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Covid-19: A world-shaking pandemic that poses a threat to globalisation

My first personal encounter with the coronavirus or Covid-19 crisis was earlier this month. No, thank God, I didn’t, and do not, have the virus! Yet, it was a coronavirus-related experience that reflects how the pandemic has turned the world upside down and disrupted everyday life. As someone put it, “Everyone had preoccupations a few weeks ago that now seem self-indulgent.” Thanks to Coronavirus!

I had been billed to speak at the annual conference of a large UK industrial sector on March 19. Nearly 300 people had registered to attend. Then, on March 6, I received a call from the organisers: “Sorry, we’ve been constrained to postpone the conference”. But why? Well, the key sponsors, particularly those with headquarters in Japan and other countries with severe coronavirus, had been told by their head offices to withdraw their sponsorships on health and safety grounds. By March 19, large gatherings were already being widely discouraged, so the conference had to be called off. It was a common tale across the world!

Writing in the Financial Times two Saturdays ago, Ben Okri, the London-based Booker prize-winning poet, recounted how the opening of his adaptation of “Moby-Dick” in Antwerp, Belgium, was suddenly closed. “I spoke to many friends who had suffered the cancellations of their films, plays, operas and dances, all across world”, he wrote, adding that “the contagion of cultural closures” had begun to sweep across the world.

Of course, Nigeria is not immune to the contagion. In last Monday’s edition, BusinessDay announced the postponements of its March and April events, including conferences and awards. And the Vanguard newspaper postponed its scheduled Economic Discourse and Personality of the Year Award events. It’s, indeed, a contagion of closures!

Last week, Japan and the International Olympic Committee, IOC, agreed to postpone this year’s Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics because of the pandemic, the first time the games have been cancelled during peace time. Similarly, the World Trade Organisation, WTO, cancelled its 12th Ministerial Conference, scheduled to take place in Kazakhstan in June due to the spread of the coronavirus. Think of it. Olympics cancelled! WTO Conference cancelled! Other international events between now and June cancelled! Covid-19 is truly world-shaking!

The world has witnessed several pandemics over the past 20 years, including Sars in 2003, the HINI or Swine flu in 2009, and Ebola in 2013. But none shook the world as Covid-19 is doing. The fear of coronavirus has paralysed the world.

Many aspects of the pandemic, particularly Nigeria’s response to it, are subjects for future discussions. For now, using the metaphor of “closures”, my focus here is the impact on globalisation. The contagion of closures, whether it is border closures, ban on international flights, hostility towards foreigners or the shift towards nationalism and protectionism, represents a retreat from globalisation, which is characterised by openness, liberalisation and international cooperation. The instinct to turn inwards, to erect barriers, is very evident in the national responses to the Covid-19 pandemic. But are closures the right solution? Can globalisation really be rolled back? And if it can, what are the consequences?

The world has witnessed several pandemics over the past 20 years, including Sars in 2003, the HINI or Swine flu in 2009, and Ebola in 2013. But none shook the world as Covid-19 is doing. The fear of coronavirus has paralysed the world.

In a powerful book entitled “Global Transformations”, edited by David Held, Anthony McGrew and others, the authors explained the nature of globalisation in this way. They said we now live in a world “rapidly being moulded into a shared social space”, in which “developments in one region of the world can have profound consequences for the life chances of individuals or communities on the other side of the globe.”

Although the book was published in 1999, those words were prescient. I mean, who would have thought that a virus that was passed from Chinese bats to human through a contaminated meat at a market in Wuhan, China, would create such a global pandemic? Who would have thought that one man in China with a zoonotic infection would cause BusinessDay in Nigeria to suspend six prestigious events or, indeed, force the IOC to cancel the Olympics games?

Sadly, that’s a negative side effect of globalisation, an otherwise highly-beneficial phenomenon. Through the interconnectedness of world economies, through the diffusion of technologies and through freer movements of goods, services, capital and people, including the ease of the transport systems that facilitate these movements, globalisation has massively reduced poverty and increased prosperity across the world. But, well, it has also increased the possibility of a virus originating in one country spreading across the world.

Yet, what that calls for is greater international cooperation, not a retreat from globalisation or a gravitation towards nationalism or autarchy. You can build big walls against foreigners, but can you stop your own citizens from going abroad and returning home? What if they contract a virus while overseas and come home to spread it? Surely, self-interest demands collaboration. As Gideon Rachman, a Financial Times columnist, rightly put it, “A pandemic is a quintessential global problem that ultimately demands international cooperation.”

But while scientists and medical experts are working collaboratively worldwide to develop a vaccine to tackle Covid-19, nations and political leaders are engaging in rivalry, hostility and opportunism. And, of course, the biggest culprits are the world’s economic superpowers: the US and China. Their failure to cooperate weakens and undermines the international institutions, such as the World Health Organisation, the IMF, the World Bank and the WTO, that, from a global governance perspective, help to facilitate globalisation. But even more regrettable, given the current global crisis, their isolationism prevents the emergence of the global public good of collectively fighting a global pandemic. As the Financial Times wrote in a recent editorial, “US tensions with China hamper antivirus efforts.”

President Trump provocatively relabelled the coronavirus “Chinese virus” or “Wuhan flu”. China retorted that it was US soldiers who brought the virus to Wuhan in the first place. Policy and diplomatic hawks in the US are angry that 97 per cent of all antibiotics in America are imported from China. Against the backdrop of the trade war rumbling on since 2018, there are calls for economic “decoupling” with China, which means disentangling economies and supply chains and erecting trade barriers – the direct opposite of globalisation!

China, on the other hand, is widely believed to be exploiting the pandemic, which started from its territory, to advance its global interests. At the time when the West has become the epicentre of Covid-19, and thus distracted, China is using its generous aid budget to boost its diplomatic standing globally. But unlike during the 2008 global financial crisis and the 2013 Ebola epidemic, when it worked collaboratively with the US and others to find solutions, this time, China is going it alone, portraying itself as “the magnanimous global power offering leadership at a time of panic and peril”, as the FT puts it.

Of course, it irks the West that China is turning the pandemic into a geopolitical advantage. As President Xi Jinping recently implied, China sees its support and those of its citizens, such as the billionaire Jack Ma’s recent donation of thousands of testing kits, masks and protective suits to Africa, as a “health silk road”, a reference to the Belt and Road Initiative that China is using to win influence around the world through infrastructure projects. But China’s attempt to exploit the pandemic to its advantage is making global cooperation difficult and provoking a backlash. As the London Times editorialised recently, “The West must not allow Beijing to use this crisis to extend its global power.”

At the heart of globalisation is international cooperation. But coronavirus is driving a pushback against it. Of course, globalisation cannot be fully rolled back. Yet, the impacts of Covid-19 would pale into insignificance compared with the consequences of even a temporary retreat from globalisation. Nations must pull back from the abyss!

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