Science and the human spirit (and huge sums of money spent in research). We have to believe this.
We also have to believe that the world will never be the same again.
The financial crisis of 2008 asked serious questions of the world’s preferred capitalist model – and some of these are yet to be answered. Real incomes around the world have since declined, one reason why many countries have made unconventional political choices. Over the following decade, multilateralism started on what is almost certainly the lingering journey of its death and countries became more protectionist, inward-looking, and immigrant-unfriendly.
Now, 12 years later, Sars-Cov-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, has highlighted the risks of the networked, globalised approach countries and people around the world have adopted for work, and life, building on and amplifying fractures that emerged in 2008.
The World Health Organization (WHO) would like to believe that it can orchestrate, lead, and manage a global, multilateral response to the pandemic.
That is not going to happen.
Recent history has shown that it is largely the African countries that have been open to following WHO’s lead. In this particular case, WHO’s handling of the crisis when it first emerged – till mid-January, it continued to insist that there was no risk of human-to-human transmission – has severely dented its credibility. It is clear that the organisation was happy (and far too quick) to accept whatever Beijing was saying.
Most countries have chosen to follow their own approach in dealing with the pandemic; many have instituted international travel bans and closed borders on their own (without checking with WHO, as they promised to in an agreement they signed after the Sars scare). Vaccine development has become an international competition between countries – the 21st century equivalent of a space race, with the winner likely to focus on ensuring its citizens get the advantage of early vaccination.
The response to the pandemic, then, will not be international, but national.
And once they have defeated Covid-19 – we have to believe they will – it is certain that they will take measures they think will ensure that they never find themselves in the situation in which they currently find themselves.
Unfortunately, the chances are that this response will not be about vaccine development or early warning systems for pandemics.
What will it be about then?
For one, countries will start hoarding strategic resources at a national level. It could be oil; it could be lithium; or it could be medical equipment and drugs. Expect every country in the world to start building reserves of these, and also encouraging (and perhaps mandating) their companies to start manufacturing these – locally.
Two, borders have become harder, and while that’s likely to change after the crisis, they are not going to go back to where they were before. Indeed, open borders in Europe are being cited by some experts as one reason why Covid-19 has ravaged the continent. Even before the virus emerged, many countries had started clamping down on immigrants, whom they saw as a drain on their resources. Now, they will also see them as possible carriers of infections such as Covid-19. Expect it to be tougher to travel; and even tougher to emigrate.
Three, there will be a new world orderthat all countries will try to fit into. Any country that manages to come out of Covid-19 relatively unscathed, or quickly, will find itself at the high table of such an order. It’s too early to predict which will, though. Sure, China has had zero cases of local infections for several days running, but will there be a second wave with businesses reopening and travel restrictions easing? The US looks like it is at risk of being overrun by the virus, but can it pull off a miracle? And what of India?
Four, it is likely that countries (at least some of them) will continue monitoring the health and movement of their citizens – something many of them are doing now. What form this will take is not clear, but there’s already some talk that Covid-19 has accelerated the emergence of the surveillance state. They may be overstating the case, but one never knows.