Is now everyone nuts? Reflecting on the pandemic, mental health and our political behaviour

We all want to be healthy. That’s why we exercise, eat healthily, wash our hands regularly and stay indoors as much as possible. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us all that health is important. But being healthy means not only being physically strong but also mentally. Unfortunately, this conclusion is not always a given in our society. Furthermore, stigmatization around mental health, makes it even more difficult to focus on it and educate people about it. However, mental and physical health go hand in hand. Therefore, it is even more important to raise awareness about mental health with regard to the pandemic and its long-term consequences.

Since the onset of the pandemic, the consequences on our mental health have been striking. When the new and worrying situation was first announced, there was heightened anxiety in society. As this initial moment passed and the situation seemed to worsen, more negative psychological effects started to emerge. Our cell phones seemed to be beeping non-stop with push notifications, and the conversation about COVID-19 gradually found a place in every aspect of our lives, becoming ubiquitous. We found ourselves in a situation where we were confronted with a surplus of information in the media, whilst at the same time, a voice that could give us an answer to all our questions and fears was missing.

Mental health in a global pandemic 

In addition, the institutional measures put in place to control the pandemic have a negative impact on our mind. People are isolated or quarantined, forbidden from maintaining their social contacts. This can cause post-traumatic stress, depression, and sleep disturbances. Worldwide there are higher levels of anxiety, self-harm, and suicide. Job insecurity, fear of loss of income or unemployment, have also had long-lasting negative effects on mental health. More and more people are thus dependant on the support of psychotherapists and those already struggling with mental health issues, unfortunately, suffer even more. The problem is that this increased demand cannot be adequately met and many people do not receive the support they need in their daily life. 

For this reason it is all the more important to act preventively on a personal level. This includes being aware of the consequences and paying attention to one’s own psychological situation. Just as we are used to taking care of the health of our body, we must do the same for the health of our mind. This includes embracing the situation with COVID-19 and accepting that the pandemic has now become part of our everyday lives and that no one is immune. This is the first step in protecting ourselves. Embracing the situation means adapting to it. The pandemic restricts our social life and takes away our daily structure. This changes our behavioural patterns, which are decisive for any psychological fluctuations. We must counteract this by establishing our own routine and regularity in everyday life. For example, a solid daily structure can be regained by means of a plan. Nevertheless, support should be sought at an early stage as soon as it becomes apparent that the situation is becoming too much for the individual. We need to realize that everyone is experiencing similar feelings and that we all need help and support.

The effects of mental health on political behaviour 

The effects of decreased mental health due to COVID-19 are also evident on a political level. The pandemic stokes fear, which changes not only our personal but also political behaviour. The economic and social uncertainty in which we find ourselves leads to increasing criticism and mistrust in political institutions and their measures. We transfer our dissatisfaction with the current situation to politics, which is reflected in changed political behaviour. As a result, one can observe declining support for mainstream parties and a rise of extremist ones. Distrust in mainstream parties opens the window for the emergence or the rise of extremist parties. For this reason, a surge to the right during the last year can be explained. 

In combination with social isolation, many people are increasingly looking for affirmation and a sense of purpose. In many cases, they do not feel understood and look for support. This makes many vulnerable to far-right groups that exploit this emotionally charged political state and use it for their political agenda. The substance abuse caused by the consequences of the current situation also encourages violence, which causes an even stronger tendency toward radicalism.

As mentioned above, the consequences of declining mental health are drastic in our private lives, but also at the political level. Consequently, the demand for mental health services has and needs to increase. According to the WHO, countries have invested less than 2% of their national health budget in mental health. The pandemic has shown us that this needs to change. Due to this surge in demand, countries are now forced to invest in this sector. This could be a new positive approach to not only raise awareness about mental health but also to start a destigmatization process.


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Why we need to change the way we think about food

Our world is host to an enormous disparity and contrast in food and nutrition security: At a global level, production of most food has increased faster than population growth and now exceeds the nutritional caloric average requirements. At the same time, there are devastating food shortage threats at local levels, especially in Africa, where many new food safety problems have emerged in Low-Income (LI) and Lower Middle-Income (LMI) countries. As of last year, more than 820 million people are suffering from hunger and sub-Saharan Africa is the sub-continent with the highest proportion of undernourished people.

How is it that in a globalized, interconnected world, food security is still such a challenging issue? 
First, we need to keep in mind that food insecurity is primarily a question of access rather than availability. Many components of the global food market are in fact controlled by a limited number of actors and in many areas, small farmers have little access to institutional, legal or financial support and therefore face big obstacles in entering global markets. Second, in several areas, agriculture is the main source of income for local communities and also one of the most vulnerable sectors to unexpected changes such as armed conflicts and environmental shocks. Furthermore, not only is the current system unequal and unjust to small farmers and producers, but it is also based on damaging agricultural practices (soil degradation, water contamination, atmospheric pollution), extremely wasteful, and responsible for an enormous amount of greenhouse gas emissions. In other words, it is socially, environmentally and globally unsustainable.  

In the future, we will be facing an increased population and demand for food. However, in many parts of the world, current agricultural systems will be unable to meet a growing food demand. The challenge of food security is therefore not only to produce enough food but to make it accessible to all, which means combatting poverty and inequality. If things are to change, the world needs to face a complex and intricate dilemma: producing high-quality food in sufficient quantities and at affordable prices, that is equally accessible and has a reduced environmental impact. The solution to this dilemma is a transition to more sustainable food systems. 

What is a sustainable food system? 

A food system includes the related resources, the inputs, production, transport, processing and manufacturing industries, retailing, and consumption of food as well as its impacts on the environment, health, and society. Food systems are strongly interconnected with human societies and, whilst it may be easy to ignore the consequences of our unsustainable food practices now, eventually, the whole world will be experiencing them one way or another.

The disruptions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic have further exposed the fragility of people’s access to goods and services and highlighted critical inequalities. Lockdowns and restrictions around the world have put enormous strains on local, regional and global supply chains and whilst developed countries struggled to cope with a sudden surge in demand and empty shelves, market closures across Africa, for example, have cut off vital access to provisions for local communities and sales outlets to farmers. Across the world, food system workers who already face insecurity and low wages are now the most at risk from economic disruption. Not to mention the millions of people who are living permanently on the cusp of hunger and extreme poverty, who are the most vulnerable to the effects of a global recession. 

A transition towards a more sustainable system would not only mean more equitable access to nutritional foods but it would also reduce food loss and waste, minimize the environmental impacts of production and increase the resilience of many food systems around the world. 
Such a transition could make a significant contribution to inclusive development, improve the quality of life of millions of people whilst also creating a viable environment for fighting climate change. In short, it would be a win-win for all.

How can we make this transition?

Food systems are central to the creation of a more sustainable and equitable world. However, each of us has a role to play in this transition. None of these issues is going to be solved merely through a top-down approach. We have a responsibility as a global community to act together across sectors and international borders to ensure a better quality of life worldwide.

On the governance side, concrete policies need to be enacted to ensure the quality of what we eat and the quality of life of all those who are involved in its production. This means allowing land access to new farmers as well as water rights and investing in risk prevention initiatives and social protection floors to safeguard all those involved in the production of food. It also means certifying supply chains and allowing equal access to resources and markets to small farmers to ensure the social and economic inclusion of civil society. 

The private sector needs to invest in new knowledge, technologies (such as hydroculture and vertical farming) and infrastructure which can lower environmental impacts and improve nutrition worldwide. It needs to cooperate with local communities to build a more resilient food system and invest in agroecology, a system that reconciles the economic, environmental, and social dimensions of sustainability. 

And lastly, we must not forget that there is much that can be done from an individual perspective. As consumers, we have the power to decide what choices we want to make, and we can no longer ignore the impact these choices have. Whether it’s reducing food waste, changing dietary and lifestyle habits or making more conscious decisions in our daily life, it is time for us to act now, to act together and to act differently.  


Gender Equality: a win for everyone

Today, the 8th of March, marks an important date not only for women but for our whole society. We would therefore like to take this essential occasion of international women’s day to talk about the importance of gender equality and why it is a win for everyone.  

The term gender equality has raised more and more attention in the last couple of years. But very often when we think of gender equality, we only think about women and their benefit. In my opinion, this is one of the biggest misunderstandings in history! Gender equality is a better option for everyone because it allows equal chances and rights without discrimination or biases. This means that women can have a career if they want to but also that men don’t need to be the sole breadwinners and can decide whether they want to work full time, part-time or not at all. Ultimately, gender stereotypes are a thing of the past! 

The decision to have children and start a family is a crucial point for many women and men in deciding for or against their career. Since childcare is limited and expensive, young parents often have to decide who will spend more time at home with the children. In the majority of cases the decision falls on the mother for two reasons:

  1. The traditional mindset: which views women as better childcarers.
  2. The pay gap: many women earn less on average than their male companions.

In Switzerland, for example, there is a pay gap of 11.4% and more than half of it is unexplained. Here and in many other countries, only one out of 50 companies has a woman as CEO (SMI-Expanded). Female representation in management teams is below 10% and you mostly find women in the so-called low power positions such as HR and Communication. Iceland takes the worldwide lead with 30% of women CEOs
Consistent research shows that diverse teams bring better results because mixed gendered teams make better decisions and are more innovative. As the world gets more and more complex, there is a demand for many different skill sets. In the future, we will need as many different skills as possible and women bring other skills to the table than men. 

But there are not only business-related topics that show that our society needs to change. Across the globe, many causes keep driving the gap between genders such as uneven access to education, employment and healthcare not to mention the many forms of gender-based violence countless women are subjected to. Many causes of structural inequality such as menstruation, child-marriages and female genital mutilation, are considered a taboo topic in many parts of the world and urgently need to be destigmatized if we are to achieve a more equal world.  

Here are a few facts that clearly depict certain structural inequalities: 

  • Girls and women pay a high tax on hygiene articles such as tampons and pads, whereas condoms for example are not taxed.
  • In developing countries at least 30% and up to 95% of girls are missing school because of their periods and the stigmatization around it, therefore losing crucial steps in their education
  • 80% of medicine in the US is taken by women, but the effect it has on them is mostly unknown, as medical research is mostly conducted on men.
  • Despite ongoing research on birth control pills for men, this product has never been launched on the market because of its side effects. The birth control pill for women has the exact same side effects but has been on the market for decades. 
  • Women have a 47% higher chance of getting severely injured in a car accident because safety features are designed for men

These are but a few specific examples of some of the structural causes of increasing inequality. According to the UN Gender Pay Gap Report, it will take us almost another 200 years to achieve true gender equality if we continue down this path. So, all of us need to take action now! 

What women can do 

Nothing. In the past years women were expected to change in order to fit in a male-dominated environment. But what we should be doing is fixing the system and not women’s behaviour. Having said that, women can be more confident, visible, speak up their minds, trust in their skills, stop pampering their partners and lift up their female friends. 

What men can do 

Equality begins at home. Only if family work is equally distributed, can we have a chance to achieve real equality. Men can divide the tasks and responsibilities at home equally with their partners. Additionally, they can empower their partners in their environment to follow their dreams. It is also crucial that men call out inequality and injustice when they become aware of it, whether in the workplace, at home or in any other context. 

What companies can do

Companies need to de-bias the system so that women get a fair chance of being a part of it. What does that mean? For example, male recruiters often unconsciously prefer male candidates. To avoid such unconscious bias, a company should have a diverse recruitment team. Another step companies can do, is to offer flexible working models to men and women so that parents can better handle the rush hours of their lives. Paid parental leave for both parents is also another way of ensuring that both members of a couple can continue their careers after having a child. 

What politics can do

Governments need to take more action so as to structurally create a more equal and balanced system. For example, a tax system that rewards households where both partners are working, like in Sweden. Another great opportunity is to offer a good childcare infrastructure. For instance, in Canada, one day in childcare only costs 2 francs, thanks to high subsidies. Equally helpful is the introduction of all-day schools, which allows both parents to work full-time.  

Last but not least the world of Academia and Media plays a big role. The academic world, for instance, needs to develop a system that does not repeat stereotypes, especially in the STEM areas. It should make sure that children do not only see traditional gender roles and gendered professions but rather develop a tolerant and liberal understanding of gender. The media on the other hand needs to stop representing women as sexual objects and start to create new images of women instead. This can be made possible by increasing the share of women’s voices in scientific matters for instance. It can also be very useful in destigmatizing taboo topics and creating not only awareness but also a discussion around them. 

Standing up for women does not mean abandoning the male gender. On the contrary: breaking away from old stereotypes means setting new possibilities for everyone. We must use this day and see it as an opportunity to make the world a fairer, more tolerant and ultimately more equal place not only for women but for society as a whole.


How do we adress the limitations of the international community?

One day, a great friend of mine asked me what the international community should do regarding the crisis between Hong Kong and China (the former being a semi-independent state from the latter). At first, I gave him a personal and emotional answer, but then I realized that passionate responses are mostly useless in these kinds of discussions. I should have based my arguments on a more solid foundation and considered the principles of international law. There is, however, an enormous vacuum in this context. International law is in fact unable to define the role of the international community in conflicts that are limited within the borders of sovereign states. Hence, when we approach the topic, we are confronted with opinion-based debates rather than fixed rules.

Nevertheless, I wanted to provide a more sophisticated answer to my friend and thus, I decided to do some further research. I structured my investigation around one main question that represented the starting point for the entire analysis. The question was: which international agency should play the role of representing the international community amid a border-limited dispute? The most intuitive answer is: the United Nations.

The United Nations 

According to the liberal theory of international relations (which argues that international institutions play a key role in cooperation among states), the United Nations is the international body requested to intervene on behalf of the international community in case of border-confined conflicts. Because of its global recognition, the UN is arguably the only organization legitimized to play a role during an internal dispute.

Even though this perspective seems promising, there are evident structural problems inside the UN which prevent it from ever becoming an institution allowed to intervene in national confrontations on a legal basis. The UN unifies hundreds of countries in one institution, but its security council is governed only by five of them, the well-known veto-powers: China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States. Through the veto power, these countries can block any UN intervention if it challenges their political interests. The UN has faced the possibility of becoming a rule-based institution with the ability to play a significant role in national issues many times, but every attempt has failed miserably because of these dynamics.

For instance, Russia used its veto power against an intervention during the 1999 war in Kosovo. Regardless of the evident violations of human rights in this conflict, Russia blocked any intervention possibility merely because of its political alliance with the Milosevic regime, which was at the head of the Yugoslavian Republic and included Kosovo at the time.

Alternative solutions 

Acknowledging that the actions of the UN are largely limited by structural problems, raises the question as to who is legitimized to represent the international community in these cases. Theoretical and empirical evidence on this topic suggests two possible alternatives: coalitions of the states that have the largest military and economic power or regional actors. Both arguments are based on the assumption that these groups of states may be able to offer the best intervention in different ways. Powerful states have the economic and military power to pressure the country in question. However, many argue that this approach sustains the dominant position of the most powerful countries and maintains a global hierarchy, rather than addressing the real causes of many conflicts. Neighbouring countries, on the other hand, can exercise a stronger political and social influence on the critical country because of their strategic geographical position.

Even though these lines of thinking have their logic, they both fail to provide any kind of legitimacy to these exclusive groups of states that should theoretically represent the international community. Furthermore, the interventions of powerful or neighbouring states that have happened in the past (without a legal basis) have demonstrated that these options can be extremely dangerous. The ongoing crisis in Libya (where the involvement of powerful states such as Russia and France as well as regional actors such as Turkey, Egypt and Jordan is evident) represents a very unfortunate case.

Need for a new perspective

Taking everything into account, it seems that there are many issues related to the presence and activity of the international community in national conflicts. If institutions such as the UN are paralized because of internal, structural tensions, who has the legitimacy to get involved in a national conflict? Should foreign countries have the right to intervene in these disputes and if so based on what? We have seen that the intervention of the most powerful countries can actually cause more harm than good. Regional involvement can also be problematic, considering that neighbouring countries will always have their own agenda and are likely to seek to expand their influence in the area. Recent scholarship argues that there is a need for a more local approach to internal conflicts. However, in many cases the actors involved do not have sufficient resources or an efficient institutional framework to regulate internal conflict.

It seems that the dilemma of who should intervene is far from being solved. Perhaps the most ideal solution is a hybrid approach: the engagement of international institutions with local actors based on equality and collaboration. However, in order to avoid power imbalances one very important thing has to change: international institutions need to be reformed in a way that is inclusive, so that each member has the same amount of power, starting with the UN security council. By redefining the members and the role of the international community hopefully we will be able to find better solutions to global issues.


References

Nardin, Terry (2013): From Right to Intervene to Duty to Protect: Michael Walzer on Humanitarian Intervention. European Journal of International Law 24(1), 67-82. 

Pape, Robert A. (2012): When Duty Calls: A Pragmatic Standard of Humanitarian Intervention. International Security 37(1), 41-80. 

Pattison, James (2010): Humanitarian Intervention and the Responsibility to Protect. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press.

Social justice: A world scale out of balance

Exactly 12 years ago today, the UN convened the first World Day of Social Justice. Since then, the World Day of Social Justice has been held annually on February 20th, which is why I would like to take advantage of today and draw attention to the complex topic of social justice.

Where do we stand today? I urge all of us who live in a world of seemingly unlimited opportunities and resources to listen up for a moment and hear the grief of those suffering in our world. While we lead a seemingly happy life in our bubble of privilege, the majority of the world is struggling and suffering. We are still far away from the idea of social justice: our economic and social order is severely imbalanced. But who is to blame? It is time to take up the Social Question again.

Especially in times of a global pandemic, it is more necessary than ever to question the world economic and social order and to sensitize ourselves to the social justice we are striving for. COVID-19 represents another major challenge in this regard: the pandemic intensifies the social distribution struggle and throws the scales even more out of balance. Already strained and now collapsing health care systems, work stoppages, economic losses: all this leads to economic and social insecurity, but also social polarization. But the two sides of the coin must be considered here: besides its obvious obstructive characteristics, the pandemic also brings something positive. The momentum of the pandemic provides us with the opportunity to reopen the social question and renegotiate justice. A debate can be sparked about performance and needs, ethics and human dignity, and it can stimulate us to rethink our social, political and consumer behaviour.

Here, the fundamental question suggests itself: what does social justice mean? Aristotle designates justice as the most fundamental and perfect virtue. Interestingly, it is not related to the individual, but to man as a fellow citizen. Justice is something human, that arises from ethics. From Marx and Engels’ approach, social justice is achieved in a classless society. The decisive factor for this is human labor. Rawls shifts the concept into a political dimension and sets the ideal of social justice as the result of a just social order, established by the state. These extensions of the concept have one thing in common: they place man in the environment of his fellow men.

In the dichotomy between “us” and “others”

Perhaps this is the crucial point in the discussion and the answer to the problem of social injustice. Now, why is the question of identity crucial here? With globalization, digitalization and emerging affluence, we have not only become much more connected, but our needs have also changed. Self-actualization is now something we all strive for every day. This is directly based on our self-definition and self-identification: who am I and what makes me different from others? We live in an age of identity, which not only determines our own lives, but has also become a guiding and contentious concept in politics. The ideologies of extremist groups are often based on radical identity politics. Especially in highly emotionally charged debates such as the refugee crisis, this identity formation draws boundaries between “us” and “others”. This has a direct impact on how we formulate our needs and act politically: for the common good or for our own benefit?

To counteract this, we need to reform social coexistence based on the ethical foundation of a sense of community. Mutuality and a sense of responsibility are here the signposts to a society of solidarity that makes social justice possible. We as individuals need to acquire a collective identity in order to shift the focus from our self-interest to that of the community. Rethinking and conceiving our idea of community is the starting point of an approach to social justice and a shift of the global scales.