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Averting coronavirus and nuclear war

Everyone is aware of the difficult and menacing situation in which society shrunk into one community with a common fate—finds itself, but only a few act accor­dingly. Most people go on living their everyday life: half frigh­tened, half indifferent, they behold the ghastly tragicomedy that is being performed on the international stage before the eyes and ears of the world. But on that stage, on which the actors under the floodlights play their ordained parts, our fate of tomorrow, life or death of the nations, is being decided.”

The words are not from a 2020 global leader. They were spoken by German-born Albert Einstein, the progenitor of E = mc2 who egged the United States to develop an ato­mic weapon ahead of the Nazis, leading to the Hiroshima and Nagasaki tragedies, which converted him to become a pacifist and humanitarian thereafter. Einstein seemed to have a 20/20 vision though.

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“It would be different if the problem were not one of the things made by man himself, such as the atomic bomb and other means of mass destruction, equally menacing all peoples. It would be different, for instance, if an epidemic of bubonic plague were threatening the entire world, “ Einstein continued, without the coronavirus 2020 pandemic in mind of course, when he addressed the United Nations foreign press corps at the Waldorf Astoria on Nov. 11, 1947.

But his very opening sentence has not been heeded by global players in the coronavirus situation: “Few act accordingly” with global public goods in mind to help the “one community with a common fate.” The World Health Organization, instead of being suppor­ted by correcting its mistakes and guided on reform, is weakened by the US-China trade war that has escalated to rising geopolitical power rather than mere geoeconomic rivalry that threatens jobs and supply chains linking small and large businesses.

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Some global cooperation through a few countries (Sweden and other donor nations) and major philanthropies, notably the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation supported by Warren Buffett, are accelerating the search for a vaccine; however, individual country initiatives driven by private sector-led efforts raise the specter of political/ nationalistic distribution issues once production reaches the post-trial stages. The new waves of the coronavirus will also require continuous research for updated vaccines.

Einstein’s solution

In the case of a pandemic, Einstein advised: “[C]onscientious and expert persons would be brought together … work out an intelligent plan to combat the plague. After having reached agreement upon the right ways and means, they would submit their plans to governments. Those would hardly raise serious objections but rather agree speedily on the measures to be taken. They certainly would never think of trying to handle the matter in such a way that their own nation would be spared whereas the next one would be decimated.”

But only the collective voices of globally recognized scientists may prove most convincing. In this spirit, the Bertrand Russell–Albert Einstein Manifesto of July 9, 1955, led to a conference for scientists from key countries. It was organized in Pugwash, Nova Scotia, by industrialist/ philanthropist Cyrus Eaton to assess the dangers of weapons of mass destruction, then limited to nuclear weapons only.

Eventually, the group expanded to include policy influencers in various countries that may be drawn into the game of nuclear powers, including the Philippines in 1969 with the festering Mindanao conflict. Having worked with the Philippines’ Executive Secretary Rafael M. Salas, I was invited while a graduate scholar at Purdue University to the 1969 Pugwash Conference on Science and World Affairs; there, I was convinced by Nobel laureates that this problem may become a reality within my lifetime.

Pugwash’s record

For the first 15 years of its founding in 1957, the Pugwash group, horrified by the Berlin and Cuban Missile Crises, the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia, and the Vietnam War, promoted unofficial or Track II diplomacy for major players.

Pugwash succeeded in opening communication channels when intergovernmental official and unofficial relations were severely constrained. The negotiations groundwork that ended the Vietnam War is credited by US Defense Secretary Robert McNamara as a Pugwash back channel initiative code named after a historic American state. Similarly, Mikhail Gorbachev acknowledged to have been influenced by Pugwash when he was the Soviet Union leader.

Most recently, Pugwash convened on the subject of the China-US nuclear strategic relationship (Dec. 4-5, 2019), barely a month before the COVID-19 first appeared in the world. Sponsored by the Shanghai Academy of Social Science, five American scholars and 20 counterpart Chinese scholars and former officials stressed the need to keep both formal and informal lines of communication open to promote clear mutual understanding of perceptions and risks. They advised both sides that “to talk is not weak, it is to shape the future to your own benefit.” The Russia factor was brought into the discussions of future possibilities of arms control, as well as the challenges of regional proliferation.

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This Track II-type group of scientific experts and policy influencers is what planet Earth desperately needs today to address pandemics that impact disproportionately on the old poor or the new jobless and cashless poor. Populist and nationalist demands can be tempered by wise counsel from Pugwash-type experts whose collective voices may bear more weightily on the conscience of political and other leaders.

Pugwash as a group won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1995. It would be attractive for the equivalent group in Asia, the Ramon Magsaysay Awards Foundation, to help convene similar people with greatness of spirit, especially in social dimensions of global problems. Combining the call of such respected global leaders, the wisdom-keepers of the planet can nudge the top billionaires of the world to invest in their own future for the truly global public goods in pandemic research and development and assistance to those who can coun­ter the harbingers of equivalent nuclear wars. INQ

This article reflects the personal opinion of the author and does not reflect the official stand of the Management Association of the Philippines or the MAP. The author is a member of the MAP CEO Conference Committee and the MAP Management Development and Human Capital Committee. He is an Adjunct Professor at the Asian Institute of Management. Feedback at [email protected] and [email protected] . For previous articles, please visit map.org.ph.

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