Humanitarianism in the face of fear, or how to deal with the first global crisis… of the precautionary principle.

©Rom camp, Pierrefite-sur-Seine, april 2020, Solidarités International

For the first time in its history, the humanitarian community is facing a massive crisis, caused neither by armed conflict, nor by a natural disaster, nor essentially by an ongoing pandemic (even if the COVID 19 pandemic is a real serious epidemic-health crisis), but first and foremost by the consequences of human thought, i.e. by an over-reaction bordering on panic. To put it another way, we are witnessing the first global economic-humanitarian crisis born of the precautionary principle pushed to the point of absurdity.

It is, in this respect, fascinating – and instructive – to note that COVID 19 is causing a disaster, both in individuals affected by the disease developing a serious form and in human societies, through the same process ; in the very rare individuals (in 81% of cases – it should be remembered – Covid-19 results in a begninic or even asymptomatic form) requiring care in respiratory assistance and resuscitation, it is an over-reaction of the immune system which causes an inflammatory syndrome at the origin of acute respiratory distress, and in society, it is the overreaction of the new “absolute human-state immune system”, the “precautionary principle”, which today seems to govern…our rulers, which is causing a gigantic economic crisis, which is becoming a massive humanitarian crisis before our eyes, and whose victims will ultimately far outnumber the direct victims of the virus.

This is not to deny, once again, the reality or the seriousness of the epidemic-health crisis of COVID 19. 19 Each victim of this epidemic, as in any epidemic, represents a failure, a loss for his or her community and a tragedy for his or her loved ones. We must do our utmost to prevent and care for its victims… by keeping a cool head and reason.

Keeping a cool head is already simply talking about a global epidemic crisis, not to mention “war”. To use the term “war” to refer to the crisis of VIDOC 19 is a lack of respect for all the people in the world who are currently living in a country at war, who suffer it on a daily basis; it is also an expression of a loss of lucidity. If ever, God forbid, we Europeans, who believe we have driven it from our horizon forever, should experience war again, there is a good chance that we would regret the “good old days of confinement”…

Keeping a cool head also means putting things into perspective. As serious as the VIDOC crisis is, on the scale of human history, and in the light of other contemporary epidemics, it is far from justifying the apocalyptic perception that we are being asked to have, with a great deal of talk and analysis. A few numerical reminders, among some notable scourges:

  • Justinian’s plague claimed between 30 and 50 million victims in 541-542. It was an accelerator of the fall of the Roman Empire.
  • The Black (bubonic) plague claimed about 200 million victims between 1347 and 1351. It decimated between 30 and 50% of the European population.
  • Smallpox killed about 56 million people in 1520.
  • The Spanish flu killed between 30 and 50 million people in 1918-1919.
  • The Hong Kong flu claimed about one million victims from 1968 to 1970, including, in 1968 and in two months, more than 31,000 in France.
  • Since the beginning of the HIV epidemic in 1981, the average estimate of cumulative victims worldwide is 32 million. In 2018, between 570,000 and 1.1 million people will have died of AIDS-related illnesses.
    Nearly 2.6 million people, including 297,000 children under the age of five, die each year from diseases related to unsafe water.
  • Seasonal influenza kills between 290,000 and 650,000 people worldwide each year.
  • At the time of writing, VIDOC 19 has resulted in the deaths of approximately 290,000 people worldwide. For the time being, despite a rapid and worrying progression of the epidemic in the Sahel and the Lake Chad Basin, as well as in West Africa, a progression that requires increased attention and multi-sectoral actions, the cataclysm announced in Africa, which we all welcome, has not taken place.

We will not mention here Ebola, whose mortality rate varies from 25 to 90 per cent of those infected, nor the victims of armed conflict.

Finally, keeping a cool head, and once we have put things into perspective, could have consisted, as we can see, in not putting in place global measures of last resort in a situation that did not require them. In other words, to “freeze the planet” on the pretext that the virus, which was not well known, aroused all fears. While this “freezing” may have been understandable in some countries at the very beginning of the epidemic, when policy makers were still in the fog of the unknown, and in order to give hospitals time to absorb the bulk of the wave and reorganize themselves, its continuation over time was devastating. The confinement of much of the Western world, parts of Asia, South America and the margins of Africa, has led to an economic and financial crisis of exceptional severity. This cascading economic crisis, coupled with the closure of borders, the halt of part of production and trade, and aggravated by other factors (endemic impoverishment, violence and armed conflicts, droughts, population migration, locust invasion, etc.), has led to a series of economic and financial crises of exceptional seriousness. The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) estimates that the number of people suffering from hunger in the world could rise from 135 million in 2019 to nearly 265 million in 2020.

©Installation covid water point, Porte de Paris, avril 2020, Solidarités International

We will be facing a double hunger crisis: a crisis in the production, trade and delivery of food resources, seeds and inputs caused by the “global freeze” and the closure of borders (aggravated by the fact that producer countries are building up stocks instead of exports) and a crisis in access to available food resources / seeds / inputs due to the economic crisis… also caused by the same “freeze”. Moreover, the suspension of fishing, an important source of food resources, in many countries has a very heavy impact. And according to the International Labour Organization (ILO) “The world of work is going through the worst international crisis since the Second World War”; the ILO predicts an explosion in the number of unemployed people in the world in 2020 (from 25 to 28 million jobs lost), and a doubling of this number in some regions, with political unrest and violence as a result, and the humanitarian crises that will inevitably follow.

To put it another way, at some point, in order to save lives, you have to have the political courage to let people live. Sweden has shown that this is perfectly possible, and with good results in the fight against an epidemic, even a little-known virus.

In this sense, we humanitarians must today respond with commitment and effectiveness, here and there, to the devastating consequences of a form of dictatorship of political thought, of globalized governance, that of the precautionary principle, of “zero risk/zero death” (we no longer tolerate the very idea of death, as if we had acquired a kind of right, enforceable before the State, not to die). This principle, in this case, has reached its tipping point. Combined with a form of prospective analysis based on statistical calculations, in this case those of the epidemiologists at Imperial College London, who recommended to governments a uniform response based on mathematical models, it proves, when tested against reality, i.e. life, to be deadly.

The precautionary principle is therefore finally proving to be, for what it is, a deadly principle. And it is important not to confuse this principle with taking precautions. Taking precautions is the corollary, whenever possible, of taking a risk (I accept the risk as part, consubstantially, of the fact of living and acting, and consequently I prepare for it as best I can by taking one or more precautions). The precautionary principle consists, on the contrary, in refusing to take any risk, by rejecting the very idea of risk. It is a principle of absolute refusal. Nothing that has enabled humanity to move forward, or to overcome threats and challenges, could not have been accomplished according to the precautionary principle: Christopher Columbus’s caravels would never have left port, Galileo would never have dared to say “And yet it turns”, General de Gaulle would not have launched the call of June 18th, the very hazardous landing of June 6th 44 would not have been launched, NASA would not have launched Apollo 11 and Neil Amstrong would not have said “It’s a small step for mankind”… “, the French doctors of Biafra would have stayed home, Nelson Mandala would never have had the courage to stand up against apartheid, and no humanitarian would have entered Afghanistan on a crossborder to help the Afghan population during the Soviet invasion.

So what do you think? What is left for us humanitarians, who must move forward and act on a ridge line, that of our field of action and our responsibility?

We still have to act without hesitation, wherever our expertise and experience are useful and necessary, in France and abroad, to prevent the spread of COVID 19 among the most vulnerable populations, in areas at risk, and where sanitary and medical means are most lacking. Our commitment must not be lacking, and our commitment must also be to the next appointment, the one that follows, the one of the terrible economic and humanitarian consequences that are already there. For that, we need financial, logistical and extraordinary resources, and there are huge challenges and obstacles to be faced. It will be all the more difficult because the West and Westerners are perceived, rightly or wrongly, in many places, as part of the problem, if not the cause, and not the solution. We must and will have to show even more commitment, know-how, efficiency, reasoned risk-taking… and honesty.

©Distribution of emergency kits to fight covid, Drancy, avril 2020, Solidarités International.

This honesty consists, on the one hand, in acting from the real, the living, the human, the informal, and not from theoretical models. This is what we have known how to do since the beginning of modern humanitarianism, so let us continue to do it. And let’s do it without giving up any of our freedom, at a time when we are being traded for more control…for more security. We must have no hesitation about the radical incompatibility between free humanitarian action and the control society that is being proposed in the name of the fight against VIDOC and other health risks. And we must refuse to be on the ground as auxiliaries to this control society.

This honesty also consists in assuming a discourse of truth, that is to say in acknowledging and saying loud and clear that the biggest humanitarian crisis we have to combat is not the health crisis of COVID 19 itself, a crisis that we must deal with with all the necessary means, but is essentially and for the future the result of a catastrophic dysfunction of a principle that has become an undisputed dogma, that of the precautionary principle “at all costs”.

This honesty also consists in refusing to be used as an instrument, so that our action, which is indispensable, cannot be used to endorse a discourse justifying their over-reaction on the part of those in power, an over-reaction dictated by panic at the idea that anyone could reproach them, in the name of the indisputable precautionary principle, for not having done as the Italians did, who were the first to take this decision in Europe after the Chinese authorities sealed off the province of Hubei, the cradle of the virus. The Italian decision put all the leaders of the European continent before the risk that they would be accused, if they did not do so in turn, “of not having done everything, whatever the cost, to protect everyone”… Whatever the cost, this formula must be weighed and judged not only in terms of the short-term consequences, but also in terms of the medium- and long-term consequences. It is reasonable to assume that “whatever it costs” will have more negative than positive connotations in the near future.

This honesty finally consists in reinvesting a radical humanitarian, without compromise, at the exclusive service of the most vulnerable, the forgotten, and inspired by our values, our lucidity… A humanitarian always as close – physically close – to the people we rescue, help… and vaccinated against risk aversion, name of the humanitarian variant of the precautionary principle pandemic.


Pierre Brunet, writor and humanitarian

Born in 1961 in Paris to a French father and a Spanish mother, Pierre Brunet found his first vocation as a freelance journalist. In 1994, he crossed paths with humanitarian work and volunteered in Rwanda, devastated by a genocide. At the beginning of 1995, he left on a humanitarian mission to Bosnia-Herzegovina, then torn apart by civil war. He will assume the responsibilities of programme coordinator in Sarajevo, then head of mission.

On his return to France at the end of 1996, he joined the headquarters of the French NGO SOLIDARITES INTERNATIONAL, for which he had gone on mission. There, he was in charge of communication and fundraising, while returning to the field, as in Afghanistan in 2003, and starting to write. In 2011, while remaining involved in humanitarian work, he is totally committed to writing, and devotes an essential part of his time to his vocation as a writer.

Pierre Brunet is Vice-President of the SOLIDARITES INTERNATIONAL association. He went on the ground in the “jungle” of Calais in November 2015, in Greece and Macedonia with migrants in April 2016, and in the North-East of Syria in April 2019.

Parallel to his work as a writer, Pierre Brunet works as co-scriptwriter of synopses for television series or feature films, in partnership with various production companies. He also collaborates with various magazines by publishing articles and articles, particularly on international current affairs.

Pierre Brunet’s novels are published by Calmann-Lévy :

  • January 2006: publication of his first novel “Barnum”, a story born from his humanitarian experience.
  • September 2008: publication of his second novel “JAB”, the story of a little Spanish orphan girl growing up in Morocco who will become, as an adult, a professional boxer.
  • March 2014: release of her third novel “Fenicia”, inspired by the life of her mother, a little Spanish orphan during the civil war, a refugee in France, later an anarchist activist, seductress, who died in a psychiatric institute at the age of 31.
  • Late August 2017: release of his fourth novel “The uncertainty triangle”, in which the author “returns” again, as in “Barnum” in Rwanda in 1994, to evoke the trauma of a French officer during Operation Turquoise.