A Message from WPDI CEO Forest Whitaker 

September 21, 2020 – Seventy-five years ago, the United Nations was instituted with the powerful words “We the peoples” at its core, affirming that for humanity to be at peace, “we the peoples” had to unite and struggle together for universal peace and welfare.

Most of the women and men who stood at the cradle of the United Nations had experienced two world wars in their lifetimes. They had witnessed the death of over 60 million human beings and the destruction of whole countries. The magnitude of these losses illustrated the madness of war. Peace is fragile. It must be defended and championed with determination against all odds. Seventy years after the foundation of the United Nations, our world remains an imperfect place. Nevertheless, the founders of the United Nations provided us with a deeper lesson: it shows us that crisis can be a moment for learning and rebounding when dealt with in a spirit of solidarity and openness. Peace is not merely an absence of conflict but, rather, the capacity to interact with others in a positive and open manner. This suggests that crisis is a test of our collective readiness for peace, for living together in harmony, and for nurturing our differences in a spirit of unity.

Today, as we celebrate the International Day of Peace, the world is experiencing a crisis of unprecedented magnitude due to COVID-19. The pandemic affects all of us, as we’re responsible for protecting both ourselves and one another. COVID-19 isn’t merely a virus; it is a literal test of our capacity to come together in peace.

Through the coronavirus, the extent of our society’s inequities has been revealed in many dimensions. Some countries have robust health systems that allow them to cope with the crisis effectively. Many others lack such infrastructure, which means that hundreds of millions of people worldwide are at a great risk of being exposed to pandemics like COVID-19. Many of the least developed countries, especially in Africa, have been relatively spared so far – but global consequences of the pandemic, like a weakened economy, still impact them even as their citizens remain healthy. Health is a global concern: a virus somewhere can become an epidemic everywhere. In a globalized world, we live in chains of interdependence that are only as strong as their most vulnerable links. So, inequalities eventually affect everyone. We need truly global approaches that are championed by strong multilateral organizations, such as the UN and its mandate for peace and solidarity.

Beyond this global perspective, the coronavirus has also shed a very bleak light on the inequalities that exist among individuals within nations. In my country, the United States, it is a statistical fact that African Americans have less access to health care than Caucasians. This has resulted in disproportionate numbers of COVID-19 cases and fatalities among minority populations. These figures have been amplified further because the greatest proportion of essential workers come from Latin and other minority communities, who have assumed the responsibility to keep society afloat. And, higher rates of minorities have also lost their jobs and slipped into increased poverty, which has been accentuated by a lack of equal access to health services. This is a situation that has made racism against African Americans more visible and more intolerable. It revealed that racism is a form of cancer that simultaneously inhabits many dimensions of society: we see its metastases in the economy, in political representation, in our culture, in education, in healthcare. Everywhere.

These issues would ordinarily give me reason to be very pessimistic. However, COVID-19 has also shown us that we have many reasons to hope that things can change for good. Since the pandemic began, we’ve witnessed small acts of bravery and community: people connecting to others, even to people they didn’t know. We’ve seen young people doing grocery shopping for their elderly neighbors. Musicians have held socially distant sidewalk performances as a way of giving back to local healthcare workers. I’ve also been very impressed by the initiatives that many of the youths with whom I work took in Mexico, South Africa, South Sudan, and Uganda. There, participants who were enrolled in arts and craft programs started making face masks for refugees and community members in remote areas. In the US, the outcry that followed the murder of George Floyd and the shooting of Jacob Blake demonstrates that there is a capacity for indignation that transcends racial lines. We’ve seen that most people reject violence and discrimination, and that people from all different races and backgrounds are willing to protest and speak out for what’s right. This atmosphere makes me think of Dr. King’s speech from the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where he said: “Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood.”

Throughout 2020, the crisis has revealed that even when confronting health and safety in the midst of a pandemic, people possess tremendous energy for pursuing solidarity and peace. Seeing this reminds me of the final page of Camus’s Plague, which focuses on “what we learn in a time of pestilence: that there are more things to admire in men than to despise.” These have been times of pestilence, but we’ve seen people throughout every state in my country and around the world taking a step beyond themselves in an attempt to help others. This is what we must strive for every day, not just in these uncertain times. On International Peace Day, I’m hopeful that we can continue in this spirit and do even better tomorrow, channeling our energy to “shape peace together.”

This text is published on the occasion of the International Day of Peace, which is observed annually around the world on September 21st. The General Assembly of the United Nations has declared this a day devoted to strengthening the ideals of peace, through observing 24 hours of non-violence and cease-fire. In 2020, the theme of International Peace Day is “Shaping peace together.”

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