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Covid. Yawn. World is opening up. Just live with it.
That head-in-the-sand approach could prove dangerous to businesses, organisations, governments and the global order, according to a new report from the International Science Council (ISC).
The report, Unprecedented and Unfinished: Covid-19 and the Implications for National and Global Policy, brings together the latest thinking in medical science, economics, politics, ethics and behavioural science to paint a complex picture of where our world might be headed.
It features three scenarios for the pandemic in 2027 (see below). And arguably the most concerning possible impacts are not in the health sphere.
Speaking to Boardroom News from Paris at the report’s launch, New Zealander and ISC President Sir Peter Gluckman warned that the pandemic has destabilised the international order at a time when we desperately need a period of peaceful cooperation.
”We are facing a perfect storm,” Gluckman says.
“We have covid-19 and its ongoing issues. We have climate change and its emerging issues. And we have a conflict between superpowers or their proxies [in the Ukraine] on a scale we have not seen since 1945.
“This is at the very time we need global cooperation and cohesion to deal with the sustainability crisis, the food-energy-water nexus, and a pandemic that is not over by any stretch of the imagination.”
Unprecedented and Unfinished is a bold title for a scientific body, and the ISC is not known for hyperbole. The organisation is comprised of more than 200 international scientific unions and associations as well as national and regional scientific organizations including academies and research councils.
That title reflects the serious concerns raised by the research (which was supported by the UN and WHO) into the broader ramifications of the pandemic.
Gluckman says that thinking about covid-19 in terms of health outcomes is too narrow a viewpoint. It has spawned a tidal wave of disinformation that is undermining social cohesion, and dividing politics, around the world. It has exacerbated existing inequalities of wealth between – and within – countries. And its impact on global trade and the global economy is ongoing.
Which all makes strategic planning a nightmare, particularly on a five-year scale during a time of rapid change.
“2027 is a long way out,” Gluckman acknowledges. “Who knows how the world will look just a year from now from a geostrategic point of view? How will it look two years from now if [US President Joe] Biden loses control of the senate or house, or both? Will the virus bounce back? We are seeing a bounce happen now, in terms of morbidity, in many countries.”
While the report takes a global perspective, Gluckman has some specific ideas on what it means for Aotearoa New Zealand.
“New Zealand has always been a very good broker, because we are not a threat to anybody but penguins,” he says.
“And New Zealand has a part to play at this time. That’s not about partisan politics, it is about New Zealand’s global interests.”
As we reconnect with the world after a period of pandemic isolation, we will have to earn our influence back, he says.
“The way to do that is to use our talent to advance our interests in the world by being good global citizens.”
We should not imagine that we can safely, or successfully, isolate from malign global forces. Even local issues we think we have banished, such as lockdowns or closed borders, could re-emerge over the next five years.
“Under any of the scenarios, lockdowns could still happen. When you have a partially vaccinated population in the world, it is inevitable that more variants will appear. The virus could evolve in any way it likes, it’s not predictable. In the unlikely – but not impossible – situation of a virulent variant emerging that evades our vaccines, lockdowns could happen.”
New Zealand is also likely to find itself grappling with the outcomes of many years of pandemic disinformation, and consequent reduction in social cohesion, he says.
“There has been a lot of anti-vaccination social media, some from outside New Zealand. I think we would be naive to believe there was not a lot of disinformation, which impacted particularly on those who were vaccine hesitant.”
This will potentially impair our ability to apply scientific solutions to future crises, he says, noting that already our country’s commitment to science is perhaps more honoured in the breach than the observance.
“We are very good at the rhetoric. But we have one of the lowest investments in research and development, per capita, of any OECD country. We keep saying we are going to invest more, but we never do.
“Our science system needs a lot of care and restoration. Our universities have been pretty starved for the past few years and increasingly the expectation is on teaching rather than research.”
That said, he identifies climate change as an area where New Zealand is beginning to bridge the gap between talk and science-based action.
“We are trying to make a solid attempt - in climate change – at long-term thinking.”
As the leader of a global science body, it is perhaps not surprising that Gluckman sees science as a key part of a sustainable global future.
However, there is a lot of built up political capital in disbelief that will need to be diffused before it can take its rightful place in a solutions-focussed world, he says.
“Disbelief in science has become a badge of pride for some people in some countries. The Trumpian party in the US effectively badged itself by disbelieving a lot of science around covid-19. It has also done so around climate change, in many ways.
“There is a danger that disbelief in science has become more of a political issue than it ever was before. That’s a tragic circumstance because, in the end, if we are going to manage climate change, sustainability, social cohesion and another outbreak of a pandemic… all of them rely on science.”
The scientific community, Gluckman says, is always testing beliefs in order to find truth. But if the conclusions of science are contested for political purposes, not scientific purposes, then we will pay a price, he warns.
“We are at a real tipping point, globally, on this particular issue.”
The most likely - the Continuity scenario: Assumes covid-19 has become an endemic disease, with seasonal surges occurring. Most counties have access to updated vaccines, but unvaccinated populations remain a stumbling block to achieving widespread immunity. Variants remain a concern. Disinformation and populism during the pandemic have reduced social cohesion and created political challenges at national and global levels.
The pessimistic – the Missed Recovery scenario: Assumes covid-19 mutates into more pathogenic and transmissible variants. Restrictive public health measures such as regional lockdowns continue. The virus is largely uncontrolled in parts of the world. Authoritarian governments are on the rise and international cooperation is in decline.
The optimistic – the Collaboration Plus scenario: International cooperation is high and more than 70% of the world’s population is vaccinated. The shock of the pandemic has promoted wealthy countries to invest in a “green recovery” and invest in their health systems. Governments have learned lessons and take a science-based approach to future crises, such as climate change.