OUR CURRENT QUARANTINE experience will perhaps mark a turning point in history. For most of us, including those advanced in years, this period will probably be a defining moment in our lives.

Trying to look for a comparable time is difficult for all comparisons somehow limp, they never cover all the bases.  But, reading up on history, there is probably one long stretch of time that could allow us a glimpse into the past and help us to ponder relevant learnings. 

The “Great Depression” of the thirties that lasted in some countries till the eve of the Second World War provides a picture of a period characterized by global upheaval and deep uncertainty, the sharpest drop ever in the world’s economy marked by low productivity and widespread poverty.  It was followed by the eruption of hostilities in two theaters of war, causing casualties by the millions, leading to untold suffering and collective despair.  Ironically, however, this period also resulted in an unending search for solutions to dispel the continuing chaos.

“The Only Thing to Fear is Fear Itself!”

To emerge largely unscathed from the experience of a deep depression and a devastating war, leaders with vision and with the capacity for sound practical steps needed to step up; as well as citizens willing to bear the burden of crafting a future different from the past. 

Among those leaders one stood out in the person of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  His journey started with an outsized self-belief that he could help harness the strengths of citizens and galvanize their efforts. He set out to craft “a new deal” at home and strengthened bonds with allies abroad. 

Though handicapped after he was struck down by polio, he struggled to overcome adversity and undertook at least three tasks, among others, that made a difference: he raised the morale of his people and accompanied them in their travails, lifting up their confidence by his weekly “fireside chats” that people listened to throughout the nation; he captivated their imagination and formulated his thoughts succinctly and wisely as in this unforgettable phrase, “the only thing to fear is fear itself”; and, finally his inclusive approach broke down borders and encompassed political leaders of all different persuasions, urging them to work together for a common goal.

“This is No Ordinary Time!”

Moreover, other voices of courage and hope emerged in different places in that period.  By his side, Roosevelt had Eleanor, a woman of valor who pronounced these lines in 1940 to help him secure an unprecedented third term at the helm of his nation, “This is no ordinary time, and no time for weighing anything except what we can best do for the country as a whole.” A timely reminder, perhaps, for us all.

Eleanor Roosevelt, obsessed with the way the world would look after the war, explored ways that could improve the lives of people even while her husband led the global alliance that struggled to push back against the Nazi onslaught primarily in Europe and later in Asia and the Pacific. The focus then was how to end the misery that war had brought to a majority of the peoples around the world. 

Freedom from Want and Fear

The vision that Eleanor believed in and which inspired President Roosevelt’s articulated manifesto can be summed up in what has been described briefly as the “four essential freedoms”: the freedom of speech and of worship, and the freedom from want and from fear. 

A few years after the war ended, Eleanor would be a significant inspiration behind the crafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).  She chaired the drafting committee that produced the UDHR that was then supported by a majority of the representatives of different peoples of the world in 1948.  They did so on behalf of “…. the peoples of the United Nations….” (paraphrasing the opening sentence in the UN Charter, “We, the peoples of the United Nations…”) to avoid another conflagration that they did not wish other generations would have to live through and suffer.

The twin aspirations of freedom from want and from fear would in time inspire the drafting of two inter-connected multi-lateral instruments, the “International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights” and its companion treaty, the “International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights” both enshrined as part of international law in 1977.

In Search of Inspired Leadership at This Time

Given the lack of inspired leadership on the global stage at this time, and the inability of the great powers who previously commanded confidence, it is important to look at the institutions that can bridge the gap and provide directions, as well as people involved in frontline services and in advocacy of critical causes who have come to fill the vacuum.

Issues abound that demand decisive leadership at this time:  providing healthcare for all, addressing climate change, generating livelihoods that will address chronic inequality, making poverty history, ensuring governance that is accountable, and crafting a lasting and durable peace that can be achieved around the negotiating table.  Those causes are among the most important that can be addressed in a world that has been turned upside down and inside out by the pandemic.

Our people crave, yearn for, and deserve the kind of leadership that rises to the occasion.  This pandemic has become a prolonged wake-up call, reminding those who wield power to respond to the demands of the most vulnerable: those who have been without health services for so long, or the opportunity to work with dignity and living wages, or the blessing of a home to shelter in safe and secure communities. 

The dangers and risks we confront can, in fact, be turned into an opportune moment to forge a more inclusive future.  Now is the time for a new covenant that addresses the unspeakable needs of this unprecedented hour.

This truly is a time like no other!