Podiumsdiskussion anlässlich des Kriegs in der Ukraine: Putins Geo- und Geschichtspolitik

Der von Russland völkerrechtswidrig begonnene Angriffskrieg auf die Ukraine beschäftigt zurzeit die gesamte Welt – wie auch die Frage, was man in so einer Situation aus der Entfernung tun kann. Spenden, Hilfs- und Beherbergungsangebote für Geflüchtete und die Weiterverbreitung von fundierten Informationen sind dabei wichtige Optionen.1
Die Lage aus verschiedenen Perspektiven zu analysieren und einzuordnen, einen Raum für Reflexion und Austausch zu schaffen, ist die Kompetenz und das Angebot der Wissenschaft. Um einen Beitrag zur Orientierung in der aktuellen Nachrichtenflut zu leisten, haben die Universität Bielefeld und das Zentrum für interdisziplinäre Forschung (ZiF) am 7. März 2022 gemeinsam eine Podiumsdiskussion im ZiF veranstaltet. 

Als deren Grundlage diente Putins Rede an die Nation vom 21. Februar 2022 und das darin vermittelte Bild seiner Geo- und Geschichtspolitik. Drei Aspekte sollten im Zentrum der Diskussion stehen: Wie kann Putins Position eingeordnet werden? Welche Konsequenzen hat die aktuelle Situation für die Zukunft? Und welche Implikationen für die Weltpolitik zeichnen sich ab? Diese Fragen wurden diskutiert von:

v. l.: Andreas Zick, Frank Grüner, Angelika Epple, Gabriele Woidelko, Andreas Vasilache; im Hintergrund auf der Leinwand: Gwendolyn Sasse (Foto: Universität Bielefeld/R. Moltmann)
  • Frank Grüner (Professor für Osteuropäische Geschichte, Bielefeld),
  • Gwendolyn Sasse (Wissenschaftliche Direktorin des Zentrums für Osteuropa- und internationale Studien und Einstein-Professorin für Vergleichende Demokratie- und Autoritarismusforschung, Berlin),
  • Andreas Vasilache (Professor für sozialwissenschaftliche Europaforschung, Bielefeld),
  • Gabriele Woidelko (Leiterin des Bereichs Geschichte und Politik der Körber-Stiftung, Hamburg) und
  • Andreas Zick (Leiter des Instituts für interdisziplinäre Konflikt- und Gewaltforschung und Professor für Sozialisation und Konfliktforschung, Bielefeld).
  • Moderiert wurde das Podium von Angelika Epple (Prorektorin für Forschung und Internationales und Professorin für Geschichte des 19. und 20. Jahrhunderts).
Nichts Neues, aber zugespitzt und radikalisiert

Das Geschichtsbild, das sich aus Putins Rede vom 21.2.2022 ableiten lasse, sei im Grunde weder neu noch überraschend, darin waren sich die Diskutant*innen einig. Neu sei aber die Dimension der Zuspitzung und die Radikalisierung einzelner Aspekte dieses Bildes. Der Ton sei von Wut und Aggression geprägt und der Ukraine werde jegliche nationale Eigenständigkeit abgesprochen, so Gabriele Woidelko. Grenzen und das Völkerrecht innerhalb Europas würden in der Rede kompromisslos infrage gestellt.

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  1. Die Universität Erfurt hat spezifisch für den wissenschaftlichen Kontext eine Liste mit Hilfs- und Finanzierungsmöglichkeiten zusammengestellt. []

“I think of us as kind of an art collective” – interdisciplinary research and filmmaking

An interview with the ZiF fellows Ulf Büntgen (environmental scientist) and Clive Oppenheimer (volcanologist and filmmaker)

The images of volcanic eruptions, such as the most recent one in Tonga, a Polynesian country and archipelago, are always impressive, their effects above all terrifying. Tonga is a scene of devastation, the drinking water is running low, and fish cultures are destroyed. But little can be said so far about how volcanic eruptions, environmental changes, global climate, and social change are linked. The new international ZiF cooperation group “Volcanoes, Climate and History” aims to remedy this.

Until October 2023, seven researchers from four countries will analyze important historical volcanic eruptions. The goal is to find out how volcanic eruptions affected the global climate system and how environmental changes triggered by them influenced agriculture, conflict, or political structures. In an interview with Ulf Büntgen, head of the group and professor of environmental systems analysis at the University of Cambridge’s Department of Geography, and Clive Oppenheimer, professor at the same department and a film director and producer, we discussed interdisciplinary collaboration and the medium of film as part of the scientific journey of discovery.

The filming process in November 2021 at ZiF Bielefeld
© ZiF / Philipp Ottendörfer

One part of the cooperation group “Volcanoes, Climate and History” is the production of a film. It is rather unusal in science to make films–not about science in general, but about the research process itself. What is your goal, what is the film supposed to achieve or to convey?

“it is difficult for an audience to watch a film that has endless talking heads–and that is kind of what we are!”

Clive Oppenheimer

OPPENHEIMER: I think it is an opportunity to do something more experimental. We have this very interdisciplinary nexus, historians, archeologists, climate modelers, volcanologists and so on, coming together and generating a discussion and dialogue at this interface between volcanoes and history. As a film project it is somewhat experimental because it is difficult for an audience to watch a film that has endless talking heads–and that is kind of what we are! We are in an academic mode when we are meeting at these workshops. So one of the things I wanted to tease out are some more general themes. For example: What does it actually mean to do interdisciplinary work? Is it just getting experts in field A and field B to come and sit in a room and talk to each other? Or does it take a historian to come and work in an ice-cold laboratory or a tree ring laboratory for a few months to really transplant themselves into the world of a different discipline?

“I hope it will be a kind of document of how interdisciplinary thinking worked in the early twenty-twenties”

Clive Oppenheimer

I hope it will be a kind of document of how interdisciplinary thinking worked in the early twenty-twenties, as a little moment in the history of science that people will look back on and say ‘that is how people got together and discussed these issues and thought about them’. It is supposed to be compelling because it’s about history and climate and eruption.

BÜNTGEN: The film is not a side project of the cooperation group, that is very important to me. The motivation for me was really to break out of the traditional products. Everyone would say, look, we write a paper and at the end of the cooperation we write a book and use the last workshop to maybe apply for the next funding opportunity etc. That is the usual approach in academia and we will also do that, of course, but I wanted something else and more innovative. And as the film project is highly experimental, as Clive said, we honestly do not really know what the outcome will be, how the filming during the workshop will play out, if we get to film ‘in the field’ at Laacher See, for example and so on. There will be a film and it is going to be nice, I am certain of that.

The cooperation group “Volcanoes, Climate and History” at ZiF in November 2021.
© ZiF / Foto: Philipp Ottendörfer
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Diskussion um das Berliner Hochschulgesetz

Berliner Universitäten, ergreift die sich bietende Chance!

von Felix Günther

Dieser Beitrag ist Teil einer Reihe von (Debatten-)Beiträgen aus dem Jungen ZiF, dem Nachwuchsförderprogramm des ZiF. Neben hochschul- und wissenschaftspolitischen Fragen werden hier auch Reflexionen zu interdisziplinärer Zusammenarbeit oder den spezifischen Aspekten des Postdoktorand*innen-Daseins erscheinen. Die Beiträge spiegeln die Positionen der jeweiligen Autor*innen wider.

Mit der Novellierung des Berliner Hochschulgesetzes hat die Gesetzgeberin in §110 Abs. 6 die Universitäten in die Pflicht genommen, langfristige Perspektiven für angestellte promovierte Wissenschaftlerinnen zu schaffen. Statt in Trotzreaktionen und Pessimismus zu verfallen, sollten die Universitäten selbst gute Rahmenbedingungen gestalten wollen.

In seinem Gastbeitrag im Tagesspiegel vom 5. November 2021 hat Christian Thomsen, Präsident der Technischen Universität Berlin, den Bund dazu aufgefordert, sich bei der Umsetzung des neuen Berliner Hochschulgesetzes finanziell durch höhere Programmpauschalen zu beteiligen. Gleichzeitig warnte er vor möglichen negativen Konsequenzen von mehr unbefristet angestellten Wissenschaftlerinnen an Universitäten: der Benachteiligung der jüngeren Generation, weniger Stellen zur Promotion, prekären Beschäftigungsverhältnissen durch höhere Lehrverpflichtungen und einer Vergrößerung NC-beschränkter Studiengänge. Sabine Kunst, ehemalige Präsidentin der Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, hat ihren Rücktritt insbesondere mit Verweis auf §110 Abs. 6 begründet und sprach von ähnlichen Gefahren.

Ich hingegen sehe vielmehr die Gefahr, dass diese Ängste die Berliner Universitäten weiter lähmen. Dabei tut sich durch die neue Lage eine Chance auf, eine Zukunft zu gestalten, die angestellten wissenschaftlichen Mitarbeiterinnen familien- und forschungsfreundliche, und somit vor allem auch planbare, Rahmenbedingungen bietet, wie auch die #IchbinHanna-Bewegung fordert. Diese Chance gilt es nun zu ergreifen! Zugegeben, als derzeit über Drittmittel befristet angestellter wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter habe ich großes persönliches Interesse an einem beherzten Umsetzen der Novelle. Ich sehe aber auch unabhängig davon die Notwendigkeit, den derzeitigen Verfechterinnen des Status Quo an den Universitäten etwas entgegenzusetzen und, anstelle der meiner Meinung nach überzogen dargestellten Risiken, Perspektiven und Möglichkeiten aufzuzeigen.

Die Frage nach dem Geld

Daraus ließe sich allerdings kein finanzieller Mehrbedarf von 23% ableiten, denn auch bei unbefristeten Arbeitsverträgen gäbe es Fluktuation im wissenschaftlichen Mittelbau zugunsten von jüngeren promovierten Wissenschaftlerinnen.

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Mit Reibungsverlusten: Wissenschaft lenkt Politik – Politik lenkt Wissenschaft

Ein Interview mit dem Volkswirt Guido Bünstorf (Kassel) und dem Philosophen Cornelis Menke (Mainz), Fellows der ZiF-Kooperationsgruppe ›Anreizstrukturen, Steuerungssysteme und Erkenntnisqualität‹, über die Wahrnehmung der Wissenschaft in der Corona-Pandemie und die Möglichkeiten, Wissenschaft zu lenken.

Von Manuela Lenzen

Viele Menschen waren während der Pandemie irritiert, dass es auch unter Forschenden Meinungsverschiedenheiten gibt und Aussagen immer wieder revidiert wurden. Hat das Bild der Wissenschaft in der Öffentlichkeit gelitten?

Guido Bünstorf: Es ist erstaunlich, dass das so negativ gesehen wird. Wir hatten innerhalb eines Jahres mehrere effektive Impfstoffe, die ihren Ursprung in der öffentlich geförderten Grundlagenforschung haben. Und wir haben ein Startup in Deutschland, das daran ganz zentral beteiligt war. Eigentlich ist das eine Erfolgsgeschichte: für die Forschung, für den personellen Transfer von den Hochschulen in die Unternehmen und für die Unternehmensgründungen. Da dürfte sich die Wissenschaft ruhig auf die Schultern klopfen und die Öffentlichkeit dürfte mitklopfen.

Cornelis Menke: Ich sehe das auch eher positiv. In der Pandemie gab es die Möglichkeit, einem Forschungsprozess zuzuschauen, mit den verschiedenen Akteuren und allem Hin und Her. Gänzliche Einmütigkeit darf man auch in der Wissenschaft nicht erwarten, auch dies dürfte deutlich geworden sein. Viele hadern ein wenig mit der Wissenschaft, einfach, weil die Empfehlungen ihnen unerwünscht sind. Aber insgesamt bin ich erstaunt, wie positiv die Wissenschaft in der öffentlichen Wahrnehmung wegkommt Zumal es ja auch nicht einfach ›die Wissenschaft‹ gibt. Die Empfehlungen aus der Sicht der Virologie stimmen ja nicht unbedingt mit denen etwa aus der Soziologie überein. Die einen sprechen von Viren, die anderen von den Herausforderungen des Homeschoolings.

Müsste stärker vermittelt werden, was Wissenschaft ausmacht und wie sie funktioniert?

Guido Bünstorf: In der Pandemie hat die Öffentlichkeit zum ersten Mal über den Prozess von Wissenschaft diskutiert. Ich kann mich nicht erinnern, zuvor jemals in einem Publikumsmedium darüber gelesen zu haben, ob eine Studie schon durch den Peer Review gegangen oder ein Preprint ist. Der Anspruch der Wissenschaft ist ja, verlässliches Wissen zu generieren. Dass stärker in der Öffentlichkeit angekommen ist, wie dieses Wissen hergestellt und geprüft wird, finde ich sehr positiv. Da hatten wir in der Vergangenheit in der Tat Defizite. Diese Vorstellung, dass alles, was jemand sagt, der einen Doktortitel hat, stimmt, ist eben ein bisschen naiv. Meine Hoffnung wäre, dass wir der Öffentlichkeit vermitteln können, wie sie solche Diskussion lesen muss. Auch, was Anhaltspunkte dafür sind, dass ein Argument besser oder schlechter ist. Die mediale Aufbereitung der Wissenschaft sehe ich aber durchaus auch kritisch, auch unabhängig von der Pandemie. Die Expertinnen und Experten, die ich als Ökonomen und Ökonominnen in Talkshows sehe, sind häufig nicht diejenige, deren Arbeiten ich mit Interesse lese. Und die Börsenberichterstattung im Fernsehen finde ich im besten Fall belustigend. Zudem wird in den Medien immer wieder über Studien berichtet, die aus Unternehmensberatungen kommen, als seien es wissenschaftliche Arbeiten. Das ist Öffentlichkeitsarbeit dieser Unternehmen, mit der sie ihre Namen lancieren, die aber meistens keinen wissenschaftlichen Wert haben. Ich würde mir wünschen, wir würden eine klarere Grenze zwischen dem ziehen, was legitimen wissenschaftlichen Anspruch erheben kann, und anderen Publikationen.

Cornelis Menke: Auf jeden Fall ist die Pandemie ein guter Anlass, um noch einmal über evidenzbasierte Politik und Evidenz selbst nachzudenken. Man muss die Vorstellung infrage stellen, dass erst die Wissenschaft das feste Fundament der Erkenntnis liefert und die Politik dann darauf aufbaut. Oft muss man eben handeln, bevor dieses Wissen vorliegt, und auch mit verändertem Wissen muss man umgehen. Das gilt nicht nur für die Virologie.

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Europe loses the AI race – and that’s a good thing!

by Benjamin Paaßen (Berlin), Joachim Wündisch (Düsseldorf) & Torbjørn Cunis (Stuttgart), Fellows of the Young ZiF

It appears that a race for the most powerful artificial intelligence (AI) is in progress. Major corporations in the US and China compete for ever larger data sets, more refined algorithms, and faster computing clusters1. The European Union is left behind: While European research groups are present at major AI conferences, no European institution is even close to having the resources of Alphabet, Facebook, Amazon, or Tencent. Most breakthroughs in recent years, such as solving image recognition challenges, large language models, or games, have been achieved by US-based companies2. In these kinds of tasks, EU research may never catch up. However, the question is: Should we even want to?

Artificial intelligence via human recklessness

Developments in the last five years have shown time and again that a reckless application of AI methods can cause serious ethical problems. In 2016, ProPublica revealed that a system employed in the US criminal justice system judged Black defendants to be more dangerous than white defendants, even if this turned out to be wrong3. In 2018, Amazon scrapped a planned system for pre-screening of job applications because it predicted that men would make better software engineers than women4. In the same year, Joy Buolamwini and Timnit Gebru showed that commercially available face recognition technology was much less accurate for darker-skinned people compared to light-skinned people, and especially inaccurate for darker-skinned women5. Even seemingly innocent language models appear to learn stereotypes embedded in human language, e. g., when reasoning that ‘Man is to Computer Programmer as Woman is to Homemaker’6. It appears that inaccurate model assumptions, biased training data, or questionable embedding into the broader social context can make AI decisions at least as problematic as human decisions.

Bigger is not always better

More broadly, there is a tension between current cutting-edge AI and EU policy goals. The lion’s share of resources in the AI race has been spent on a tiny subset of AI, namely deep neural networks. Deep neural networks are large-scale computers with billions of free parameters that are automatically optimized over weeks or months on terrabytes of data in giant computing clusters. Such systems have, undoubtedly, achieved unprecedented success in image processing tasks – such as face recognition – or language processing tasks – such as automated translation7. However, their sheer size and complexity makes their decisions almost impossible to explain, which is problematic as soon as decisions concern humans89. Further, the amount of energy consumed will likely complicate the fight against climate change10. The insatiable need for more training data has oftentimes led to questionable methods of data acquisition, such as collecting photos of millions of people without their consent [10] or scraping large-scale text data from the web, including harmful stereotypes and hate speech11. Finally, it appears that deep neural networks are particularly hard to protect against hacking attacks, making their application a potential security risk1213.

A vision for better AI in the EU

In summary, it appears that the current AI race focuses almost single-mindedly on achieving higher performance measures without much regard for environmental, legal, or ethical concerns. This kind of AI is not suitable to the EU context. Rather, EU research should focus on different goals: Using as little energy, time, and personal data as possible, making models explainable, and achieving AI that respects the autonomy and dignity of human beings14151617. Ironically, an AI subject to these constraints may even be more practically useful because savings in energy, time, and data, in combination with explainability and ethical acceptability are likely to outweigh a few percentage points of benchmark performance1819. Further, the EU is uniquely positioned to advance this vision: It arguably has the strictest data and privacy protections, including a rule requiring automatic decision-making systems to explain themselves to the user20. Further, it has released guidelines for trustworthy AI which point the way towards a better AI21. And it has a strong, publicly funded research community, which can drive research into better AI even without being led astray by narrow economic incentives. There is a long way to go, though, and success is not guaranteed. More efforts must be made to translate research prototypes into open-source software and datasets that can fuel applications. Beyond innovation in AI itself, a strong programme from the social sciences and the humanities is needed to translate an abstract vision for better AI into actionable guidelines for every single project which attempts to apply AI to human lives. Engineers should not be left alone with ethical considerations.

Overall, AI has the potential to propel humanity towards both dystopian and utopian futures. How it affects us depends on how it is built and how it is embedded into society. Without justification, the performance of AI systems – as measured by narrow metrics – is treated as synonymous with its social utility. Europe should not fall into this trap. Instead, it should move off the race-track and start running orthogonally, towards better AI.

References

  1. Savage (2020). The race to the top among the world’s leaders in artificial intelligence. nature 588, pp. 102-104. doi:10.1038/d41586-020-03409-8 []
  2. LeCun, Bengio, and Hinton (2015). Deep learning. nature 521, pp. 436-444. doi:10.1038/nature14539 []
  3. Angwin et al. (2016). Machine Bias. ProPublica. []
  4. Dastin (2018). Amazon scraps secret AI recruiting tool that showed bias against women. Reuters. []
  5. Buolamwini and Gebru (2018). Gender Shades: Intersectional Accuracy Disparities in Commercial Gender Classification. Proceedings of the 1st Conference on Fairness, Accountability, and Transparency, p. 77-91. []
  6. Bolukbasi et al. (2016). Man is to Computer Programmer as Woman is to Homemaker? Debiasing Word Embeddings. Proceedings of the 30th International Conference on Neural Information Processing Systems, p. 4356–4364. https://arxiv.org/abs/1607.06520 []
  7. LeCun, Bengio, and Hinton (2015). Deep learning. nature 521, pp. 436-444. doi:10.1038/nature14539 []
  8. Guidotti et al. (2018). A Survey of Methods for Explaining Black Box Models. ACM Computing Surveys, 2018(93). doi:10.1145/3236009 []
  9. Brkan (2019). Do algorithms rule the world? Algorithmic decision-making and data protection in the framework of the GDPR and beyond. International Journal of Law and Information Technology, 27, p. 91-121. []
  10. Bender et al. (2021). On the Dangers of Stochastic Parrots: Can Language Models Be Too Big? 🦜 Proceedings of the 2021 ACM Conference on Fairness, Accountability, and Transparency, p. 610-623. doi:10.1145/3442188.3445922 []
  11. Bender et al. (2021). On the Dangers of Stochastic Parrots: Can Language Models Be Too Big? 🦜 Proceedings of the 2021 ACM Conference on Fairness, Accountability, and Transparency, p. 610-623. doi:10.1145/3442188.3445922 []
  12. Akhtar and Mian (2018). Threat of Adversarial Attacks on Deep Learning in Computer Vision: A Survey. IEEE Access (6), pp. 14410 – 14430. doi:10.1109/ACCESS.2018.2807385 []
  13. Hamon, Junklewitz, and Sanchez (2020). Robustness and Explainability of Artificial Intelligence. JRC Technical Report. []
  14. Hamon, Junklewitz, and Sanchez (2020). Robustness and Explainability of Artificial Intelligence. JRC Technical Report. []
  15. Craglia et al. (2018). Artificial Intelligence: A European Perspective. Joint Research Centre of the European Commission. doi:10.2760/11251 []
  16. Edwards (2020). European researchers look beyond deep learning. Engineering & Technology. []
  17. Ala-Pietilä et al. (2018). Ethics Guidelines for Trustworthy AI. High-Level Expert Group on Artificial Intelligence. https://ec.europa.eu/futurium/en/ai-alliance-consultation []
  18. Craglia et al. (2018). Artificial Intelligence: A European Perspective. Joint Research Centre of the European Commission. doi:10.2760/11251 []
  19. Edwards (2020). European researchers look beyond deep learning. Engineering & Technology. []
  20. Brkan (2019). Do algorithms rule the world? Algorithmic decision-making and data protection in the framework of the GDPR and beyond. International Journal of Law and Information Technology, 27, p. 91-121. []
  21. Ala-Pietilä et al. (2018). Ethics Guidelines for Trustworthy AI. High-Level Expert Group on Artificial Intelligence. https://ec.europa.eu/futurium/en/ai-alliance-consultation []

Digitalization, Big Data, Artificial Intelligence

Artificial Intelligence is not about superintelligences taking over power as suggested by science fiction movies. AI is today mainly about algorithms trained on large amounts of data which are used in economy, the military, healthcare and more and more spheres of our daily live. We are just beginning to understand how they will change the world. Analysing the potentials and risks coming with this technology is an interdisciplinary challenge which has already been taken up by various ZiF-projects and will also play a major role in its future research agenda, e.g., in the research group “Economic and legal challenges in the advent of smart products” which will start in October. Some of the results of these undertakings will be posted here and we invite for a for a lively discussion.

The following text emerged from a workshop on Artificial Intelligence and Ethics organized by the ZiF’s postdoctoral network, the Young ZiF.

How will / should the world change? Analyses, answers, and further questions from all around the world

by Véronique Zanetti (ZiF Bielefeld, Germany),
G. Ary Plonski (UBIAS, IEA Sao Paulo, Brazil)
and Britta Padberg (ZiF Bielefeld, Germany )

When we started the blog series “How will / should the world change?” at the beginning of June, there was still hope that somehow the situation would be improving after the Northern hemisphere summer. Now we have to confront the fact that the opposite is true, especially in the worldwide perspective taken by this series. All the more important we believe are the 24 essays by researchers from 12 countries all around the world that we published during the last weeks.

For us, as editors of this little series, above all, the multiplicity of perspectives turned out to be eye-opening and enriching. The essays dealt with diverse topics such as food supply systems, science denialism, the democratization of scientific knowledge, data privacy, the incapability of nation states to cope with the pandemic, and the uneven gender distribution of the burdens caused by the pandemic.

Masks are required e.g. in France, but Muslim veils remain forbidden; in Hong Kong, wearing masks became a political statement, since the government fears that mask wearing could make the identification of protesters more difficult, as Wai Yip HO (Hong Kong, Paris) pointed out. Aasiya Qadir (Kashmir) and Afroz Shah (Darussalam) made us aware that in many regions of the world, lockdowns and school closings are frequent phenomena due to political conflicts, e.g. in Kashmir.

The essays draw dystopias of a world in which people meet only virtually to avoid infection but also to prevent solidarization of any kind, as sketched by Jose Gracia Bondia (San José, Costa Rica), and utopias “as the best way to overcome the corona crisis”, as evoked by Renato Janine Ribeiro (Sao Paulo, Brazil).

Without doubt, the corona crisis has turned out to be a kind of political stage, spotlighting the problems and opportunities of our societies, as described by Paula Diehl (Kiel, Germany). Some of the essays collected here analyze those problems, but there are also those who see alternative worlds already being thought through and revealed by the pandemic, as in the contribution by Erella Shadmi (Beit Berl, Israel). 

We expected Institutes for Advanced Studies worldwide to be rich pools to fish for visionary ideas and scientific observations concerning the pandemic, and the vast choice of articles following our call more than confirmed our expectation. So, at the end of this little series, facing the “great wide-open future”, which comic strip artist Oliver Grajewksi (Berlin) illustrated for us with his sharpened pen, we would like to cordially thank everybody who has submitted an essay. If this series contributes to widening the perspective on the challenges the pandemic is posing to societies and individuals worldwide and provides a forum for discussing some of the ideas that are currently developed all around the world, our goals have been achieved.


The Corona Crisis as a Political Stage

by Paula Diehl, Political Theory, History of Ideas and Political Culture, University of Kiel, Germany

The Stage

The Corona crisis seems to spotlight the problems and opportunities of our representative democracy. It provides a scene on which the shortcomings of our democracy become visible, but also one on which different political discourses and visions of the future can be enacted. In addition to protests, economic, political and social projects enter this stage as well. 

However, this stage is subject to particularly bright lighting. It is a glaring light that makes critical aspects of our representative democracy and capitalist society visible. The bright Corona light has, in particular, illuminated the problems in the health care system. Industrial nations such as Italy, Spain or the USA were facing a collapse of their medical supply. Structural deficits such as undersized capacities of hospitals, insufficient supply of medical materials such as masks, ventilators or medication as well as poorly paid and overwhelmed personnel were laid bare in the pandemic. In Spain and Northern Italy triage was applied, granting only the fittest patients the right to medical treatment. Older and already ill individuals could no longer be guaranteed a hospital bed or the use of a ventilator. The contradictions between biopolitics and democratic rights, which already exist, became exacerbated in the pandemic. In this context, the deadly consequences of an austerity policy caused by the state’s withdrawal from critical infrastructure were also exposed. In nations such as the USA, where there is no universal or mandatory health insurance and inequalities are especially apparent in the health sector, a particular selection takes place. Those who cannot afford medical treatment face the choice of either putting themselves and their families in debt or not being treated. Yet, due to their living and working conditions, they are often risk patients and suffer from diabetes, heart problems or other diseases.[1] The savings potential in the health care sector and the privatization of primary health care do not pay off in times of a pandemic.   Even worse, they increase the danger of Covid-19. Refrigerated trucks storing corpses in front of New York City hospitals, mass funerals in Brazil or dead bodies lying openly on the streets of Guayaquil provide the grim images of this crisis.

As a result of the pandemic, further vulnerabilities of politics and society are exposed. The shortage of supplies, on the one hand, and the obliteration of groceries, on the other, lay bare the problems of an agriculture that mainly services wholesale markets, focuses on monoculture and is entirely dependent on the transport and logistics sector. Due to the lockdown, considerable amounts of food perished in the field while the consumers, who partly already suffer economically from the Corona crisis, have to pay significantly more for the same products. In Germany alone, the price for vegetables has increased since the beginning of the crisis on average by 26%, in some cases such as zucchini even by 92%. In the US, farmers destroyed or gave away their potatoes, which are grown in huge monocultures, in some cases even 60% of the harvest. In the Netherlands, 13% of the potato production was disposed during the Corona crisis. Milk, eggs and other unprocessed foods were also destroyed. The focus on monocultures and long-distance transportation is not only problematic ecologically, in the case of the pandemic, it is also a risk for the economy and for supplying the population.

A third problem made visible by Corona is the flexibilization of the labor market in an attempt to reduce  labor costs and make businesses more competitive. According to Thomas Piketty, this is one of the most important sources for the increase of social inequalities in Europe. In Germany, the reforms of the Agenda 2010 led to precarious working conditions of many employees and enabled the boom of sub-contractors, a situation that is now at the core of the Corona outbreaks in the meat industry. When in mid-May 2020 twenty-nine Corona cases were discovered in a meat-packing plant in Lower Saxony, and shortly thereafter an even larger outbreak occurred in Rheda-Wiedenbrück near Gütersloh, the deplorable working and living conditions of the mainly Eastern European workers came to light:  unpaid extra working hours and packed housing with mouldy walls are part of this exploitation system. Such conditions exist in the agricultural sector and cruise ship tourism as well. It was not as if nobody was aware of the precarious working and living conditions of these workers.  They have been criticized for many years, but Corona makes the problem visible and the danger of infections for society imminent.  Again, the pandemic illuminates how unequal our society is. Whether in Paris, Bangladesh, Rio de Janeiro or Gütersloh, the virus spreads especially in places where dense and unhealthy living conditions are predominant, thus among the poor. While for the upper middle class the lockdown provoked a decelaration of everyday life as well as stress relief, inhabitants of the banlieues, favelas and ghettoes in large cities experienced a nightmare.

Crisis scenario and logic of prevention

Yet the crisis of the system was not the only issue that became visible on the Corona stage. Especially during the lockdown, and also later on, the state’s logic of prevention – legitimated by medical and scientific expertise – stood at center stage. States have the minimal obligation to ensure safety and peace. According to Thomas Hobbes, the Leviathan must use all means necessary for this purpose. In modern times, this duty is extended to the preservation of the population’s health. Michel Foucault pointed out this new paradigm when he spoke of biopolitics. In democracy, though, the state has another duty: it needs to guarantee the fundamental rights and liberties of each individual. Security (Hobbes) and administration of life (Foucault), on the one hand, and the democratic guarantee of fundamental rights and liberties, on the other, stand in tension to each other. A democratic state must not, like the Leviathan, make use of all means, and its biopolitical measures are counterbalanced by human rights and ethics. Checks and balances, mass media and citizens’ fundamental rights limit the power of the state. Decisions have to pass parliamentary committees and are discussed in public. However, in an extreme situation there is no time for this. The state has to act quickly, and this action shifts the balance of power in favour of the Leviathan and biopolitics. The state now functions within the mode of prevention, which is legitimized by the imminent catastrophe made plausible by the crisis scenario. 

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The Ways After

by José Gracia Bondia, Physics, University of Costa Rica

“The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned” (W. B. Yeats, 1920)

“COVID-19 was the lightning before the thunder” (P. Khanna & K. Khemka, 2020).

1. The bare facts

1a. A riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma

SARS-Cov-2 is not at all like the agents of the “common cold”. Bigger, much more contagious, endowed with a many-in-one ability for wrecking havoc in different organs and functions of the human body, this virus is the stuff of nightmares. Well-informed scientists have argued that it evolved from bats to human hosts by natural processes; and that remains the most likely hypothesis. This does not negate that Wuhan houses the most advanced-level laboratories devoted to experiments with viruses in China. And that those experiments try to augment the toxicity of the pathogen and its ability to enter body cells. Both American officials and Chinese diplomats have engaged in the blame game about the zero-point of corona. Something is certain: “infodemics” is here to stay.

There were plenty of Cassandras, to be sure. “The coming plague” and many other works were easily prescient. To no avail: politicians do not deal in likely future risks. The prestigious Center of Disease Control at Atlanta used to be the spearhead of the fight against epidemics the world over. Barely propelled during the Obama Administration, and starved of funds by the current one, it made a botch in the present emergency.

1b. The answers to the pandemic: under the Eurocentric lens

Amidst the gallop of the white horse of Pestilence in the West, one could hear a ripping of robes: about the battering that “Third-World” countries were about to suffer.

The reality is more nuanced. Besides the Asiatic “usual suspects”: Taiwan, Hong-Kong, South Korea, China itself… New Zealand is being hailed as the shiny example of containment. As of late May, it had had around 1,500 certified cases and about 25 five deaths. Now, this iaffluent country is essentially made of two very big, sparsely populated faraway islands, relatively easy to close. Take Costa Rica, with a larger population, crammed into a space smaller by a factor of more than five. What is worse, with porous borders with two hotbeds of coronavirus (Nicaragua’s official figures there are not worth the paper they are written on). Its figures by the same dates: 1,000+ thousand certified cases, 10 deaths (12 at the time of writing). In Africa: Ghana, Rwanda, Botswana… have developed testing kits and impressive strategies, overlooked among the Western fanfare. South Africa deployed high-technology against the virus. Senegal started preparing against the pandemic in January. Vietnam stands apart in the whole world by the number of tests performed by number of inhabitants. It closed its borders already in January. To put matters in perspective: towards the end of April Germany had effected around twelve tests per each detected infection; Vietnam had done by then over 600 (!). No deceases reported. This might seem a bit rich; but certainly there the virus was stopped on its tracks.

My favorite example is Kerala in India. Home to 35 million people (fairly small by Indian continental standards), this state has long being governed by a benign brand of Communism. It enjoys a strong public health system. As soon as late January it started to organize. At some point nearly 170,000 people were quarantined. Kerala is no island, its hinterland is the huge Indian subcontinent, where matters are certainly less tidy. As of mid-May there had been four casualties. For sure, people at Kerala trusted their sanitary authorities after a victorious fight just two years ago against Nipah — a less contagious, but far deadlier virus.

In summary: the main weapon against Corona was speed, that is, political vim and political acumen. When “The Economist” writes that USA is not doing too badly, since its fatalities rates compare with Europe’s of two months ago, something is seriously amiss in the Western perspective. All the big countries in the EU, and a good number of the smaller ones, acted late. As did the WHO itself. (Germany is touted as a partial exception. According to refined “generative” epidemiological models, it was just lucky, i.e., there is an unknown factor.)

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Obligatory Mask, Forbidden Mask: Rigidity and Flexibility in the Brave New Normal*

by Wai Yip Ho, Sociology, Islamic Studies, Nantes Institutes for Advanced Study, France, Education University of Hong Kong

France: Obligatory Masks and Observant Muslims

After lifting the national lockdown caused by the outbreak of Covid-19, France made mask-wearing mandatory in public transport and high schools. The new mandate of mask-wearing and social distancing suddenly halts French traditional intimate cheek-kiss ‘la bise’ greetings, while unexpectedly encouraging artistic creativity in designing home-made masks. Nevertheless, the law of 2011 on banning face veiling mostly worn by Muslim women remains unchanged. Apparently, making mask-wearing essential but at the same time banning face veil sounds counter-intuitive and inconsistent. One of the unintended consequences of the outbreak of Covid-19 apparently exposed how the French policy of secularism (laïcité) is excluding veiled Muslim women in the public sphere. The new law of making mask-wearing obligatory to contain the spread of virus but upholding the Republic’s values of uncovering the face in public places reveals a new social ambiguity. As a result of the new era of relative normlessness (Emile Durkheim’s notion of ‘Anomie’) after the outbreak of Covid-19, it initiates the French society negotiating new practices of interpersonal intimacy and social distancing. Most importantly, the new social condition opens an uncharted path and platform of dialogue in pursing common values, identity and social solidarity in France.

Hong Kong: Self-Defence and State Surveillance

After the intense street conflicts between protestors and police over the controversial Extradition Bill, the outbreak of the pandemia spreading from Wuhan was an additional challenge for Hong Kong. Haunted by the nightmare of the SARS virus causing 286 deaths in 2003 plus social distrust to government’s initial guideline of mask-wearing being unnecessary, civil society transformed the painful lessons into a quick collective self-defence practice of mask-wearing. Hong Kong even takes pride along Taiwan to be counted as one of the successful Asian examples in subduing Covid-19. But the key factor of success largely attributes to the voluntary mask-wearing of civil society. Despite mask-wearing is proved effective in containing spreading of the virus, Hong Kong High Court surprisingly maintains prohibiting mask-wearing on the grounds of preventing masked radical protestors from vandalizing the city, as the government imposed an emergency law banning protestors wearing masks in public demonstrations. But for many protestors, the voluntary practice of mask-wearing is both: self-protection from the virus, but also a symbolic stand against state surveillance. Many protestors were wearing masks, and some of them deliberately destroyed street smart lamp posts, because they suspect that biometric data collected by the installed facial recognition technology enabling to identify protectors’ identity would be send back to the Chinese central government.

After the Covid-19 Crisis: Bringing Humanity towards ‘Brave New Normal’

In this short essay, it is through briefly illustrating the cases of France and Hong Kong how authorities conflictingly approve the necessity of a generalized use of masks in containing the spike of Covid-19 and at the same time de-legitimize mask-wearing when it poses a challenge to the legitimacy of the state’s rule. The rigidity and failure of the WHO and of governments in swiftly containing the virus outbreak leads to social distrust, liberating global civil society’s creativity and flexibility to react. The lack of clear agreed social norms or even contradictory claims of mask-wearing implies the new social condition of normlessness. As the protesting slogan in Chile, ‘No volveremos a la normalidad, porque’ la normalidad era el problema’ (‘We won’t return to normality, because normality was the problem’) suggests, the French society initiates a journey of soul-searching in seeking how to bring together the new intimate distance and the Republic’s values after the outbreak of Covid-19, whereas in Hong Kong protestors have identified a protest logic of ‘Be Water’ in new social solidarity through mask-wearing in resistance against state surveillance.

In conclusion, after the outbreak of the Covid-19 crisis there will be no reverse to normal. It awakens humanity in transition from normality to the indeterminate challenges of a ‘Brave New Normal’.

* This short reflection piece is to acknowledge and express my gratitude to the invitation as the Fellow of the 3rd UBIAS Intercontinental Academia (ICA3) – Laws: Rigidity and Dynamics (2018-19) at Singapore, Princeton and Birmingham.

Digital Culture Around the “Globe”

by Stoyan V. Sgourev, Management Department, ESSEC Business School, Paris

The Covid-19 crisis is a rare event with large social and economic consequences that will most likely exceed what the optimists are expecting, but not be nearly as dramatic as what the pessimists predict. Human history is an incessant sequence of crises that shape the evolution of societies, but the effect is never detached from the past. Societies, cultures or economies mutate in an evolutionary process that major disruptions accelerate, presenting new challenges and opportunities.

The crisis will have short- and long- term consequences on a range of social domains and economic sectors. The short-term consequences are related to the need to manage the easing of the restrictions, the necessity to maintain social distancing, or the expected drop in consumption that will profoundly affect the prospects of sectors dependent on physical presence, such as tourism, culture or education. For many, especially smaller, organizations, the aftermath of the crisis will pose difficult questions related to survival and the need to reduce budget shortfalls. Governments will have an active role to play at this stage, though this role is naturally constrained by the reduced tax revenue. As economists are already warning, cranking up the money printing press can help maintain employment and prop up viable businesses in the short run, but is perilous in the long run, given the inflationary pressure it generates and elevated rates of indebtedness. Juggling between these contrasting imperatives is the new normality for governments. Elected on promises of sustained growth and lower unemployment, they are now facing the need to manage the opposite scenario – of rising unemployment, a slowing economy, and a pervasive expectation that things will get worse before they get better. This is what deep, penetrating crises do – they change convictions, invert perspectives and reinforce contradictions that up to now appeared manageable.

The cultural sector illustrates well this development. The crisis is making resurface anxieties about the role of technology, the physical experience of culture and the viability of funding models. Forcing adaptation to the exigencies of social distancing, the crisis will accelerate the digitalization of the cultural sector, overhaul funding models, reduce the dependence on physical presence and create a momentum for scaling up. Accustomed to resolving operational bottlenecks, company directors will need to conceive of new ways to hedge risks and to reduce the uncertainty related to sanitary threats.

Our collective experiences during the crisis confirmed that culture is indispensable in times of ordeal, but that it is more fragile than we think. This reminds of how cultural life helped societies cope during the Second World War and rebuild in its aftermath. However, the postwar years also underlined the insufficiency of the economic and social fabric that sustained culture. The declining personal fortunes of aristocratic patrons and rapidly increasing labor costs triggered the search for a new equilibrium: if the European societies started heavily subsidizing their cultural economy, the United States shifted the finding responsibility to the private and non-profit sectors.

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Post-Covid and multilateralism

by Wagner Costa Ribeiro, Institute of Advanced Studies and School of Philosophy, Literature and Human Sciences, São Paulo, Brazil

Within the current international scenario, the United Nations (UN) and the World Health Organization (WHO) are the multilateral institutions that are best suited to develop cooperative actions necessary to combat the pandemic and its effects for the future. A future that will need to be different from the conditions that led to the emergence and proliferation of the pandemic.

This paper addresses, on the basis of UN and WHO actions, how multilateralism can be an alternative for the organization of social relations in the 21st century, at different scales, after the outbreak of Covid-19. Initially, we present part of the initiatives of the two multilateral organizations mentioned and then we analyze how Latin America and the European Union are walking paths of cooperation in the search for ways out of the crisis.

On January 30, 2020 – which some considered somewhat late – the WHO presented the Declaration of Public Health Emergency of International Importance when treating the disease and soon afterwards launched a plan of action (WHO, 2020). It was not the recognition of the pandemic, which occurred more than a month later, on March 11.

This delay is one of the focuses of criticism towards the WHO. For example, the president of the United States, Donald Trump, accused the slow declaration of the pandemic, which, for him, allowed a greater geographical dispersion of the virus. On May 29, he announced the break with WHO, two days after the WHO presented a manifesto in which it stated that it was necessary to go beyond returning to normal and seek new ways of organizing life and the economy in line with nature and in favor of quality of life (WHO, 2020a). Meanwhile, the WHO argued that neither the virus nor its ability to transmit was sufficiently known. This is still a matter for debate. Perhaps in the future we will have more documents that will allow us to say what actually happened. But there is no doubt that the delay in recognizing the pandemic has allowed the globalization process and intense flows of people, products and materials to continue, which has caused the virus to spread across continents.

Once the pandemic was recognized, the WHO began to develop a series of actions, often in coordination with the UN. We will present part of the activities that these international institutions have developed to fight the disease in a chronological way.

The UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, in March spoke for the necessary cooperation between countries to seek alternatives to fight the disease. On March 28, the UN launched a Global Humanitarian Response Plan (UN, 2020), based on a demand from the WHO, which was initially budgeted at 2.1 billion dollars. Quickly, the budget more than tripled: by May 2020, it was 6.7 billion dollars. Who will provide this funding? Unfortunately, the multilateral agencies are emptying out. This raises another important question: why was the international system not prepared to face a crisis like this?

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