By Erin Roberts
21 / 11 / 2023
A health worker in the Dominican Republic puts on a mask during the COVID-19 pandemic. Image credit: Unsplash / SJ Objio

“We are like islands in the sea, separate on the surface but connected in the deep.”

William James

“We cannot live only for ourselves. A thousand fibers connect us with our fellow [humans]; and among those fibers, as sympathetic threads, our actions run as causes, and they come back to us as effects.”

Herman Melville

In the final hours of COP 27, as negotiations on all fronts intensified, John Kerry tested positive for COVID-19. Upon hearing the news late that evening, I included it in our updates with a message that the Loss and Damage Collaboration was thinking of Kerry and wished him a speedy recovery. 

The following day one of my colleagues asked why I had done so, arguing that it had nothing to do with Loss and Damage. I didn’t say anything at the time. For so many reasons. I was completely overwhelmed and exhausted for one. But most of all, I felt embarrassed that once again, my inside was showing on the outside. Embarrassed that once again, I just couldn’t keep the intensity of my feelings contained. Couldn’t stop my love for humanity from spilling out. I knew then, as I do now, that my heart can be my superpower. My brain contributes to my work, certainly. It sparks ideas and shapes them into plans. But it’s my heart that enables me to make change in the world. It can also be a huge liability for my work. It can also be both intensely awkward and extraordinarily vulnerable to feel so much, so deeply. And that was one of those times. 

So I kept my head down, continued doing my job. And  then like everyone else at the end of the session I fell into a heap of exhaustion and didn’t move for a little while. In the days and months that followed, the answer to the question my colleague posed that morning came to me in pieces. And here is what they said . . . 

Nearly four years on from when it first appeared, COVID-19 has now reached all corners of the globe, affecting all humans on planet Earth in some way. Its rapid expansion and relatively easy transmission demonstrate the interconnectedness of human - and indeed all - life on planet Earth. However, like climate change, COVID-19 has not affected all humans equally. And like climate change, the virus and the pandemic both revealed and exacerbated vulnerabilities. 

The most vulnerable were most affected by the virus itself. The most marginalised have felt the pain of the secondary impacts of the pandemic most acutely. Tens of millions more people across the globe were pushed into extreme poverty during the first year of the pandemic. The informal economy in developing countries was hit the hardest. Not all countries could afford to mobilise trillions or even billions to contain the virus and respond to the impacts of the pandemic. When vaccines became available their dispersal was also unequal. Many developing countries were forced to rely on others to get access to vaccines. Vaccine apartheid became a term widely used to describe this inequity which led to what has been called a “two track pandemic”. 

Three and a half years after the first lockdown, and though COVID-19 is still with us, we have resumed “normal life”, though “normal” looks a little differently than before. The International Monetary Fund announced its fiscal policy would return to business as usual (though still amid unusual times) in April of 2023. In May, the head of the World Health Organization declared that the public health emergency posed by COVID-19 had ended, though stressing that the disease remained a global threat. The recovery, however, will continue for some time, made more difficult by the fact that many developing countries are saddled with crippling debt. As I write this, 54 countries find themselves in the midst of a debt crisis

The COVID-19 pandemic showed us that we can mobilise trillions to protect human lives when those lives matter. When those lives are valued. Valued to those who hold the purse strings. It’s difficult to determine exactly how much was spent globally to respond to and recover from the pandemic (I definitely tried but the figures are difficult to entangle) but certainly it was in the tens of trillions. The UK spent an estimated £311 billion (as of March 2022). And yes, the pandemic has had implications for the global economy certainly. The fiscal policies which financed the response have led to rising inflation rates - among other cascading impacts - which have prompted cost of living crises across the globe. And that too is affecting the most vulnerable most acutely. 

The pandemic showed us that when crises show up on our own doorsteps we do what is needed to respond (when we have the resources to do so). Yet, in the aftermath of a pandemic in which trillions were mobilized we continue to be unable to collectively mobilise 100 billion USD a year to finance mitigation and adaptation in developing countries. 

Developing countries have given a myriad of reasons, each one joining a growing pile of excuses, for the failure to meet the 100 billion goal. One of those long-standing reasons is that they need to take care of “their own”.  That they’ve got their own vulnerable and marginalized populations to take care of. And can’t take care of “the Other”. Because the climate crisis is now on their door steps too. Which begs the question: who are “our own”? Who do we belong to, if not each other? Whose well-being do we bear the responsibility for? Each of us and all of us. And what does it mean to be human in this world with all its multiple, interconnected crises unfolding simultaneously? 

But all hope is not lost. Because above all, COVID-19 showed what it means to be human. That we are all connected. That we are a human family. Because the truth is that in that moment when I heard that John Kerry had COVID-19, all I could see was his humanity. Nothing else mattered. I didn’t see the climate envoy of the United States, I saw a fellow human. And yes, a human with privilege certainly. But also, just a man. One who loves and is loved. A husband. A father. A grandfather. And all the other things that make up a human life that have nothing to do with what one looks like, where one lives, how one identifies, who and how one loves or what one does to “contribute to society”. 

At the end of the day, when you strip away our titles and all the many categories we use to define and differentiate ourselves from “the Other” isn’t that all there is? Our humanity. Isn’t that all that matters? That we are each human. And that’s what connects us to each other. Not where we come from. What passport we carry. Not what we look like. Not how we identify and choose to move through the world. Not who we love and how we express that love.  Not how much money we have or don’t have. Not the jobs we do to put food on the table. Not the places we call home. The vehicles we drive (or don’t drive as the case may be).  None of it really matters when the chips are down. 

The fact is that each one of us deserves to thrive just as much as any other human on this planet we call Earth. And we have an obligation to take care of one another to ensure that’s possible. Not just the people who look like us, share a culture, identity, set of beliefs or nationality but each and every human on planet Earth. Those are the facts that matter.  And that’s the art of being human. Taking care of one another. 

That’s the ultimate lesson of the COVID-19 pandemic. Because in those early days when so much was uncertain and the world became quiet, we took better care of those around us.  Many of my friends and colleagues joined mutual aid societies. One did the grocery shopping for several neighbours who couldn’t venture outside. Another took food and provisions to families who were scared. That’s the art of being human. 

We absolutely can create a different world, a better world. The kind of world we all want to live in.  One in which all humans and the ecosystems that sustain human life are thriving. But in order to do so we must take the lessons from the pandemic across borders. In times of crisis we must come together as a global citizenry, as a human family, not break apart. How do we do that?  By remembering who we are. 

A couple of weeks ago I was on a flight. Sitting in a row of people who looked very different from one another. Were from different countries. People who almost certainly led different lives. At the end of the row was someone who needed a little more assistance, someone who was a little more vulnerable. In the middle was a tall, elegant person who looked like a model. Maybe they were a model. Who knows. On the other end was me. Ordinarily we likely wouldn’t have been in each other’s orbits. But for five hours one Friday morning, as we travelled through the sky en route to our destination, we became a little family. We took care of one another. Advocated for each other. At the end of our flight we went our separate ways. But I can tell you I felt better for having connected to two strangers that day. I walked a little lighter. And my heart felt a little brighter. That’s the art of being human. 

Several years ago I was on another flight one windy afternoon. I’m not typically a nervous flier but this was a very turbulent flight and the pilot was having difficulty landing in the windy conditions. The plane tottered to and fro as we approached the runway. And I was scared. Sensing this, the person next to me reached over and held my hand. They looked into my eyes and said: “It’s going to be okay. We’re going to be okay.” And we were okay. I didn’t ever find out that person’s name nor do I know anything about them. Other than their humanity. Because in those moments that was all that mattered. That we were fellow humans. And one of us was scared. When I close my eyes I can see their kind face and hear their calming words as they comforted me in those frightening moments. That’s the art of being human. 

And that’s the kind of response crises like climate change should prompt. Climate change should help us remember who we are: which is simply human. It should move us to see humanity in all its faces, in all its places. It should inspire us to a realisation that under all the layers we use to define ourselves, the ways we differentiate ourselves from each other, to create “the Other”, we are all the same. To create the world we want, the art of being human must compel us to mobilize a response at the scale of the needs to support those who need it most. To take care of one another. Just like it did in neighbourhoods across the world during the pandemic. Because every human deserves to thrive. That’s the business case for addressing loss and damage: A shared humanity. 

Connecting to our shared humanity will allow us to do things we previously thought impossible. Discover and implement new financial instruments to mobilise the trillions needed to address the scale and scope of the needs on all fronts and in all parts of the world. Embodying the art of being human will enable us to create novel and innovative solutions to solve previously unsolvable problems. It’s all completely possible. We just need to remember who we are. 

So, what does COVID-19 have to do with Loss and Damage?  Everything. And what does it show us we can do to address loss and damage? Everything. Because when we connect to our shared humanity, when we truly embody the art of being human, anything is possible. 

Erin Roberts is the founder and global lead of the Loss and Damage Collaboration. She believes in being kind, which is one of the founding principles of the Collaboration, a network of nearly 250 people across the world working to ensure that every human on planet Earth has what they need to thrive.