The pattern of the COVID-19 pandemic follows the logic of globalisation: the regions most affected are the ones which dominate global exchanges. The spread of infectious diseases is a natural corollary to the explosion in human mobility, which follows from the increased flow of goods, services and capital. The number of people traveling for work or leisure annually has more than doubled since the turn of the millennium, to upwards of 1.5 billion.
No part of the world is entirely immune, even Africa, where six leading economies are increasingly being integrated into global exchanges. Once the infection has hit, how individual countries cope with it depends on their specific capacity, in terms of health infrastructure and political will. India, for example, has initiated a 21-day lockdown to contain transmission of the novel coronavirus.
The current pandemic has been dubbed as a 'black swan' event, a one-off crisis unlikely to reappear for decades. That may not be strictly true, given that microbes seemingly have a fantastic capacity to mutate. They jump across species, evolve new strains and change their modus operandi, staying one step ahead of vaccinologists. Humans are particularly susceptible to airborne infections, like COVID-19.
Climate change has accentuated the threat of microbial attacks. Even if the doomsday scenario of melting ice releasing lethal micro-organisms is not realised, the indirect effects of global warming on infectious diseases are obvious. Distribution and intensity of vector-borne diseases has increased, as has those of food and waterborne infections. Deterioration of environmental conditions has rendered populations more vulnerable to disease.
The world needs to prepare for Wuhan-like events in times to come and not just in terms of the toll on human health. The world-wide shutdown has underlined the fragility of the global economic order and the role of social media in shaping our responses to crises.
Change is imminent; every global crisis is followed by structural shifts. Many changes in the existing world order are already underway; the coronavirus may just be the tipping point. World War II led to Bretton Woods, which remained in place for three decades. The 'discontents' of globalisation, notably the massive inequalities (among rich and poor countries) and the democracy deficit (in global governance) it has entailed, are under scrutiny. Delocalisation has irked communities in the developed world, provoking protectionist impulses. The crises of 2007 and 2010 revealed the vulnerability of developed economies and today, the world is increasingly multipolar, with emerging countries accounting for an ever-larger share of world GDP and trade.
The impulse towards localisation will reshape production and distribution processes in the coming decade. Shipping goods will make less sense than local manufacture. Carbon footprints will shrink as a result of shorter supply chains and fewer imports of intermediates. Global exchanges will tend towards technology transfers and services, diminishing material flows. These shifts will be supported by investment in 3-D printing and automation. Skilled labour will be prioritised over cheap labour.
In other words, globalisation will be characterised more by exchanges of ideas rather than physical goods (other than primary materials). Scientific cooperation and competition will go hand-in-hand, as countries collaborate on research in the life sciences and aggressively pursue potential game changers such as artificial intelligence and quantum computers.
Cultural shifts are also on the cards. Virtual classrooms are already a fact. Countries will come up with individual standards for remote education, in line with globally accepted guidelines. The same will be true for work-from-home policies. The sociological and psychological impact of remote education and work will attract researchers.
In terms of geopolitics, the balance of power may shift. China's lack of transparency has provoked global anger, as has the insouciance of Iran's authoritarian regime. India, the world's largest democracy with a large pool of skilled workers, is at an advantage if it manages to beat back the coronavirus. The collective will of the people to contain the spread of the pandemic, as manifested in the response to the Janata Bandh, is not lost on the global community. The 'namaste' (as a replacement for the handshake or the French 'biser') could be a new symbol of its soft power!
The pandemic may also trigger a downturn in consumerism and 'greener' lifestyles, as people realise the virtues of self-sufficiency in a crisis. The UK has reported a spike in do-it-yourself (DIY) sales to homeowners and gardeners, with people opting to do their own home improvement and grow their own vegetables. In any case, the uncertainty is likely to result in more conservative spending.
It has taken a microbe to shake us out of our business-as-usual approach to the challenges of the future. Maybe, when Greta Thunberg talks of climate change, we will now be more inclined to listen.
The writer is a senior journalist with 35 years of experience in working with major newspapers and magazines. She is now an independent writer and author.