COVID-19 is the new guy in town, or rather the whole world. It is not even an electronic virus that would devastate computer servers wreaking havoc on social media and financial networks, defence systems and telecommunications. It is a “traditional” virus, which apparently originated in animals and is now spreading wildly among humans. This traditional virus has created mayhem the world over, threatening to topple globalisation itself, the organising system of free markets, free trade, free financial flows and free movement of people that has been dominating the planet since the end of the Cold War.
The measures taken and the resources mobilised by governments in the effort to contain the virus and reduce fatalities can only be compared to efforts on many fronts during World War II. It is a global conflict again, this time against an invisible but lethal enemy. And in a war, the first victim is the “normal” way of living and freedoms, on which our current version of globalisation is also founded. Mercifully, this is a war in which humanity as a whole is fighting on the same side, having against it a common ennemy.
In this war, globalisation has been deemed to be an accomplice of the enemy, partly at least. The virus emerged in one part of the world and through travel, has quickly made its way to all four corners of the globe in a couple of months. Globalisation is also proving to be an inhibiting factor in governments’ responses, as the globalised system cannot be relied upon to deliver medical equipment and materials for a specific country but has moved instead to low-cost jurisdictions and sells to the highest bidder.
Government emergency planning has fallen in disarray because supply lines cut across borders, which are closing as a medical precaution. Reliance on private sector providers of medical supplies and services, including logistics, requires an extra effort and cost to (re)establish in-country supply networks that can only be “private-public partnerships,” even if the state mobilises emergency response mechanisms and even the armed forces.
Collateral but critical damage that is caused by the measures against the spread of the virus is the severe curtailing of economic activity. People stay at home and work where possible, avoiding (or are prohibited from going to) restaurants and stores other than supermarkets and pharmacies. Some people are already losing their jobs ininactive sectors, while airlines are facing the spectre of bankruptcy because of people’s virus exposure fears and eventual travel bans. Stock exchanges the world over have reacted with steep share losses, prompting extensive stimulus measures to be announced in response by the US, the EU and its member states, China and others. These include the printing of significant amounts of new money for injection into the economy and even plans to direct cash payments to citizens, as in the case of the US.
One way or another, developed countries seem to be halting the enemy from advancing beyond the watermark of several thousand deaths. We will eventually see which model worked better: the more restrictive of continental Europe or the initially more relaxed of the UK, for example. Barring any unpredictable development, all these models, which are guided by scientific expertise despite their variations, should achieve the intended goal of cornering the virus. What will happen, though, or is perhaps already happening but remains underreported, in developing countries where health systems and state capacities in general are much weaker? One can only hope that developed countries, acting in a spirit of solidarity and enlightened self-interest, will leave some equipment and supplies for developing countries to use if need be.
Hopefully, this war against the common enemy will not degenerate into another human civil war, fighting for limited medical material, over who will get to the vaccines or a potential treatment first, who will ban whose travel and so on. Thankfully, the response up to now has been somewhat coordinated (regarding the medical part at least) through the competent multilateral body, the World Health Organisation (WHO). This is one element of globalisation that is proving positive – even nationalist leaders have grudgingly acknowledged it. There have been lessons learned from previous medical emergencies, like with SARS and Ebola, which are now being implemented. And the medical community around the world thankfully speaks the same language, which is the language of healing.
Some other elements of globalisation that have shown their usefulness during this crisis are social media and telecommunications in general. The sense of community, which is crucial in difficult times, can be expressed supportively from a safe distance; through a telephone call, a video conference, an exchange of messages, the circulation of jokes (though conversely, the proliferation of fake news that may mislead or cause panic as well). An unintended positive effect of this war is the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and of polluting particles, because of the closure of factories and the overall reduction of economic activity; but that is expected to be short-lived.
It may take several months before the war against the virus is actually over, and isolated outbreaks may continue for years. But some initial lessons can already be drawn by what we have already experienced. Some of these lessons to be implemented may require long-term, drastic changes to the model of globalisation that the world has been practicing up to now. Here are some examples:
- Reorganisation of state emergency planning to ensure uninterrupted supply lines for medical and other crucial material, with an emphasis on civil defence preparedness and resilience, ensuring the capacity of communities to withstand shocks by relying on nearby sources. These shocks could be caused by COVID-19 or some other virus-related emergency, by a devastating natural event due to climate change or some other natural or man-made disaster.
- Smooth integration of private services with public ones in case of emergency, for the steady provision of crucial supplies mentioned above but also food and other survival items - as well as telecommunications and logistics - in the service of the community rather than for profit maximisation.
- A reprioritisation of economic activity and public investment towards sustainable, less polluting and less resource-consuming activities, with emphasis on human security and well-being with guaranteed nutrition, reliable health and social security systems, and respectable standards of living for all.
- Renewed respect and investment in multilateralism and the system of UN agencies that connect specialist communities around the world, such as doctors and health ministries through the WHO. The record may not be as clearly positive for the more political institutions like the UN or the EU, so a rethinking of how they operate and what kind of leadership they are expected to provide in emergencies (moral, unifying) is in order. It is also unclear what the added value of G7, G20 and other limited-membership organisations has been or should be.
More time is needed to digest the lessons from the COVID-19 emergency, which will hopefully come to a successful ending soon. Many are still being learned. The quest continues for ethical and competent leadership and vision that can inspire and implement transformative change for the common good.
Georgios Kostakos is Executive Director of the Brussels-based Foundation for Global Governance and Sustainability (FOGGS). He has been extensively involved in global governance, sustainability and climate-related activities with the United Nations and beyond.
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