Corona Crisis, UNESCO and the Future: Do We Need a New World Heritage?

World heritage for the post-corona world? Artefacts of the Anthropocene. From Tracey Williams’s Collection “Lego Lost at Sea.” Reproduced by permission © Tracey Williams @LegoLostAtSea.

By Cornelius Holtorf and Annalisa Bolin
UNESCO Chair on Heritage Futures, Linnaeus University, Sweden

A virus has put the world on hold. Many individual human actions suddenly appear extremely small and insignificant in comparison with the unyielding might and relentless spread with which the SARS-CoV-2 virus is presently conquering Earth. We are witnessing how the virus does not distinguish between human hosts and how all societies struggle with the challenges of containing and managing the coronavirus.

It is not surprising that many have started asking about the legacy that the “corona crisis” of 2020 is going to leave behind for the years and perhaps for decades to come. Seldom have the relations between present and future societies felt more relevant than during the present weeks.

In the present situation, we need to make two efforts simultaneously: one which copes immediately with the most pressing issues, and another which seeks to respond constructively for the longer term. We can see this clearly in the coronavirus’s systemic effects on education and scientific research. The use of distance methods and digital communication—whether in teaching, collaborating, or researching—has grown exponentially. In the immediate wake of the corona crisis, educators are engaged less in true distance education than in something more akin to emergency remote teaching: a patchwork of methods implemented without the preparation and experience that facilitate truly successful online education. But, especially depending on the duration of the pandemic, we are still likely to see a shift toward a greater role for such methods, with a longer lead time enabling more adequate preparation for educators. The crisis has impacted the decisions of students as well. Sweden, for example, has seen a substantial increase in the overall number of applications to universities as a direct result of the crisis and a consequence of the loss of readily available employment for young people as they leave secondary school. Among those younger than 20, there has been a nationwide rise of more than 30 percent in applications to higher education compared with the figures from 2019, and there is a general increase in applications to nursing and medical programs [1].

Additionally, during the years to come we will see many repercussions for research relating to the corona crisis, its management, and its long-term consequences. In some cases, this will entail a change in research orientation toward topics more immediately applicable to the well-being of people and the recovery of the economy. In others, the manner of research will change, as is the case with teaching. Distance methods are also likely to grow, with an impact on not just the manner of research but also the questions such research tackles. And in still others, the impact of the pandemic context, including impediments to travel and changes in funding flows, will require the postponement, fundamental rethinking, or even cancellation of research efforts.

Perhaps most importantly, the current crisis will have consequences for cultural values and socio-political priorities around the world. The strict measures imposed on large parts of the human species have been posing a question that is not asked often enough, and one which affords us a chance to think in the longer term: how do we want to live together on this planet?

There are some important lessons to be learned about how we organize our societies. The pandemic has driven home the necessity of mutual care for our fellow human beings, but also the need for adequate healthcare provision, appropriate risk preparedness, and basic social security for all members of the communities within which we live. Furthermore, following the vulnerabilities to disruption, which Covid-19 has laid bare, there have been calls to make the global economy less dependent on “just-in-time” production and multi-country supply chains. A third issue that has been raised is the balance of power between international organizations, national governments, and expert authorities: which combination of competence, trustedness, and executive capacity of various authorities will make the best decisions for a population’s well-being, and which boundaries must not be overstepped?

The impact of the corona crisis has been differently felt, even as it affects us all. Protecting ourselves by avoiding handshakes and other physical contact for a while is not that difficult for some, but communities living in close contact with each other—such as those living in urban slums, refugees in camps, or migrant workers in dormitories—find themselves even more endangered. Our responses to coronavirus are challenged to take into account the differential impact of the disease on various communities. Even as coronavirus hits some groups harder, solutions to it must be coordinated and global, or we will all be left vulnerable.

But some responses to coronavirus have been less concerned with our mutual responsibility than with siloed responses. Commentators in many states call for more economic self-reliance within national borders, governments increasingly invoke national symbols while international collaborations are played down, and a variety of xenophobic ideas circulate in the media. Semantic wars over the name of the virus seek to assign responsibility to China and produce a rise in anti-Chinese and anti-Asian racism [2]. The corona crisis is also available to be used as a justification and distraction by those who wish to push through tangentially related but longstanding priorities—what has been called the “shock doctrine.” [3] Governments have utilized coronavirus to pursue policies such as banning abortion [4], closing borders, and halting immigration processes [5]. The pandemic has accelerated already-existing trends toward the centralization of executive power in countries such as Hungary, where the state of emergency produced by the virus became a rationale for allowing the prime minister to rule by decree [6]. Such political opportunism and nationalistic rhetoric promote a set of values and opinions that could not only have impacts upon the populations of discrete countries, but even put global peace at risk.

Education, research, culture, and communication are important to address this risk. These are the realms of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, better known by the acronym UNESCO. Since its start after the end of World War II, UNESCO has been aiming to foster the building of peace, the eradication of poverty, sustainable development and intercultural dialogue. Of particular importance has been the ambition to increase mutual understanding and collaboration among the 193 member states and their populations. One tool for achieving this is UNESCO’s 1972 World Heritage Convention. With more than 1,100 listed sites at present, the Convention is arguably the most successful of UNESCO’s various initiatives.

Today, UNESCO’s aims are as significant as ever, but the corona crisis could have detrimental consequences for the ability to achieve them in the future. We should therefore not forget that all the measures we take today to mitigate the crisis and its impact, the way in which we communicate on social media about the events as they unfold, and all the calls regarding what needs to be done, or must cease to be done once the crisis is over, have a bearing on our future ability to work globally for the building of peace, the eradication of poverty, sustainable development, and intercultural dialogue.

We need a vision of the future that appreciates the full potential of culture to address global crises. In the Covid-19 context, UNESCO’s Assistant Director General for Culture, Ernesto Ottone, argues that “in moments of crisis, people need culture.” [7] He reminds us of two important things about culture. Firstly, culture “provides comfort, inspiration and hope at a time of enormous anxiety and uncertainty.” The proliferation and popularity of online tours allowing us to virtually visit museums around the world indicate the appetite for culture in these times. But secondly, Ottone adds, despite what culture gives us in the context of the pandemic, a serious financial crisis in the cultural and creative sectors has left many practitioners and institutions in serious hardship. Budget cuts, layoffs, lost contracts, and uncertainty are imperiling the survival of the cultural sector.

What UNESCO has not been emphasizing enough, however, is the way in which global cultural values are affected when national strategies are prioritized over international collaboration. When Ottone suggests that “Culture makes us resilient. It gives us hope. It reminds us that we are not alone,” he appears to refer to the diversity of cultures (in the plural) practiced in UNESCO’s member states. Yet he does not highlight the core idea on which UNESCO was established: What makes us all most resilient, as human beings on this planet, is a culture (in the singular) of global peace, open dialogue, mutual understanding, and continuous collaboration. That is the culture that can bring us together and give us hope. There is a real risk that the world of the future is one in which increasingly local solutions are sought for challenges that remain global, in which suspicion spreads rather than trust, and in which resilience is built through achieving self-sufficiency rather than extensive solidarity.

In the light of the global spread and impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, it is time to remind ourselves once more of the interdependences between all the people and communities on this planet. We are all part of an interconnected humanity. The pandemic has demonstrated a strong need for global solidarity and cooperation. As the virus spreads across the world’s societies, many have realized the benefits of a speedy global exchange of accurate information, of mutual support and solidarity between people to address everybody’s needs, and not the least of joint strategies of medical research and the development of a safe vaccine.

Over the years and decades to come, we can expect many other kinds of crises when similar collaboration will be important. The greatest crisis facing Homo sapiens as a collective—the climate crisis—is already here and demanding extensive global cooperation in response. Such cooperation has, to date, eluded us, in part because of the elongated timescale of climate change’s effects and in part because of the perceived uneven burden placed on countries with fewer resources or less wealthy populations. We see arguments about the degree of urgency compared with other political priorities and about a fair system of distributing costs and responsibility in the world. In this respect, perhaps the demands of the response to Covid-19 can provide us with a roadmap for responding to even larger challenges: the need for collaboration and viewing all of our fates as intertwined, at the very least; the establishment of new routes for cooperation and information sharing; and openness to drastic but effective methodologies for mitigating large risks.

The current pandemic intersects with ongoing challenges to which we have not yet developed adequate responses. The likely origin of the virus in close human contact with animals, for example, should spur us to reassess our relationship with the animal world. We have long known that profound challenges arise from our current interactions with animals: antibiotic resistance, in part because of the widespread and indiscriminate use of antibiotics in industrial meat production, is a known problem. So too is the climate impact of such production, including the deforestation of fragile environments to satisfy global rates of meat consumption [8]. In this sense, the coronavirus is simply another data point demonstrating the dangers of our current model of interaction with and exploitation of the natural world.

What all of these issues, from coronavirus to the climate crisis, share is the need for global responses to global challenges. But, as we have seen with our so-far halting responses to climate change and the nationalistic and xenophobic impulses which have become evident in the midst of the pandemic, effective collaboration remains a high bar to clear. Impediments to cooperation, including failing to recognize the essential interdependence of human societies, have major impacts on our ability to work together to face the collective challenge of Covid-19—and other challenges to come. At the same time, the moment of crisis affords us an opportunity to think deliberately about how to respond to such situations, both with immediacy and in the future.

Maybe it is time to start identifying and promoting a new kind of world heritage that is not employed to bolster national pride and generate financial benefits for a limited group. We might be better served by a world heritage that reaffirms the many interconnections and common interests between all branches and specimen of humanity—and indeed between humans and other living beings on this planet.

An intriguing example of a truly global world heritage is Tracey Williams’ collection of plastic artefacts washed up on the world’s beaches [9]. Her images illustrate how global production, consumption, and disposal of human artefacts are connected through the flows in the world’s oceans. A majority of this plastic trash does not find its way to any beaches but has a destructive impact on maritime habitats and contributes to building up a unique geological signal of the Anthropocene at the bottom of the sea (see featured image above).

A need to appreciate such global interrelations and the way in which all our lives as human beings are connected with each other could turn out to become the most important lesson from the current corona crisis for future societies.

The original version of this paper will be published in China.

[1] UHR, Antagning till högre utbildning höstterminen 2020. Statistik i samband med sista anmälningsdag (Stockholm: Universitets- och högskoleråde, 2020).

[2] Paula Larsson, “Anti-Asian Racism During Coronavirus: How the Language of Disease Produces Hate and Violence,” The Conversation, 29 April 2020.

[3] Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine (New York: Picador, 2007).

[4] Amnesty International, “Poland: Abortion Ban and Regressive Sexuality Education Laws Must Not be Rushed through under Cover of COVID-19,” Amnesty International, 14 April 2020.

[5] Sahil Kapur, “Trump Halts Immigration for 60 Days. Here’s What the President’s Order Means,” NBC News, 21 April 2020.

[6] Benjamin Novak and Patrick Kingsley, “Hungary’s Leader Grabbed Powers to Fight the Coronavirus. Some Fear Other Motives,” The New York Times, 5 April 2020.

[7] Ernesto Ottone, “In Moments of Crisis, People Need Culture,” UNESCO, 29 March 2020.

[8] Quirin Schiermeier, “Eat Less Meat: UN Climate-Change Report Calls for Change to Human Diet,” Nature, 8 August 2019.

[9] Andrew Male, “Monopoly Houses, Toy Soldiers and Lego: The Museum of Plastic Lost at Sea,” The Guardian, 4 April 2020.

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