The global impact of the coronavirus pandemic asks a fundamental question: is this one of those historic moments when the world changes everlasting, when the balance of political and economic power shifts decisively, and when, for most people, in most countries, life is never quite the same again, how will be the world after pandemic? Let’s discuss.
The COVID-19 pandemic is global, but national responses have spanned a wide spectrum. After initial denial, China mobilized massively and appears to be winning its battle against the virus. Several close neighbors of China — Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, and South Korea — reacted quickly and decisively, taking advantage of systems set up to counter earlier epidemics.
Genuinely pivotal global moments, watersheds or turning points (pick your own terminology) are actually quite rare. Yet if the premise is correct – that there can be no return to the pre-Covid-19 era – then it poses many unsettling questions about the nature of the change, and whether it will be for better or worse.
For countless individuals and families, normal life has already been upended in previously unimaginable ways. But how will the pandemic influence the future behavior of nation states, governments and leaders – and their often dysfunctional relationships? Will they work together more closely, or will this shared trauma further divide them?
Some analysts see grounds for optimism, for example in beneficial environmental effects in northern Italy and China. Countries hitherto at odds, such as Iran and the UAE, are cooperating, at least temporarily. In the Philippines, the crisis prompted a ceasefire with Communist rebels. Global interdependence and the importance of collective, multilateral approaches have been vividly underscored.
But there is also a more pessimistic view, typified by Stephen Walt, professor of international relations at Harvard University. “The pandemic will strengthen the state and reinforce nationalism. Governments of all types will adopt emergency measures to manage the crisis, and many will be loath to relinquish these new powers when the crisis is over,” he wrote in Foreign Policy magazine.
It’s a chance to reset both global and personal landscapes. Notwithstanding present feelings of powerlessness, there are choices to be made about what kind of future awaits. After Covid-19, everything could be up for grabs.
Balance of Power
After early blunders, China’s government is working hard to turn Covid-19, first detected in Wuhan in November, into a national success story. It claims draconian measures to suppress the disease have largely worked. Now, by offering assistance to Italy and other badly affected countries, China is reinforcing its credentials as a global leader. The virus has become a soft power tool to overtake its superpower rival, the US.
“A critical part of this narrative is Beijing’s supposed success in battling the virus. A steady stream of propaganda articles, tweets and public messaging, in a wide variety of languages, touts China’s achievements and highlights the effectiveness of its model of domestic governance,” wrote commentators Kurt Campbell and Rush Doshi in Foreign Affairs magazine.
In contrast, Donald Trump is struggling to dispel a widespread perception of gross incompetence. “The US government’s pandemic leadership has been its own special brand of catastrophe…. [It] has placed its own citizens in unnecessary peril, while sidelining itself from acting as a global crisis leader,” wrote Mira Rapp-Hooper of the US Council on Foreign Relations. We will witness a new structure of balance of power in the world after pandemic.
China’s challenge to US hegemony was already strengthening on many fronts before the Covid-19 crisis erupted. The pandemic may accelerate this shift. For US-allied democracies that value open governance, civil rights and free speech, this is a worrying prospect.
The trend towards centralized, authoritarian rule evident in countries such as India, Brazil and Turkey, and typified by China and Russia, has coincided with the rise of rightwing nationalist-populist governments and parties in Europe. Some are now following China’s lead in attempting to weaponise the virus for political ends.
“The pandemic unquestionably presents an era-defining challenge to public health and the global economy [but] its political consequences are less well-understood,” the independent monitor, International Crisis Group, warned last week. “Unscrupulous leaders may exploit the pandemic to advance their objectives in ways that exacerbate domestic or international crises – cracking down on dissent at home or escalating conflicts with rival states – on the assumption that they will get away with it while the world is otherwise occupied,” the ICG said.
Globalization and Multilateralism
Unprecedented government aid packages for businesses and workers, intended to mitigate the disease’s economic and financial impact, have led some analysts to suggest “the state is back” – and that the limits of the postwar neoliberal, free market model have finally been reached.
What the crisis has shown, it is argued, is that when the challenge is truly existential, only the state can offer holistic and equitable solutions. A natural corollary is that the high-water mark of globalization has arrived. These are radical paradigm shifts. Will they endure?
“The pandemic could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back of economic globalization,” wrote Robin Niblett, director of the Chatham House think-tank. The architecture of global economic governance established in the 20th century was at risk, he warned, raising the prospect that political leaders may “retreat into overt geopolitical competition”.
The pandemic and its aftermath could be a game-changer for poorer countries with limited resources and means of recovery, and for refugees and people in conflict zones – but probably not in a good way. The world after pandemic would be a different world.
The ICG report is blunt: “The global outbreak has the potential to wreak havoc in fragile states [and] trigger widespread unrest …. If the disease spreads in densely packed urban centers, it may be virtually impossible to control.” This is precisely the fear stalking South Africa’s townships right now.
The report said the dramatic global economic slowdown would disrupt trade flows and create unemployment in commodity-exporting poorer countries. “Its implications are especially serious for those caught in the midst of conflict if, as seems likely, the disease disrupts humanitarian aid flows, limits peace operations, and postpones diplomacy.”
The crisis has exposed an endemic lack of resilience, symbolized by chronically under-resourced healthcare systems in even better-off countries. The decision of many governments to call in the armed forces to help with logistics and manpower partly reflects fears that weakening social cohesion may lead to disorder on the streets.
“If governments have to resort to using paramilitary or military forces to quell, for example, riots or attacks on property, societies could begin to disintegrate. Thus the main, perhaps even the sole objective of economic policy today [rather than supporting financial markets] should be to prevent social breakdown,” wrote Branko Milanović, a professor at the London School of Economics.
Yet, looked at differently, this kind of national mobilization can be seen as a positive development rather than a threat to civil liberties – and as a more beneficial use of military power. In Britain as elsewhere, the call to arms has created new legions of NHS volunteers. This renewed sense of national sharing and identity is a much-needed antidote to the regressive nationalism of recent years.