2021 Peace Proposal (Part 1 of 13 Segments)
Value Creation in a Time of Crisis
January 26, 2021
The world today is faced with a complex set of urgent crises that can only be described as unprecedented in the history of humankind. In addition to the increasing incidence, every passing year of extreme weather events that reflect the worsening problem of climate change, the onslaught of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic continues to threaten social and economic stability throughout the world. I use the term unprecedented here, not merely in reference to the overlapping and interlocking layers of crisis we are experiencing today.
Humanity has been confronted with various kinds of challenges throughout its long history, yet it has never faced a situation in which the entire world is impacted at once, gravely threatening the lives, livelihood and dignity of people in countries everywhere throwing them into conditions in which they find themselves requiring urgent assistance.
As of January 25th, 2021, the number of people infected with COVID-19 has surpassed 99 million of these, more than 2.12 million have died in the span of slightly more than one year. The number of COVID-19 fatalities blamed by large scale natural disasters over the past 20 years. One cannot begin to fathom the depth of grief experienced by those who have lost their loved ones in this unforeseen manner; and this pain is deepened by the fact that, due to measures to prevent the spread of the virus, so many of the victims have been prevented from spending their final moments with family by their side. Compounding the intensity of loss that has robbed people of any sense of closure, the breakdown of economic activity has led to spike in bankruptcies and unemployment, pushing large numbers of people into poverty and deprivation.
Nevertheless, even as the dark clouds of this crises continue to shroud the world, progress in efforts to build a global society committed to peace and humane values has not halted. Examples of important progress include the entry into force of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), this past January 22nd; universal ratification by the 187 member States of the International Labor Organization (ILO) of a convention outlawing the worst forms of child labor and eradication of wild polio in Africa.
Eradication of polio in African Region
Polio is a highly infectious viral disease that can cause permanent paralysis and can be fatal in some cases when muscles used for breathing are affected. There is no cure, but vaccination can protect people for life and lead to eradication of the disease.
In 2020, all forty-seven countries of the World Health Organization (WHO) African Region were declared free of wild polio after four years passed without any cases of the virus. This was achieved through a program of vaccination and disease surveillance led by the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, the largest international public health initiative in history. There is, however, still a risk posed by vaccine- derived polioviruses, rare strains of poliovirus that have mutated from the weakened virus present in the oral vaccine Polio remains endemic in two countries, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Each of these achievements holds great worth as the world strives to realize the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGS) by 2030, target year set by the United Nations. These successes are clear expressions of the limitless human capacity to overcome obstacles and become the authors of a new history. This can especially be said to the (TPNW), which fulfilled the conditions for entry into force last October 24th United Nations Day. The treaty maps a clear path to the achievement of the long-sought goal of nuclear weapons abolition, an issue that was addressed at the UN in 1946, one year after its founding, in a very first resolution adopted by the General Assembly; it has remained pending ever since.
In September 1957, amid the accelerating nuclear arms race of the Cold War, Josei Toda (1900 to 58), Second President of the Soka Gakkai issued a declaration calling for the abolition of nuclear weapons. Inspired by this, our organization has worked for the comprehensive prohibition of nuclear weapons, and to make this a norm governing international relations. To this end, the Soka Gakkai International (SGI) has actively collaborated with such organizations as the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN). In light of this history, the TPNW’S entry into force is an unparalleled cause for celebration.
With the world still reeling from the impacts of the pandemic, I would like to explore some of the approaches that I believe are required in order to overcome this complex crises, as well as to offer a number of proposals on ways to generate solid momentum for the challenge of building a global society of peace and humane values in the 21st century.
The determination never to leave behind those struggling with challenges
The first thematic area I would like to explore is the determination never to leave behind those struggling in the depths of adversity, who find themselves isolated as our sense of crises becomes increasingly normalized.
Since the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 to be a pandemic on March 11 last year, the numbers of infections and deaths are now a regular part of the daily news. In order to reflect on the actual significance of these continually updated statistics amid the seemingly ceaseless spread of infection, I believe we would do well to recall the words of Chancellor Angela Merkel in her address to the German people one week after the WHO announcement:
These are not just abstract numbers and statistics, but this is about a father or grandfather, a mother or grandmother, a partner- this is about people and we are a community in which each life and each person counts.
When we are faced with an emergency such as a large-scale disaster, we need to remind ourselves not to lose sight of this perspective. This is even more essential today as we are confronted with a pandemic that continues to threaten the entire world and we have become increasingly accustomed to the crisis.
In our daily Buddhist practice, members of the SGI around the world have continued to offer heartfelt prayers for the complete eradication of COVID-19 at the earliest possible date, as well as the repose of the deceased. And we have of course taken strict precautionary measures in the course of our activities to prevent further spread of the virus.
Starting in September of last year. The Soka Institute of the Amazon, which I worked to establish, has been planting one tree in memory of each victim of COVID-19 in Brazil as part of its Life Memorial project. With every tree planted, the initiative aims to honor and acknowledge those with whom life has been shared in the great Land of Brazil- perpetuating their memory while also contributing to the reforestation and protection of the ecological integrity of the Amazon region.
It has always been a cornerstone of human society to collectively mourn the deceased and commit ourselves to living in a manner that honors their legacy. Today, when it is increasingly difficult to gather in one place to pay tribute to those who have passed away, it is all the more crucial that we not lose sight of the value of each individual and never let life be reduced to a mere statistic.
The increasing normalization of the crises in daily life and the focus on the need for each person to take steps to protect themselves from the virus, we risk neglecting the particular hardships faced by society's most vulnerable members.
In their efforts to contain the pandemic, countries have placed foremost priority on strengthening their medical and health care systems along with introducing a variety of measures that are often described as representing a “new normal.” This includes practices such as social distancing- maintaining a safe physical distance from others to prevent exposure- remote working and online learning, as well as staying home as much as possible. These measures have been significant in suppressing the rapid spread of COVID-19 and reducing the pressure on medical systems.
In one sense, the fact that more people are proactively exploring new adoptions and innovations in response to calls to slow the spread of infection holds the potential to go beyond simple risk prevention. These innovations not only contribute directly to protecting the lives of family and loved ones and those in our intimate circle of connections; such seemingly small, repeated actions also embody a turn for the large numbers of unseen people with whom we share life in the broader society.
At the same time, we must attend to the needs of those whose lives were already made vulnerable by various disparities and discrimination, whose ability to live in dignity hinges on the support of social contacts and networks, and who had been gravely impacted by the crises. For example, if support for those who require daily nursing care is reduced, this can seriously impede their ability to lead their daily lives. Furthermore, the loss of precious time with people in their support networks erodes the foundations for living with dignity. And as we spend more and more of our lives online-from work to education and shopping- there is a serious risk of leaving behind those who, for economic or other reasons, have inadequate access to online networks or have yet to master their use.
In addition, it has been reported that as people are increasingly confined to their homes the number of cases of women being exposed to domestic violence is escalating. Many of the victims of this violence find themselves unable to reach out for and receive assistance from governmental or social agencies due to the ongoing presence of the perpetrator, (spouse or partner) in the home.
As measures to contain the spread of infection, take root in society and we become increasingly inured to the COVID-19 crisis, it is crucial that we maintain an active commitment to protect the large numbers of unseen people whose plight risks being overlooked. We must prioritize efforts to alleviate their pain and claustrophobic sense of danger, making this the requisite for rebuilding our society.
WHO has recommended use of the term “physical distancing” instead of “social distancing”, to avoid the implication that we should limit our human connections with one another, as that could result in further cementing social isolation and division. Even if the world has entered a long tunnel with no clear end insight and the circumstances experienced by others are obstructed from view, we must absolutely not lose our essential orientation, which is the fact that we all coexist in the same society.
Here I would like to cite the views expressed by UN Secretary- General Antonio Gutierrez. When asked what the “new normal” meant to him at a UN webinar titled “Coping with COVID” held last July, he refused to describe our present circumstances in those terms, calling them instead “abnormal.” Indeed, even as great numbers of people are thrown into an unavoidable state of emergency due to the pandemic, we must continue to maintain the awareness that these are inherently abnormal conditions for human beings.
On a separate occasion, the UN chief remarked:
There is a lot of talk about the need for a “new normal” after this crisis. But let's not forget that the pre- COVID-19 world was far from normal. Rising inequality's, systemic gender discrimination, lack of opportunities for young people, stagnant wages, runaway climate change- none of these things were “normal.”
I deeply share both of these concerns. If we allow such global inequities and distortions to continue unabated, this will inevitably leave more and more people behind, making it that much harder to envisage the post- COVID world we would want.
Although COVID-19 poses a threat to all countries, the fact remains that there is a wide gap in the severity of its impact depending on the circumstances in which people find themselves. For example, some 40 percent of the world’s population live in conditions in which they are unable to regularly wash their hands with soap, a standard method for preventing infection. This means that some 3 billion people lack access to a basic means of protecting themselves and their loved ones.
In addition, with the number of people forcibly displaced from their homes by conflict or persecution, reaching 80 million, many have no choice but to share close living quarters with others in refugee camps. Such conditions make it virtually impossible to practice physical distancing; these people must live with the risk of exposure should an infection break out.
The crisis facing the world today consists of many complex interlocking threats, making it difficult to identify the interrelations among them as required to fully address the problem. While acknowledging this constraint, I would argue that, even as we work to develop a comprehensive response, we must always prioritize addressing the suffering of each of the many individuals whose lives are directly impacted.
The following Buddhist perspective may be useful in this regard. In the parable of the poisonous arrow, Shakyamuni relates the story of a man who has been shot and wounded by a poisoned arrow. Before he will allow the arrow to be removed, he insists on knowing who made the bow and arrow and the identity- the name and clan- of the person who shot him. No measures can be taken while he demands answers to such particulars. What would happen to such a man, Shakyamuni stresses, is that the arrow will remain lodged in his body and he will end up losing his life.