The world is witnessing scenes never seen before, being swept by the Covid-19 pandemic. As I write, around 210 countries and territories around the world affected and around 4.9 million confirmed cases globally along with nearly 320,000 fatalities, it is potentially changing the globe in every possible way.
In addition to the loss of life, the global economic cost of the pandemic is expected to be around US$4 trillion, according to the Asian Development Bank’s projections, thereby affecting people of nearly all religions, ethnicities and races.
With the virus changing epicenters from China, to Europe and currently the US, it is an invisible attack on humanity. It is the most dramatic, unusual and global crisis since the Spanish flu of 1918, which infected around 500 million people (about a third of the global population).
While this new virus is more global in nature, the world is turning inwards. People are locked down, borders are insulated, institutions of global cooperation are witnessing decline; protectionism, xenophobia, hyper-nationalism and inequality are on a rise. We are, in general, moving toward a world of isolation over the world of cooperation – just when the requirement is exactly the opposite.
The future of the idea of globalization needs to be analyzed in this context.
The ideology of globalization
After the Second World War, liberal institutionalism and globalization were considered to be the means to stop worldwide bloodshed. Francis Fukuyama even termed the ascendency of Western liberal democracy as the “end of history” or the end of man’s ideological evolution.
Authors like Kenichi Ohmae looked at the globalized system as a “borderless world”; others like Marshall McLuhan looked at the entire world as a “global village” because of the increased interconnectedness. Some others like Jagdish Bhagwati advocated for a more globalized system because of its potential for unprecedented growth, and trickle-down effect on poverty eradication.
Just before the pandemic seized the world, optimists had started to hope that the world would be more collaborative when the US and China signed the “Phase 1 deal” to ease a long-running trade war. But ever since Covid-19 struck humanity, things have gotten worse, with increased blame games on the origin of the virus, especially between the US and China, and protectionism reigning supreme.
Globalization may be blamed for the worldwide devastation, leading to responses like travel bans, reduced international cooperation, immigration being stopped and trade exchanges getting crippled. Countries have started to debate whether autocracies like China handled the situation better than democracies in Europe and North America.
Correlations are being confused with causations by linking the depth of economic ties of these countries with China and the intensity of Covid-related damage in these countries. The voices advocating less globalization are overpowering the advocates of more globalization with each passing day.
Threatened liberal institutionalism
The idea behind the establishment of multilateral institutions after World War II was to create a permanent arrangement for cooperation and communication, to promote understanding among different sovereign global actors for long-term peace, to deter proliferation of weapons, and to deal with the balance-of-power crisis.
Gradually the international organizations were entrusted with more functions such as promoting trade, and protecting the environment, world heritage sites and various vulnerable groups such as laborers, women, children and refugees, among others.
However, the organizations responsible for managing global commons are time and again accused of asymmetric methods of functioning, inherent biases and becoming a theater for global politics and cold wars (first between the US and USSR and now between the US and China). The current US administration’s decisions to leave the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) were already proof of the increased trust deficit.
According to Indian academic Shailendra Deolankar, “The World Health Organization (WHO), responsible to keep the world healthy, to track emerging infections, developing vaccines, helping the underdeveloped and the developing nations has been facing stern accusations for its lackluster attitude in handling the Covid pandemic, misguiding the world on the nature and the mode of transmission of the virus and a delayed response in declaration of Covid as a pandemic.”
The United States’ decision to stop funding the WHO (having accounted for about 15% of WHO contributions) is a major blow to the organization. Institutional reforms in the United Nations have been pending for a long time, and there are serious doubts about the consensus-building mechanisms at the UN, which has been accused of carrying out hegemonic exercises to tackle isolated military and political crises.
Happymon Jacob, who teaches national security at Jawaharlal Nehru University, claims, “These institutions are cash-strapped, pawns at the hands of the great powers and their agenda is focussed on high-table issues.”
Explaining how there is a lack in the global efforts to restructure these institutions, Samir Saran of the Observer Research Foundation says, “The world is ready to accept that these institutions don’t work but it is hesitant to take pains to restructure them.”
Even the multilateral regional groupings failed to deliver when Covid-19 stuck. The nations in Europe preferred to look inwards, to close their borders when the virus spread like wildfire in the continent. The otherwise visible bonhomie and regional cooperation was missing during the crisis.
At the peak of its crisis when the health system of Italy collapsed, it was short of helping international hands. In South Asia, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s attempt to revive the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) was commendable but short-lived, and being a one-off event was not immensely fruitful.
Economic impacts of protectionism
Global supply chains have been disrupted by the policies of protectionism adopted by various nations. With panic increasing as the virus progresses, more and more countries are resisting global exchanges and storing things for their own citizens.
However, the world needs a collective response powered by the spirit of collaboration and long-term thinking, and not countries acting in silos. Aaditya Mattoo and Michele Ruta of the World Bank write in their blog: “Restrictive actions by exporters reduce global supply, leading to higher prices. This provokes new export restrictions to insulate the domestic markets, generating the ‘multiplier effect’ on the world prices.”
Governments need to understand that no country is self-sufficient in today’s world. Restrictive measures by one country on product X will be retaliated by restrictive measures on product Y by another country, leading to scarcity and inflation across the globe.
Also, the discovery of a Covid-19 vaccine gradually will need global trust to remain intact and supply chains need to be functional. Although interference of the state is bound to increase in these times – the markets need to be trusted, private enterprises need to be promoted, incentives need to be created, or else increased restrictions will throttle the competition and abolish innovation, which will lead to further loss of jobs and investment.
The closing of national borders, governments thinking only about their own citizens at the cost of the “others,” populist leaders blaming China, people being mobilized for national service over the service for humanity – are all indicators of increasing hyper-nationalism across the globe.
In times of crisis, when the chips are down, people wait for a “messiah” who they expect will know it all and take them out of the crisis – a trend that eventually develops demands for authoritarianism, increased surveillance and the legitimization of the state in the private sphere. A health-care crisis is confused with war and emergencies imposed are not questioned.
However, as Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari says, “Once you give up freedom, it never comes back, and post-Covid the surveillance will [move] inside human bodies from being at the surface in the pre-Covid era,” which would mean that the government would understand “how you feel after watching something” and not just what you watch.
The response to Covid-19 may be used to justify authoritarian rule over a democracy. Although a democracy like the United States is badly affected by the disease, we should not forget how countries like South Korea, Germany, Denmark and Iceland have dealt effectively with the crisis. It needs to be understood that it is not the form of government that mattered but state capacity, early response, dependence on science and experts, effective planning and implementation.
Globalization has been blamed for increased inequalities and concentration of wealth. According to Harari, the post-Covid world order “will lead to a new form of inequalities between the badly affected and the hardly affected, the digital working population and the non-digital working population, the knowledge workers vs the non-knowledge workers.”
Today we see a new form of discrimination with closed immigration to certain nationalities, renewed refuge policies, new forms of phytosanitary barriers, with Americans blaming the Chinese, Chinese blaming the Americans, Indians blaming the Muslims, the Muslims in the Arab world blaming the Jews – alongside such trends, it seems the Covid-19 crisis will lead to a new form of racism and xenophobia never seen before. It may create new forms of hatred and misplaced priorities.
What does the world need to do?
As Bill Gates said in a TED talk five years back, the world needs to understand that the nature of threats has changed from conventional warfare and nuclear warfare to pandemics, cyber threats, and bioweapons. The devastation caused by the Covid-19 pandemic has shown that no country was ready for it. In order to gear up for new kinds of threats we need to restructure our thinking, humanity needs to reflect and bring back the humility that still we know too little.
As Harari points out, “The virus in China cannot coordinate with the virus in America on how to attack the human, but humans in China can cooperate with the human in America on how to tackle the virus.”
Humanity needs to use the same power of cooperation that helped us to evolve and made us different from other species on the planet. We need doctors, politicians, scientists and journalists across the world to cooperate and coordinate, as only a collective response can solve this existential crisis.
The priorities of the states also need to undergo a major upheaval after the crisis is over. Huge countries like India were compelled to lock down completely, not worrying about their economy, or about the humanitarian crisis that would ensue, as the government was well aware about the lack of state capacity.
India spends only around 1.7% of its gross domestic product on health care, and has not undertaken massive health-care augmentation as it was never an election issue. However, the crisis has shown countries across the globe that their misplaced priorities may be electorally relevant in the short term but can be extremely fatal in the long run, especially when crises emerge.
The world has to reflect collectively on its priorities, their respective state capacities and the threats that can challenge humanity in the near future. The solution is not less globalization but more globalization. Global cooperation needs to be augmented, information dissemination needs to increase.
We should understand methods to augment our cooperation, navigate through uncertainties and move toward protecting and nurturing a common good for the human race in general.