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2021 Peace Proposal (Part 4 of 13 Segments)

Value Creation in a Time of Crisis

Daisaku Ikeda, President, Soka Gakkai International

January 26, 2021

As heirs to the spirit of Nichiren, members of the SGI have carried out our practice of faith and social engagement in 192 countries and territories based on the determination never to leave behind those who struggle in the depths of suffering. This conviction is distilled in the words of my mentor, Josei Toda: “I wish to see the word ‘misery’ no longer used to describe the world, any country, any individual.”[14]

What is important here is that Toda was focused on the elimination of misery in all dimensions of life: the personal, the national and the global. Undeterred by the global inequities that persist, the issues different countries face or the harsh circumstances besetting people, we must continue to strive together for the elimination of needless suffering, bridging any and all divides that separate us. This determination underlies and drives the SGI’s efforts to deepen ties of cooperation with like-minded nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and faith-based organizations (FBOs) in pursuit of solutions to global challenges.

In one sense, human history consists of an unbroken series of threats, and perhaps it is inevitable that we will continue to face dangers in various forms. This is why it is crucial that we build the strong social foundations for eliminating misery so that, even when confronted with the most intense threat or challenge, we never leave behind those who are most vulnerable and are struggling in the depths of adversity.

In the midst of the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, we are called upon to maintain physical distance, making it harder to discern the conditions in which others find themselves. I cannot help but feel that religious movements and FBOs have an important role to play in supporting efforts to ensure that we do not lose our essential orientation—the recognition that we are all individuals coexisting within the same human society.

The pandemic has gravely impacted our world, and finding our way out of this labyrinth will be far from easy. Nevertheless, I believe the “Ariadne’s thread” that will enable each of us to emerge from the crisis will come into clear view when we allow ourselves to feel the full weight of each individual life and, from there, consider what is most urgently needed to protect and support that life.

Establishing a global solidarity of action

The next thematic area I would like to explore is the need for countries to transcend their differences and come together in solidarity to overcome the crisis.

What is the actual scale of the damage and harm wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic? The United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) has noted the following in light of the enormity of the tragic loss of life and health as well as the accompanying economic and social hardships: “When loss of employment and income are factored in, it could well be that more people have been affected by this single disaster than by any other in human history.” [15] Beyond this, the unprecedented nature of the crisis lies in the fact that it has affected almost all of the world’s nations.

Since the start of the twenty-first century, the world has seen a series of massive natural disasters, including the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami (2004), the Kashmir earthquake (2005), the Myanmar cyclone (2000, the Sichuan earthquake (2000 and the Haiti earthquake (2010). In each case, while the damage was severe, relief and support were made available from other countries, from rescue efforts in the immediate aftermath through to recovery and rebuilding. Following the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in Japan in 2011, numerous countries extended various forms of support to people in the afflicted areas, which was a source of untold encouragement. When disaster strikes, such expressions of international solidarity provide vital spiritual support to those who have been impacted and who are unable to see what lies ahead.

The COVID-19 crisis has struck almost all nations simultaneously, and this creates conditions of even greater complexity, chaos and confusion. If we were to compare the nations of the world to ships that are each engaged in an ocean passage, the novel coronavirus represents a storm of unmatched fury that has struck them all at the same time such that, despite being in the same sea of troubles, they all risk being blown off course in different and random directions.

What, then, can serve as a compass helping us find our way on the uncharted ocean crossing that is the search for a means to overcome the COVID-19 crisis? The British historian Arnold J. Toynbee (1889–1975), with whom I conducted an extensive dialogue, left us these these words: “Our experience in the past gives us the only light on the future that is accessible to us.” [16]

In that spirit I would like to reflect on the example, from the 1950s, of collaboration between the United States and the Soviet Union to develop a vaccine against polio in the midst of escalating Cold War tensions.

Until that time, a vaccine made up of inactivated (“dead” polioviruses had been the prime method for preventing polio infection. In addition to the fact that this form of vaccination had to be injected, it was quite costly. To counter this, efforts were made to develop an orally-administered vaccine made up of weakened but still active (“live” polioviruses. However, because of the already widespread administration of the inactivated vaccine in the United States, relatively few people there were eligible to enroll in trials for this new vaccine.

The Soviet Union, despite the possible benefits for its own children, was at first cool to the idea of collaboration with its rival, the United States. Over time, however, the Soviet authorities, concerned about increasing rates of infection, sought ways to work with the US. For its part, the US recognized the need for Soviet cooperation, and, from 1959, started supporting large-scale trials in the Soviet Union and its neighbors, leading to the development of a safe and effective live-virus vaccine.

I myself have vivid memories of the way that many children in Japan were saved from polio infection through this live-virus vaccine. Polio swept through Japan in 1960, and infections continued to spread in the following year. As the escalating number of patients became the subject of daily news reports, there were growing calls, especially from concerned mothers, for access to vaccines. When, in addition to 3 million doses imported from Canada, the Soviet Union provided 10 million doses of live-virus vaccine, the spread of infection in Japan was quickly brought under control. Sixty years later, I still recall how it became possible to administer these live-virus vaccines, the outcome of US–Soviet cooperation, as well as the palpable sense of relief this brought to mothers throughout Japan.

Today, as COVID-19 infections continue to increase throughout the world, a key focus, alongside the development and production of vaccines, is how to ensure a stable supply to all countries. To respond to this challenge, in April of last year, WHO, along with governmental and civil society partners, launched the COVAX facility for the global procurement of COVID-19 vaccines. With the aim of creating systems to ensure prompt and equitable access to vaccines for all countries, the facility has plans to supply 2 billion doses to participating states by the end of 2021.

The COVAX facility was established just one month after WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic.

COVAX facility

The COVID-19 Global Vaccines Access Facility (COVAX) aims to ensure rapid and equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines across the globe. It is coordinated by Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, (which consists of UNICEF, the World Bank, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and other partners) together with the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) and the World Health Organization (WHO).

The COVAX facility will allow participating countries to access a range of vaccines, regardless of whether or not they have secured a bilateral deal with a particular manufacturer. It enables governments with a deal to diversify their vaccine portfolio and provides them with an insurance policy in case their deal fails; and for governments that would otherwise not be able to afford the vaccine, it should ensure a reliable supply of an effective vaccine. In the first phase, the aim is to provide 2 billion vaccine doses worldwide by the end of 2021, with 1.3 billion going to ninety-two lower income countries.

This speed no doubt reflected the concern that if the competition to develop vaccines were to proceed outside of any international framework, gaps could open between countries with the necessary financial resources and those without, possibly resulting in skyrocketing prices. A resolution adopted at the World Health Assembly, held in May 2020, recognized “the role of extensive immunization against COVID-19 as a global public good” [17] to be shared by all countries. At present, 190 states and territories are participating in the COVAX facility with the goal of making vaccines available from February. But whether the stable supply of vaccines can be secured hinges on obtaining the cooperation of all major states and establishing the necessary support systems.

This can, in turn, shift the trajectory of human history, enabling us to break free from the tragedy of national security approaches that are rooted in, and perpetuate, conflict.

Constructing a culture of human rights

The third thematic area I would like to explore is the need to counteract the spread of misinformation regarding the novel coronavirus, particularly with regard to the effect such misinformation can have in fueling discrimination against those who have been infected. This must be part of the effort to construct a culture of human rights in which no one’s dignity is denied.

Among the literary works that have garnered renewed attention since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic is Daniel Defoe’s (c. 1660–1731) A Journal of the Plague Year. Set in seventeenth-century London, the work portrays citizens’ loss of reason and self-control under the influence of demagogic rhetoric that incites fear, confusion and insecurity. Since ancient times and most recently with HIV/AIDS, human history has seen repeated incidents of discrimination against those suffering from infectious diseases. Outbreaks of irrational fear have again and again caused sharp divisions and disruption that have left deep scars in society.

Contagious diseases differ from conditions such as cancer or heart disease in that we are always alert to the danger of contracting them from other people. This raises the risk that fear of the pathogen will translate into wariness or fear of others. Such feelings are especially problematic when they escalate in ways that compound the suffering of those who have been infected and their families, or when the mood in society becomes one of blaming the spread of infection on people or groups already subject to discrimination and prejudice. Today, there is the additional concern that misinformation or incitement related to infectious diseases can be instantly propagated through social media.

As guidelines for mitigation continue to evolve and the pandemic has an increasingly intense impact on our lives, people look beyond newspapers and other traditional media in order to sate their hunger for information. This has exposed many people to unreliable information from unknown or unconfirmed sources. This virtual information space is often home to malicious forms of discourse that prey on people’s sense of unease in order to incite social disruption or to direct hatred toward certain people or groups.

The unchecked spread of misinformation or incitement, often referred to by the neologism “infodemic,” can intensify discrimination and prejudice, eroding the very foundations of human society. This is another kind of pandemic, one that parallels the spread of the actual disease. The UN has urged strong caution in this regard, and in May last year launched the “Verified” initiative to combat the spread of inaccurate or malicious information about COVID-19. The UN works with multiple media outlets to disseminate information whose accuracy has been confirmed by its own experts as well as other scientists and specialists. The initiative calls for the participation of “information volunteers” throughout the world, who will actively share reliable content as a means of keeping their families and communities safe and connected.

The dangers arising from failure to thoroughly expose errors by challenging falsehoods and misinformation are not limited to the resulting dearth of correct information and knowledge. Of even graver concern is the risk that existing discrimination and prejudice will interact with fears of infection to spur runaway suspicion that deepens the fractures within society and undermines the human rights and dignity that must be protected for all people.

Addressing the question of human rights and contagious disease, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet noted the following in a statement issued on March 6, 2020, five days before WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic: “Human dignity and rights need to be front and centre in that effort, not an afterthought.” [28]

In September, discussing the approaches that are indispensable to our efforts to overcome the COVID-19 crisis, the High Commissioner stressed the following:

We have witnessed the ways in which deeply entrenched inequalities and human rights gaps fuel this virus—magnifying contagion and vastly accelerating its threat. What we need to see today is action to repair those gaps and heal those deep wounds, both in and between our societies. [29]

The structural nature of what the High Commissioner refers to as deeply entrenched inequalities and human rights gaps has tended to obscure the resulting deep wounds. I believe the COVID-19 crisis has brought to the surface discriminatory attitudes already held by people in a semiconscious manner. As the pandemic has worsened, there is concern about the heightened risk that people, influenced by hate-filled discourse, will seek targets on whom to vent their pain and frustration.

Everyone, regardless of geographic or occupational differences and distinctions of ethnicity or faith, is exposed to the risk of infection with COVID-19. Despite the fact that this is clearly a challenge we must confront and overcome together, we see social fragmentation that exacerbates the threat. What are the underlying factors driving this?

In considering this question, I would like to reference the analysis of the nature of discrimination by the American philosopher Martha C. Nussbaum in her book Hiding from Humanity: Disgust, Shame, and the Law. Nussbaum argues that the act of drawing boundaries within society is rooted in our feelings of disgust for those others we consider evil and our attempt to distance ourselves from them. She summarizes her point in this way: In seeking the comfort of distancing ourselves from evil, we call disgust to our aid.

Although Nussbaum is focused here on ways of thinking that seek to tie evil acts to specific groups, assuming that these bear no relation to us, I believe there are structural similarities between such thinking and the kinds of disruption and discrimination that an outbreak of infectious disease can provoke.

In this same work, Nussbaum notes the many examples of medical terminology such as bacilli (bacteria) being enlisted to direct disgust at certain groups, justifying their denigration or oppression. [30]

At the root of discrimination is the feeling that the members of one’s own group are the most just and valuable of all. When society confronts a crisis situation, there is a strong impulse to prioritize the members of one’s own group. This interacts with feelings of distaste for others, causing people to seek security by cutting off contact with those seen as different from themselves.

Nussbaum warns that this feeling of disgust “imputes to the object properties that make it no longer a member of the subject’s own community or world, a kind of alien species of thing” [31] and further argues that “when it conduces to the political subordination and marginalization of vulnerable groups and people, disgust is a dangerous social sentiment.” [32]

At the same time, Nussbaum assigns importance to indignation as an emotion that supports democratic society. “Indignation has a constructive function: it says, ‘these people have been wronged, and they should not have been wronged.’ In itself, it provides incentives to right the wrong.” [33] In this sense, while the experience of difficulty and precariousness of life can become the cause for an intensification of discriminatory consciousness and bears the risk of deepening divisions in society, it also has the potential to give rise to constructive action toward the realization of a society of creative coexistence.

As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, making its presence felt in virtually every sector of society, large numbers of people are finding themselves more attuned to and affected by the pain of those whose lives and dignity are being denied, perhaps with an intensity they have not previously experienced. We must be careful not to allow our own sense of claustrophobic despair to seek outlet in feelings of disgust for others. Rather, it is vital that we use it to empathize with others—to extend our thoughts to the difficulty and precariousness others are experiencing—and from there, to direct our energies into expanding solidarity with those engaged in constructive action to change the harsh realities of society.

Of course, it is only natural that we would regard our own lives as the most precious of all. This reality is embraced in the approach to human rights expounded by the Buddhist teachings practiced by members of the SGI.

For example, we have the following account drawn from the life and teachings of Shakyamuni. On one occasion, while in conversation, the king and queen of the ancient Indian kingdom of Kosala came to realize that they each held no one more dear than themselves. Upon hearing this honest feeling, Shakyamuni responded with the following verse:

Having traversed all quarters with the mind,

One finds none anywhere dearer than oneself.

Likewise, each person holds himself most dear;

Hence one who loves himself should not harm others. [34]

In other words, if you regard your own life to be precious and irreplaceable, then you should grasp the fact that each person must also feel that way; making this realization the basis for how you conduct your life, you should resolve never to act in ways that will cause harm to others.

As illustrated by this anecdote, the Buddhist perspective on human rights urges us not to extinguish or suppress our feelings of cherishing ourselves above all else. On the contrary, by extending and opening the love we feel for ourselves to love for others, we can rebraid the tapestry of our lives, restoring the ways in which we connect to others and to society at large.

The Lotus Sutra is an unfolding narrative of the dramatic revitalization of human life. As one person after another comes into contact with this notion that all without exception inherently possess the most sublime state of being, and as they steadily awaken to their own precious and irreplaceable dignity, they begin to recognize the weight and value of the dignity of others. Thus, they mutually deepen their determination to build a world in which the dignity of both self and others shines brightly.

In the Lotus Sutra, Shakyamuni dispels the boundaries dividing people in society, stressing that the most sublime state of being resides equally within all, including women—who had long been subjected to harsh discrimination—as well as individuals who had committed evil deeds. Clearly declaring the dignity of those who have been the target of various forms of oppression and discrimination, the Lotus Sutra is interlaced with the lively exchange of voices in mutual celebration and affirmation of the dignified essence of our being. Through this rich drama of lives inspiring and becoming inspired, it gives concrete form to the principle of the inherent dignity of all humankind.

Based on the Lotus Sutra’s teaching of human dignity, committed to building a society which opposes any and all forms of discrimination and to ensuring that no one is denied their dignity, the SGI has consistently worked to promote human rights education as called for by the United Nations.

In support of the UN Decade for Human Rights Education that began in 1995, the SGI organized the exhibition “Toward a Century of Humanity: An Overview of Human Rights in Today’s World,” which traveled to forty cities in eight countries. We have also actively engaged in the promotion of the World Programme for Human Rights Education since its launch in 2005. In addition, in 2011 the SGI worked in collaboration with other organizations to support the adoption of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Education and Training, a landmark instrument in setting universal standards for human rights education. Since then, we have engaged in activities such as co-organizing the exhibition “Transforming Lives: The Power of Human Rights Education” [35] in cooperation with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and in co-creating the Human Rights Education: Open Web Resource website. [36]

During the UN Human Rights Council session held last September, the SGI, on behalf of the NGO Working Group on Human Rights Education and Learning, delivered a joint statement in reference to the Plan of Action for the fourth phase of the World Programme for Human Rights Education, which focuses on youth and began last January:

[The Plan of Action] sets great possibilities for human rights education and young people. While COVID-19 adds challenges to the implementation of the Plan, there cannot be a “break” for human rights education which is a key condition for human rights to be a reality. [37]

This year will mark ten years since the adoption of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Education and Training, which describes human rights education as being integral to building an inclusive society. Just as a circle cannot be considered complete unless all of its constituent arcs are drawn, so long as the promise of universal respect for human rights is undermined by social disparities and distinctions—so long as people continue to be excluded and marginalized—it will remain an empty slogan, never becoming a tangible reality.

Human rights education can propel the formation of robust solidarity among people who, sharing an awareness of the importance of human dignity, are engaged in the work of reexamining our ways of living and thus transforming society. In so doing, we can give clear and palpable form to those arcs of the full circle of human rights and dignity that have been lost and obscured by the structural nature of oppression.

The SGI has consistently carried out activities in support of human rights education with a view to completing the circle of an inclusive society, working together with all those with whom we share this world. Strengthening efforts to stop the spread of malicious misinformation and discrimination and to dispel the dark clouds of fear and anxiety seeded by the COVID-19 crisis, we must now rise to the challenge of anchoring a vibrant culture of human rights on our shared determination that no one’s dignity ever be denied.

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