Containing COVID-19, together: it's time to reinvest in collective security

March 30, 2020

Addressing the world on March 23, UN Secretary-General António Guterres called for a global ceasefire in response to the deadly spread of COVID-19. Noting that it “attacks all, relentlessly” but inflicts the most harm on the most vulnerable, he asserted that we must “put armed conflict on lockdown and focus together on the true fight of our lives.”

While the world is trying to contain the escalating fire of disease through isolation and physical distancing, Guterres’s message of togetherness is a critical key to our long-term resilience. As Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam emphasizes, now is the time to be #TogetherApart.

#TogetherApart: Linking resilience and isolation

In 2001, the world responded to the shocking violence of 9/11 with a mantra of resilience, calling for a commitment to social solidarity; democratic values; and the maintenance of a normal life during times of tragedy, fear, and uncertainty. Writing after the European attacks of 2016, I noted stunning moments of togetherness as signs of exactly this sort of resilience.

Today, our mantra is isolation. Quarantine – a practice rooted in medieval plagues – seems to be the only tool at our disposal to protect the most vulnerable.

Now we face a deadly new disease and togetherness has become a vector of insecurity. Cases of COVID-19 have appeared almost everywhere, apparently spread by the flows of travel and commerce, and the bonds of family and friendship.

Today, our mantra is isolation. Quarantine – a practice rooted in medieval plagues – seems to be the only tool at our disposal to protect the most vulnerable.

But isolation and quarantine aren’t the opposite of resilience. Successful containment of COVID-19 requires all of these.

In the broadest sense, resilience is a measure of the extent to which a system can absorb disruption and continue to function. It is tightly linked with maintaining identity and the key defining values of the system. Resilience is also closely linked with solidarity—keeping all elements of the system within the whole. Now COVID-19 is simultaneously putting stress on almost every human system: economic, social, health, cultural, food, government. Under these circumstances, it will not be easy to keep these systems intact.

Strong signs of resilience and social connectedness ARE still evident, particularly at the personal level. People are delivering groceries to the housebound, buying from local businesses, providing online classes and music concerts, creating window art to animate neighbourhood walks, sharing precious resources like toilet paper and hand sanitizer, and supporting frontline workers.

But the cracks are also clear.


Brittleness is the opposite of resilience. While a resilient system can bend without breaking, a brittle system cracks and fractures. A resilient system remains intact following a crisis, but a brittle one shatters and collapses, leaving a void.

Cracks are appearing in our systems. China initially withheld information from the global community while the virus spread. Other countries became obsessed with keeping foreigners out, while the disease circulated within our own communities. Policies across jurisdictions lack uniformity and consistency. Hoarding of goods is causing shortages, pitting individuals and countries against each other. While some actors attempt to preserve individual pieces of a system at the expense of the whole, the vulnerable could find themselves abandoned.

Individuals must self-isolate, but the ability to hunker down in relative comfort is an incredible privilege. Not all are so fortunate. And, because not all can be made safe, none are truly secure.

Containment of disease requires not only national but global coordination and cooperation. It requires caring for EVERYONE, including the most vulnerable and helpless, those beyond our borders, and those within but unnoticed. To combat fear, lies, and segregation, we need trust, truth, and unity. At the local and national level, containment requires a resurgence of community. At the global level, it demands a return to multilateralism.


The need to isolate disease does not change the fact that we are all part of a global community. Multilateralism – international cooperation in pursuit of a shared goal – is essential to fight our common sources of insecurity, including disease.

But events over the last few years have left multilateralism in tatters. Among the victims have been arms-control measures; witness the shredded bodies of abandoned agreements, including the Iran nuclear deal and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. Other mechanisms, like the Arms Trade Treaty, have joined the Paris climate agreement, and are currently on life support.

And it is no stretch to link arms control with the spread of the coronavirus. You need only look to Iran, shackled by the economic sanctions imposed by the United States after it abandoned the Iran nuclear deal, as it strives to cope with the spread of the disease within its borders.

The core of our work at Project Ploughshares is the shoring up of vital global processes that control the arms trade and the race to secure weapons controlled by artificial intelligence, and that aim to achieve nuclear disarmament and the security of outer space. We work with partners from many countries to strengthen the institutions and processes necessary to create a more peaceful, secure, and healthy future for everyone.

As the pandemic rages, we continue our work. We know that the sources of our common insecurity – disease, climate change, wars, and weapons – are intricately linked. So too are our responses. Today we are called upon to unite against a disease. But this unity of purpose must extend far beyond the ravages of COVID-19. If it does not, the consequences will be devastating.

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