The Virtual Community Forum brought together 30 former, current, and future Fellows of the Robert Bosch Academy from 20 countries. During the online event, they discussed the Covid-19 pandemic’s global implications focusing on international cooperation, social cohesion, and democracy.
The Covid-19 pandemic deeply affects societies around the globe. The crisis raises major questions about the future of our societies and could have a lasting impact on the world as we know it.
How will this impact the international cooperation, social cohesion, and state of democracies worldwide? On 20 May 2020, our fellows joined the Academy’s first Virtual Community Forum to debate as well as to socialize in times of social distancing.
“Institutions like the Robert Bosch Academy are needed now more than ever”, said Henry Alt-Haaker, Senior Vice President of the Robert Bosch Stiftung, in his opening remarks. “One of the raison d’êtres of the Academy is to bring together exceptional decision makers and opinion leaders who discuss current topics of societal relevance. Moreover, they do not discuss those issues purely academically but always with concrete policy relevance. A global pandemic that affects all of our countries and lives makes exchange of different global perspectives crucial.”
The pandemic, while being a global phenomenon, influences regions and countries differently. In light of the fellow community’s internationalism (it spans five continents), the forum started by testing the mood and perspectives of fellows on Covid-19-related issues through a survey and live polling.
Major concerns about the economy, international cooperation, and social cohesion
While the impact of the pandemic on the global economy is the attendees’ greatest concern, worries about social polarization and the future of multilateralism and international cooperation contribute to their feelings of frustration. The discussion became more optimistic when they discussed hopes for improvements in health care systems and the lessons for other threats and pandemics.
A live polling also revealed that most fellows consider the balance between individual restrictions and the protection of the public to be appropriate in their societies. However, they have a pessimistic attitude towards the long-term consequences of the pandemic on our democracies.
While the fellows were united in their current concerns, the community had mixed opinions about the areas to prioritize in the next five years: 28 percent of the participants believed that the challenges to global economy should be prioritized, followed by 22 percent who put social cohesion first. With 17 percent each, strengthening international cooperation and fighting climate change came in third place.
The live polling was followed by a speed-dating-style one-on-one discussion in which the fellows had an exchange on the survey results and the pandemic’s global repercussions.
Covid-19 will transform the nature of globalization
Three groups, three lively discussions: In three parallel breakout sessions, the fellows debated the long-term implications of the pandemic. Each session started with a brief thematic input by a current fellow.
One group discussed the impact of the pandemic on international cooperation. The fellows agreed that the current crisis would widen geopolitical fissures and intensify the power rivalry between China and the US, which implies a further weaponization of economic policy tools. International organizations will increasingly become venues for rivalry, leading countries to work around formal international institutions rather than through them.
In addition, one fellow remarked that the pandemic does not herald the end of globalization, but rather will transform its nature. The pandemic could accelerate innovation, especially in the field of digitalization and biotechnology, with enormous consequences for our economic and social lives. “The results will astound us,” said the fellow.
The world’s largest-ever experiment in social cohesion
Another group addressed the question of social cohesion in times of the pandemic. One fellow encouraged the community to take a unique perspective on Covid-19 as “the world’s largest-ever natural experiment affecting social cohesion, social capital and social trust.” On the one hand, Covid-19 furthers pro-social behavior since billions of people have voluntarily changed their behavior for the common good; on the other hand, it has also led to self-protective responses, sparking distrust, nationalism, and conspiracy theory movements.
It appears that social cohesion increases among self-identified groups, but often leads to increased out-group distrust. Insights from an Israeli fellow underlined this mixed impression: Covid-19 fuels existing tensions about Arab access to key positions of power in society but has also led to increased cooperation between Palestinian and Israeli authorities in countering the pandemic together. The group didn’t agree whether the impact of the crisis on marginalized groups will last in the future. They did however agree that competition between autocracies and democracies will remain high on the political agenda.
Pessimistic outlook for the future of democracy
Meanwhile, a third group discussed the pandemic’s implications for democracy. The fellows debated how authoritarian regimes are gaining influence and cementing their power. They highlighted countries where democracy is already in decline and the impact of corona restrictions on the future of those political systems. "That authoritarian regimes around the world are exploiting the pandemic to tighten their grip on power is not surprising. Unfortunately, a number of democratic governments are doing the same thing", criticized one fellow. The group was doubtful that democracies will emerge stronger.
Furthermore, fellows discussed possible transformative aspects of the pandemic for the international system and human rights. The debate covered a broad range of issues: from the relevance of universal values in the postmodern era and the model of capitalism in general, to the rethinking of our form of democratic governance.
Returning to where we were before is not an option
Following the break-out sessions, the community continued its discussion in the plenary. Among other topics, they discussed the role of low-paid workers in the fight against corona; the artist in framing the pandemic in a historical context; tackling the societal representation of minoritized groups; and the future of the global order. One attendee remarked, “It would be terrible if we thought about simply returning back to where we were before because that was a disaster for many people.” He called upon the community to “think much more about the types of institutions that solve the problems that we have been unable to solve the last 30 years, including inequality or exclusion.”
Other fellows emphasized the role and responsibility of the Robert Bosch Academy as a space that encourages interdisciplinary and multilateral dialogue among an international community of intellectuals. A global health crisis increases the necessity for broad discourse and global perspectives in the starkest terms. “One of the things I would love for the Academy is to pool our efforts and try to raise the questions that are not being asked”, said one participant.
The Virtual Community Forum laid the foundation for starting a broad, critical conversation. The next opportunity to continue the discussion will be Richard von Weizsäcker Forum in fall 2020.
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