the financial crisis of 2008-9, ongoing erosion of labour rights and deepening inequalities, identity politics, authoritarianism in responding to expressed dissatisfaction, alongside other more directly political causes, such as a resile to a narrow nationalism, popular discontent with the political system has risen in many countries. 

Trust in established institutions, in experts who had offered certainties, and in governments generally has declined. Politicians themselves, some exceptional elements of the commentariat and, most importantly, citizens are correctly challenging the status quo model of political economy, a model that has been with us for four decades now. The spaces for that contestation are, however, limited, be it in third-level institutions or think-tanks that are hostile to pluralist scholarship. 

Societies that once experienced high levels of social cohesion are now more fragmented, prone to cultural as well as economic divisions. Economic and political disempowerment is palpable. There is an absence of any multidisciplinary basic literacy that could produce alternatives. This is occurring along with an understanding that society has become less fair, with a widening gap between the lives of the richest and the majority. In many countries, there is a widespread sense of social and economic conflict and crisis. It is clear that a direct consequence is the rise of ‘populist’ parties of various hues gaining ground across Europe and elsewhere, with some entering government and promoting fear, division and using a public rhetoric that facilitates hatred.

We are witnessing, therefore, a destructive trend in lost social cohesion, now extended to every continent, the adjustment of the basic needs of the people, not only the poorest any longer, to the metrics of a global, financialised economy. 

We have become trapped in a political economy model of booms and busts, a model that is so socially damaging and iniquitous, a model with tenuous legitimacy in terms of accountability, a model that now is posing a threat to democracy itself. Thus, we have reached a point of multiple crises – democratic, economic, social, and ecological – that demands radical new beginnings. Yet, unlike previous periods of history, the spaces for radical interdisciplinary thought are being narrowed. Concentration of ownership and single-paradigm thinking have come at a high price. 

Multiple Crises 

We need to acknowledge that the pandemic crisis in which we now find ourselves is interlinked with other crises, including climate change – an existential crisis which itself interacts, and is currently interacting, with a range of other crises, including those of an economic, social, democratic and indeed cultural nature. 

COVID-19 has magnified the shortcomings of our disconnected paradigm of economy with all its imbalances, inequities and injustices, and it has demonstrated a renewed demand from the citizens of the globe for a new economic order. This is evident through the response to COVID-19, the burden of which fell to the State and proved that the State has the ability to play a leading, transformative role in crisis management and response; that the public sector has the capacity and expertise to deliver quality universal services to its citizens and do so effectively and fairly; that government can act decisively when the will is there.

Need for a New Economic Paradigm

Thankfully, we now have emerging, enlightened, robust scholarly material from which we can develop our new systemic approaches to provide the resilience that is urgently needed. This work has the capacity to offer an alternative model of economy, one that is socially just and is compatible with planetary constraints. Yet the mainstream is colonised by proponents of the failing paradigm. There will be no acknowledgement from them of bad theory or flimsy policy. 

COVID-19 has highlighted the unequivocal case for a new eco-social political economy—of having universal basic services that will protect us in the future, as Anna Coote and Andrew Percy have suggested, and of enabling people to have a sufficiency of what they need, as Ian Gough has contended. Such a paradigm recognises the importance of working within, and in symmetry with, the limits of the world’s natural resources, as well as the importance of recognising the role that unrestrained greed has played in creating the climate-change crisis.

In moving away from insatiable consumption and individualism, our citizens must be able, and encouraged, to see themselves in the space of the vulnerability of each other. Solidarity requires our understanding of the different kinds of vulnerability, as well as differences in capacities and circumstances. Tackling the virus offers a good example. 

The WHO’s Director-General has remarked astutely: “The virus thrives on division but is thwarted when we unite.” Our challenge is, thus, to draw on the values of solidarity and the lessons of ingenuity as COVID-19 confronts 21st-century society and its world economy with a new kind of emergency hazard. 

Galvanising that sentiment of collective actions across the citizenries of our two continents, indeed the citizens of the globe, recognising the inherent flaws of our current model, embracing a new paradigm, one founded on universalism, sustainability and equality – that is what we must do, be it in Ireland or in any part of Asia. 

Such a new departure is our best hope for a sustainable, inclusive, socially cohesive future on the planet and is fundamentally our only hope as a global people of avoiding ecological and social catastrophe. It is of course the most authentic gesture towards intergenerational solidarity. 

Go raibh míle maith agaibh agus beir beannacht.