Coronavirus Outbreak: Pandemic has done what trade war, terrorism, refugee crisis couldn’t, end globalism as we know it

Novel coronavirus (Covid-19) is reshaping the global order at a clip faster than anyone anticipated. It is also creating upheavals that may deal the final blow to unfettered globalization. The implications of this pandemic will long outlive the virus wreaking havoc in the world. We are witnessing an epochal moment in the history of humankind.

It is not by accident that New York, the symbol of global cosmopolitanism and the poster boy of a globalised economy, has been the hardest-hit state in the US. According to the latest data from US research institution Johns Hopkins University, New York alone has 25,665 among 50,206 confirmed Covid-19 cases in the US with a death count of 184 and counting. It’s attack rate, say experts, are five times higher than the rest of the country.

 Coronavirus Outbreak: Pandemic has done what trade war, terrorism, refugee crisis couldn’t, end globalism as we know it

Representational image. AP.

As the United States struggles to flatten the dreaded pandemic curve, giving New York company in highest number of confirmed cases are New Jersey (2,844) and Washington DC (2,221) — all coastline states that define the merits of transcontinental trade. However, as cases and bodies pile up in the US and elsewhere in the world, the so-called ‘Washington consensus’ faces crisis of confidence, its economic prescriptions lie in tatters amid an almighty backlash against globalisation.

It is now clear that the virus has done which trade war, climate change, refugee crisis, terrorism and even the rise of populism had failed to do. The pandemic that originated in Wuhan and swept across the world leaving over four lakh people afflicted and nearly 20,000 dead in its wake (for now) has hammered the final nail in the coffin of globalisation. The era of benign globalism is over as countries prepare to restrict travel, limit trade and fortify boundaries. A virus that knows no boundaries has forced states to erect walls and quarantine their people behind it.

Covid-19 is causing a twofold disruption to upend globalism — economic and cultural. It is not just a global crisis, but the very crisis of globalism. The virus has not only exposed the vulnerabilities and fragilities of a globalised system and interconnected supply chain, it has raised fundamental questions against open borders. And nowhere has this dialectic played out with more accuracy than in Europe.

At 6,820, Italy’s death toll is now more than double of China’s — and together with Spain, Germany and France, Europe has been declared by World Health Organisation as the new epicentre of the pandemic. The unfolding of the crisis in Italy, that boasted of one of the best public health networks in the world, holds a lesson for other countries while revealing the perils of a soft border.

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Discussion on Italy, that has witnessed a high mortality rate, has focused on its median age being one of the highest in the world, old fashioned “bad luck” and missed opportunities in taking preemptive, tough steps in isolating the sick and restricting people’s movement. But what has not received enough attention is the link between China and Italy’s upscale northern region that quickly became the epicentre of the virus. This link also simultaneously establishes a causal relation between globalism and spread of the pandemic.

Chinese entrepreneurs have invested heavily in Italy’s fashion industry that was concentrated in the north, and within a decade into the new millennium, the Chinese were leading the Italian fashion capital with cheap rip-offs — disrupting the local economy with predatory pricing and forcing Italian businesses to restructure.

Along with it, by 2010, “there were reportedly 60,000 Chinese in Prato, an industrial suburb of Florence. To accommodate Italy’s new foreign labor force, nonstop flights were established between China and Rome”, notes The American Spectator, in its report titled Coronavirus: The Price of Luxury.

It isn’t surprising to note that the European nation by the Mediterranean Sea became an early victim of the pandemic when it started spreading through Chinese tourists and soon it spread in the affluent regions of northern Italy.

The sequence and timing of the spread points at a link between Chinese workers travelling home for the Lunar New Year celebrations in January and returning to Italy by late January or early February. Worth noting that by December, China had been in the grip of the virus though it tried its best to suppress data and under-report the scale of the epidemic. It’s clear, as the Spectator points out, “by early March, the Italian outbreak was so widespread that the direction of transmission was already going in the other direction, as Chinese people returning from Italy brought the disease back to China with them.”

Italy, at this stage, needed to impose a strict lockdown and travel restrictions but arrogance (a pandemic in China cannot affect life in idyllic Europe) and political correctness interfered with public safety. When Italy needed to be tough, it was busy virtue-signalling — asking Italians to “hug a Chinese” so that no one could be accused of “racism”.

Italians died by thousands but at least they avoided the label of “racists”. The desire to put virtue-signalling above public safety arises from a misplaced sense of priority, and in Italy’s case it put an entire country in danger. As Giorgio Palù, former president of the European and Italian Society for Virology and a professor of virology and microbiology at University of Padova was quoted as saying by CNN, “There was a proposal to isolate people coming from the epicenter, coming from China… Then it became seen as racist, but they were people coming from the outbreak.” This, said the epidemiologist, led to the current devastating situation.

It is hard to blame nations if they glean from the Italian experience that belief in globalism, reluctance to impose travel restrictions unless it became desperation and virtue-signalling ended up costing countless human lives. And it is here that globalism has been dealt a death blow by Covid-19.

For a long time, unfettered globalisation has been perceived as a benign, ‘win-win’ policy that brings prosperity and integrates nations and global economies in a way that disincentivizes revanchism and war. We now note the other side of globalisation where interconnected trade, global supply-chain mechanisms and free movement of people disrupt lives, devastate local economies and threaten the way people live their lives. The pandemic just made everyone realise that the cost of globalisation is too high.

There is now an increasing realisation across nations of the importance of borders. Country after country are reinforcing border restrictions and people even in liberals democracies seem keen in handing over some of the power to the state — trading their liberty for public safety.

Nowhere else has this shifting mood been evident so clearly as in India, where 1.3 billion citizens seem willing to enter into a contract with the State — voluntarily going into an unprecedented 21-day lockdown in the expectation that the State will keep them safe. This reinforcement of statism and shift towards a more collectivist attitude is a fundamental shift away from globalism and its focus on individual rights

The second way in which the pandemic has upended the existing order is by dismantling the interconnected economy. For example, the US, world’s biggest economy and the sole superpower, is facing a critical shortage in crucial medial equipment such as testing kits, ventilators and N95 respirators for health workers because its own inventory is woefully short.

Dependent on other nations for supplies, the US is in an unusual position of competing for resources and the Donald Trump administration has threatened to further withdraw from global trade that puts it at an apparent disadvantage in crisis, arguing that it needs to “bring home its manufacturing capabilities and supply chains for essential medicines.”

The pandemic has also forced the European project to come unstuck. A member of the EU and bound by ‘single market’ and ‘free trade’, both Germany and France refused to share medical equipment — including masks and respirators with Italy when it was gasping for breath leading to anger and frustration among Italians. It also opened the door for China, that has largely tided over the crisis, to use medical equipment as a foreign policy tool and peddle influence.

As Theresa Fallon, founder and director of the Centre for Russia Europe Asia Studies (CREAS) in Brussels and a nonresident senior fellow of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, writes in The Diplomat, “At the beginning of March, Italy asked for help from its European Union partners though the EU Civil Protection Mechanism. No EU member state responded. In addition, France and Germany imposed a ban on the export of face masks. Many Italians feel deceived and humiliated by their European partners… Beijing, however, responded bilaterally and promptly airlifted 30 tons of medical supplies to Rome.”

Meanwhile, Schengen borderless travel, another fundamental EU tenet, came unstuck. Threatened by the virus, EU member states started raising their frontiers and imposing strict travel restriction on intra-EU travel. As The Spectator notes, “Given that many EU states – notably in central and eastern Europe – have battled with the Commission in wishing to take control of their own borders since the height of the migrant crisis in 2015, expect the return of Schengen to be a struggle for Brussels.”

The pandemic has thus not only eroded the cultural milieu and threated integrated trade that made globalisation possible, but it has also upended the basic tenets of globalism by challenging the ideology that underpinned the policy. Suddenly, nativism was no longer a cuss word but an evolutionary instinct to survive. The world will slowly limp back to normalcy but it can be said with a degree of certainty that the era of globalization is well and truly over.

Updated Date: Mar 25, 2020 14:43:48 IST



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