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An Unprecedented Opportunity: Transformation as our Response to COVID-19

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Blog post by CANARI’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) Champion, Ambassador Dessima Williams:

As we respond in 2020 and beyond to the COVID-19 pandemic, the human race has an unprecedented opportunity to change course and transform self, society and all human-dependent systems toward greater sustainability.

 In this season of the COVID-19 global pandemic, what we really have is an unprecedented opportunity to change from our destructive course. That is, we have the chance to re-set the values that permeate thought and actions that direct our individual and collective lives and to be truly transformational.

This new space is being created out of a fresh, positive opening in the human spirit brought on as a response to COVID-19; the opening is also fed by a decades-old but growing awareness that humanity must act in an urgent and powerful manner to stem lingering threats.

The positive shift in the human spirit comes from a soaring awareness now, of our human connectedness. This is brought on as pandemic-death has hit all around us and has stirred up the realisation of how much we mean to one another and how much we need each other for survival, literally. One of the best examples of this comes from the United Kingdom’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson, whose acknowledgement of his total dependence on two nurses (one from New Zealand) in an ICU center who, “…were watching, and they were thinking, and they were caring, and making the interventions I needed” as they saved his life which hung in the balance. This experience is replicated hundreds of thousands of times as persons became co-dependent anew, in hospitals as well as homes and communities across the world. In large measure, it is not the co-dependency per se that is new, but the massive scale and truly global consciousness of it as well as the willingness to acknowledge and act on it. This explains global demonstrations of appreciation and support for essential and frontline workers, from New York City, USA, to Sydney, Australia, and here across the Caribbean.

The other source of humanity’s new positive opportunity, which COVID-19 has ushered in, is the recognition of the need to solve long-standing, deep and dangerous threats to ourselves, including the threat of inequalities. These expanding risks to human and planetary life (including military spending and nuclear warheads, climate change and biodiversity loss), bring insecurity and war, persistent poverty and destitution, shrinking availability of life-supporting clean water and resources all taking us to a planetary tipping point. Indeed, this basket of dangers from conventional and lingering threats is getting bigger, and, unlike the dreadful virus, the dangers will not run their course and go away. Rather, left to continue, climatic, environmental and militaristic threats will run us down!  Our only escape is the vaccine of deliberate human pull-back. Happily, there is an increased awareness that we can and must undo our risks. Quite frankly, the ostrich-with-a-head-in-the-sand leaders of a few countries notwithstanding, the world sees that positive action on interdependence is the moral and practical pathway to a more secure future for all.  We would have saved lives and survived at spiritual, physical and existential levels.

The Caribbean Natural Resource Institute (CANARI) has a 30-year history in environmental governance that can be a model of how to move from big ideas to even bigger, appropriate action. Working alongside government, civil society and its partners, CANARI spreads a “yes! we can transform” culture across the Caribbean in relation to management of fisheries, agro-forestry, climate change and conservation and sustainability culture. CANARI has a repertoire of learnable, scalable models others in the region and beyond can learn, adapt and use.

We must save ourselves and the planet. We must live just, interdependent lives that help to transform toward a better world. The good news is that we can do so, by challenging the core values of our thinking, our action and inaction, from hurtful and harmful to helpful and fruitful. The most critical values change for all is to accept the equal worth and equal rights of all humans, whatever group to which they belong and or wherever they live. Any bias must be toward righting historic wrongs, protecting those most vulnerable and institutionalising this new culture.

In 2015, the United Nations pointed the way for the transformation of individuals and all human systems  with Agenda 2030 and the Sustainable Development Goals, the SDGs. The SDGs is humanity’s call to pull the world away from what Peter Thomson calls “the precipice of sustainability” and toward inclusion, inter-connectedness, sustainable  patterns of consumption and production, the rejection of war and the sincere search for partnership, peace and a rebalancing of power that leave no one behind, at least not in destitution and injustice. The new reality has to be built on a rejection of the crude and costly obsession with power over others. Rather, the new norm and normal must be the exercise of power together, itself anchored in a vision of shared outcomes: a fighting chance and equity for all humanity, based on good common sense and uncommonly large doses of compassion.

Every report on the SDGs since 2016 has had a kernel of hope and a bushel of concern: that although a significant segment of the world is moving in the right direction toward inclusion, resilience and sustainability, the scale and pace are woefully too slow to truly avert disaster. Thus, in late 2019, COVID-19 met a world under-performing in the right direction while over-performing toward disaster, and it intensified pre-existing conditions: health and medical fragilities and economic inequities.

But, in the need to give care and compassion massively and suddenly, the pandemic created an “aha moment” concerning our human interdependence and opened up the doors of our hearts, our consciousnesses and perspectives. This positive condition allows us to move toward greater inclusion and equality as individuals and in all humanity’s systems. This is our big opportunity. Everyone can push harder on each and all of the 17 SDGs so as to end human destitution before 2030; to cut carbon and other toxic emissions to achieve an average  global temperature of 1.5 degree Celsius before 2030; to achieve equality and equity for women and men, feminine and masculine; to gain protection of the oceans and land redistribution and eco-system based environmental protection and biodiversity. CANARI is a valued partner to lead and co-lead.

In the Caribbean, specifically to survive the pandemic and to build back better during and after the emergency, starts with attaining food security for all. This is a basic human need and a low-hanging fruit of the response to the pandemic and to the achievement of the SDGs.

Food security is health security, is medical security, because a healthy diet provides critical immunity protection and innumerable other benefits. A population that is healthy, living with justice and equity, is the basis of producing national wealth and providing care for one another. As the basis of food security, agriculture must include agro-forestry, fisheries, agro-industries and related industries such as the water sector, waste management, transportation, rural development, education and clean cities and towns. Food security is also economic security for billions of agricultural researchers, farmers, traders and vendors throughout the Caribbean and Latin American regions. It must also involve education, a greater gender equity framework, a renewable energy grid, finance and economic planning, changing consumption and production patterns and the plethora of the SDGs that are designed to work together.

All who present themselves and their institutions for leadership in these covidius times must bring a willingness to themselves change and be change agents, taking on board the hopes and dreams of the world for immediate survival and toward just and more sustainable transformation. This way, human society, and not the pandemic, wins.  For as Jane Goodall says in What Happened When We all Stopped?, “this moment could lead us back home”.


About Dessima Williams:

Grenadian Dessima Williams is a Director on the Board of the Caribbean Natural Resources Institute (CANARI) and is its SDG Champion. She is also the Executive Director of the Grenada Education and Development Programme, GRENED, which supports rural school-aged girls and boys.

 The Ambassador served as the Special Advisor for the Implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals in the Office of the President of the 71st Session of the General Assembly, 2016 -2017.  She was the President’s representative around the world and was team leader for the professionals working on sustaining peace, climate change, finance, innovation, ocean conference and education. 

 Williams, an advocate for justice and the rights of children and women, served as Ambassador/Permanent Representative of Grenada to the United Nations, 2009-2013 and earlier to the Organization of American States (1979-1983).  The Grenadian diplomat was responsible for leading the Alliance of Small Island Developing States, AOSIS, (2009-2011) through climate change negotiations as well as negotiations toward the sustainable development process, Rio+20 in 2012.  She provided leadership for the energy facility for islands, SIDS-DOCK helping to raise the initial US$29 million.  She supports children’s education, women’s rights and climate change awareness in her home country, Grenada.


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