Five reasons to be optimistic about the New Year
JEFFREY D. SACHS
2020 was a harrowing year, with the COVID-19 pandemic, worldwide economic reversals, widespread climate-related disasters, pervasive social unrest, and even US President Donald Trump’s phony claims about massive electoral fraud. Yet, despite the grim news, the year also brought powerful reasons for optimism.
The first reason for optimism was the success of many countries in suppressing Covid-19.
Countries throughout the Asia-Pacific region, as varied culturally and politically as Australia, China, South Korea, Laos, New Zealand, and Vietnam, deployed effective public health strategies to contain the pandemic.
So, too, did some countries in other regions, including in Sub-Saharan Africa. While the headlines were dominated by the disastrous shortcomings of the response in the US and Europe, the successes in Asia-Pacific and elsewhere show us how combination of good governance, a responsible citizenry, and evidence-based policies can solve big and urgent challenges.
The second reason is the arrival of new vaccines, which are not only a source of great hope for saving lives and stopping the virus, but also a sign of power of modern science to deliver technological breakthroughs in record time.
The vaccine development exemplified “mission approach” of targeting research and development in a public-private effort.
The same mission approach should be deployed to address other global challenges, such as boosting renewable energy, sustainable farming, and the conservation of biodiversity.
Third: Trump was decisively defeated in the election. Like many demagogues of the past and present, he was able to generate a broad public following with backing of mass propaganda, especially Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News.
Yet enough of the public saw through the lies and smears to enable the US to make a new start after his disastrous reign of ineptitude, hatred, and lies.
Trump’s ignorance and lying contributed to more than 330,000 US deaths from Covid-19 in 2020.
His disastrous mishandling of the pandemic ultimately led to his election defeat; yet even then, he tried to maintain power by making desperate and delusional claims about widespread voter fraud.
Fortunately, both public and US institutions resisted his authoritarian impulses, so that President-elect Joe Biden, a decent, honorable, and rational man, will soon be inaugurated.
The fourth reason is United Nations’ strong performance, despite powerful headwinds in 2020. It performed admirably on all fronts, despite provocations from the Trump administration.
This year, it will host several global gatherings – on oceans, biodiversity, foods systems, and climate – that can lay the foundations for decades of global cooperation on sustainable development.
Fifth is digital revolution, the unspoken protagonist of global pandemic response. Online activities kept the world functioning.
Within weeks, businesses, schools, finance, government, commerce, payments, health-care providers, and the UN system went online at a rate, scope, and depth unimaginable until that point.
Digital technologies played a role in fighting the epidemic, providing information, monitoring disease transmission patterns, and providing multiple health-system services.
The new digital world has not been an unalloyed paradise. Distressingly, half the world still lacks Internet access.
As a result, rapid shift of work, school, social life, commerce, and entertainment to online platforms fueled inequalities between Internet haves and have-nots.
Moreover, digital technologies have given rise to other new and serious social ills: large-scale hacking, fake news, cyberwarfare, and unwarranted surveillance by governments and private companies.
The two faces of the digital age, positive and negative, exemplify the situation we face on many fronts.
We can be optimistic knowing the world’s cutting-edge technologies and scientific knowledge empower us to solve pressing global problems.
Yet we must also be vigilant to stop the forces of greed, ignorance, and hatred from hijacking the new technologies for their ulterior purposes. — The writer is professor of economics, leader in sustainable development, senior UN advisor.