• Monday, May 27, 2024
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BusinessDay

COVID-19: The crisis that is rewinding the world as we know it

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When I wrote in last week’s column about the need for Africa to develop a new internal trade strategy to protect itself from the rise of global right-wing populism, I had a specific set of names in my head. These names included the likes of Italy’s Matteo Salvini, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, America’s Donald Trump, the UK’s Boris Johnson and France’s Marine Le Pen – right-wing political figures using their offices to drive their various anti-globalisation agenda.

when the coronavirus crisis goes away, but the trade and travel restrictions it has created do not, the only economic game in town will be the infamous #BuyNaijaToGrowTheNaira

What that analysis did not account for was how the rapid spread of the SARS CoV-2 virus (COVID-19) could end up amplifying and worsening this anti-trade, protectionist movement in the wealthier parts of the world. While – for whatever reason – Nigeria and most of Africa have been mostly spared the worst of the growing global health crisis, what comes after the crisis goes away is where our problems really start.

20th Century Europe makes a comeback

In the early 20th century, the world was a tense, fraught place. Protectionism was not so much an economic theory as an everyday fact. Countries regularly went to war over trade issues, most notable of which was the Chinese opium war. The US prevented certain types of goods from being imported, so as to protect local industries.

At that time, concepts like global free trade, freedom of movement and regional cooperation were unthinkable. The world of international relations was defined in terms of competition and a quest for domination. The accepted wisdom then was that the larger and more sprawling your heavy industrial economy was, the more powerful your military was, hence the greater your colonial holdings and thus your status in the comity of nations.

Of course, we all know what happened when one western European country took that conventional wisdom to heart a bit too much in the 1930s.

The novel coronavirus is resurrecting the worst parts of this outdated nationalistic mindset. Already the world has witnessed the full rebirth of disgusting 20th-century unvarnished racism, as everyone from Singaporean students to Korean takeaway business owners have suffered violence and passive aggression for the crime of apparently looking ‘Chinese’.

The Salvinis and Orbáns on the other hand now have a powerful new tool to add to their anti-travel, anti-immigration stance – “foreigners bring disease”. Since COVID-19 is believed to have incubated in a Wuhan food market, it is perceived as a ‘Chinese’ pathogen the same way Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) was once perceived as “African”. Unlike EVD, COVID-19 has made the jump to western populations where it is killing people and wreaking havoc.

The COVID-19 crisis is already lending itself as a handy propaganda tool for authoritarian governments.

It is no stretch of the imagination to picture a LePen or a Geert Wilders bottling the strong, toxic mixture of grief, fear, revulsion and anger and using it to strengthen the potency of their xenophobic, anti-globalist messages. If and when that happens, even though COVID-19 originated in China, we know who will be at the top of the list of targets in terms of travel and trade restrictions.

Here’s a hint: it won’t be the Chinese.

Enabling African State capture and Dangote-capitalism

The other major fallout from this crisis is the realisation that differentiation, comparative advantage and other macroeconomic strategies only have any usefulness in an interconnected, globalised world. In a world of division, borders and uncooperative stand-alone nation-states, a country is only as strong as its capacity to produce what it consumes.

In other words, when the coronavirus crisis goes away, but the trade and travel restrictions it has created do not, the only economic game in town will be the infamous #BuyNaijaToGrowTheNaira. The world will become a series of unconnected autarky silos, which suits Africa’s billionaire crony capitalists to a T. Their dream, after all, has always been to have a captive market and to produce everything it consumes without competition from overseas – effectively a license to print money.

When that happens, not only do Nigeria and much of Africa risk becoming the Federation of Dangote States, but it also raises the spectre of further state capture and loss of democratic freedoms. Our current globalist model forces African governments to tolerate freedom that they do not always like – social media for example. If the internet stops being a fairly decentralised network and our countries adopt the Russian local internet model, we can kiss our freedom of expression goodbye. And that’s just for starters.

The COVID-19 crisis is already lending itself as a handy propaganda tool for authoritarian governments. The typical line is that somehow, by virtue of being democratic and people-led, countries like Italy were “slow” to respond to the crisis, hence their present ordeal. The authoritarians in Pyongyang, Beijing and Kigali on the other hand, were apparently “quick” to respond, unencumbered as they were by little things like democracy and public disclosure.

The internet is already awash with carefully staged visuals of hand-washing Rwandans in bus park in Kigali and smiling Chinese health workers in Wuhan victoriously taking off their face masks as apparent normalcy resumes. For good measure, photos of Chinese doctors disembarking from a plane in Italy to help with that country’s coronavirus crisis are also doing the rounds.

Amidst this authoritarian state-sponsored PR blitz, you would almost forget that this is not a story about Chinese efficiency and heroism, but rather the story of how China compromised the whole world’s safety through its reckless and dishonest management of the crisis in the first place. Lest the world forget, Chinese authorities had been aware of the novel coronavirus outbreak since at least early November 2019. In the time-honoured tradition of brittle authoritarian regimes, however, the Chinese government wasted two months sitting on its hands, persecuting whistle-blowers and hiding information from the public instead of dealing with a crisis that could have been contained before it spread out of Wuhan.

As it happens all too often, these important details will be left out of what will become the popular narrative – “efficient authoritarian government contained the crisis quicker than slow democratic governments and even offered to help”. Predictably, many among Africa’s intelligentsia will then jump on this bandwagon and rail against “western democracy”, making liberal reference to the alleged successes of Xi Jinping and Paul Kagame.

Ahead of these predictable global shifts toward early 20th century attitudes, it is imperative for those of us with a wider historical angle and critical reasoning ability to not allow these various narratives fly unchallenged. Who knows, maybe if a certain failed Austrian artist-turned-German politician had his demagoguery challenged sufficiently exactly a century ago, a war that set the world back centuries might not have happened. One hundred years later, here we are once more, drifting unmistakably along the path to an avoidable global conflict where Africans will be victims but not protagonists.

We have been here before.