A microbe has brought home to us the fragility of our existing models, red-flagging the need for structural shifts in the world economic, social and political order.
- Last Updated: March 22, 2020, 8:29 AM IST
‘Future shock’ best describes the impact of coronavirus on the world. The mobility of people, goods and capital has slowed. Children are not in school. Millions are working from home or not working at all. Shops and restaurants are closed. Tourism is at a standstill. Events have been cancelled and jet-setting celebrities grounded.
A microbe has brought home to us the fragility of our existing models, red-flagging the need for structural shifts in the world economic, social and political order. The challenges of the future are suddenly real: new forms of infectious diseases, climate change, the adverse effects of globalisation.
The flow of trade, capital, goods, services, information and people today links all parts of the world. The irresistible tide of globalisation has swept over our planet, transforming spaces to suit its needs, creating a virtual archipelago of global cities, changing lifestyles and sharpening inequalities of wealth and development at all levels. Human mobility has increased a thousand-fold, facilitating transmission of diseases and triggering conflicts.
The invisible skeins that bind the world are proof against isolationist, protectionist and nativist (or ‘Trumpist’) impulses. Globalisation cannot be rolled back, but it could move increasingly from physical exchanges to the realm of ideas. The terabyte rather than the shipping container may be the new symbol of globalisation.
Localisation of production and technology transfers will diminish material flows and shrink carbon footprints. Already, shipping goods makes less sense than local manufacturing. Companies are tending towards shorter supply chains, development of local markets and fewer imports of intermediates.
In the days to come, technologies that support localisation are likely to attract more investment and R&D, such as 3-D printing and automation, at least in certain areas like consumer durables, toys, construction, etc. Skilled rather than cheap labour will be the order of the day and informal economies will shrink.
Artificial Intelligence and quantum computing, the technological white whales with unlimited potential in healthcare, manufacturing, transportation, media & entertainment and every other sphere of our lives, will be more in focus than ever. Cooperation in the life sciences, too, will be vastly enhanced.
Online education, imagined in science fiction, is a reality today. All over the world, children are attending online classes in real time. Likewise, people in non-essential services are working from home, miraculously decongesting urban spaces.
Will remote education and work be the new normal? Governments will have to institutionalise guidelines in this regard. The novel coronavirus is not the first bad bug to spread across the globe and will certainly not be the last. At a social level, our lifestyles may become less consumerist and more ‘green’.
Inter-government cooperation in disaster management is also on the cards; a repeat of the current ‘every country for itself’ approach to the Covid-19 pandemic is unlikely. Pressure will be put on countries to adopt more transparent approaches to public health issues — witness Iran’s utter failure to address the spread of Covid-19 — and Chernobyl-like catastrophes.
The countries of the triad — North America, Europe and East Asia — dominate global exchanges and are therefore the worst-affected in the current pandemic (Iran excepted). Emerging countries and the lions of Africa have suffered less — at least so far.
Mobility of populations translates into mobility of infectious diseases. Apart from tourism for work and leisure are migrations, both legal and clandestine. Governments are likely to harden their stance on illegal migration (even more than they already have) as climate change augments migratory flows and sharpens conflicts.
Anti-globalisation movements and altermondialism, which have long opposed the prevailing world economic order, are having an “I told you so” moment. In the absence of a viable global governance system, the dominance of multinationals — many with revenues larger than those of whole countries — has remained largely unchallenged. It’s time for governments, the main actors in globalisation along with multinationals, to take stock of its negative effects.
Other challenges lurk on the horizon. The melting of sea ice has left the Northern passage open for several months in the year, raising the tantalising possibility of a shorter east-west route for maritime traffic (which accounts for four-fifths of merchandise). But this could be a recipe for disaster, if fears of frozen disease-carrying micro-organisms ‘waking up’ are realised.
The pandemic may also affect the way we see government. Personal liberties have been necessarily curtailed in the struggle against the novel coronavirus. Enforced quarantines and lockdowns have restricted movement. Minimum government just doesn’t cut it in a time of crisis. Some things are too important to be left to the private sector. We may see a return of big government in certain sectors, notably pharma.
Finally, as a species, we are likely to become less touchy-feely (Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘hugathons’ may be a thing of the past; Macron’s Namaste is the new fad) but pulling together in a time of crisis will foster community bonds.
Disclaimer:(The author is a senior journalist. Views are personal)
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