Spread of virus could hasten the great coming apart of globalisation

  • >> Steven Erlanger, The New York Times
    Published: 2020-02-26 19:26:46 BdST

Globalisation, that awkward catchall for our interconnectedness, was already under assault from populists, terrorists, trade warriors and climate activists, having become an easy target for much that ails us.

Now comes the coronavirus. Its spread, analysts and experts say, may be a decisive moment in the fervid debates over how much the world integrates or separates.

Even before the virus arrived in Europe, climate change, security concerns and complaints about unfair trade had intensified anxieties about global air travel and globalised industrial supply chains, as well as reinforcing doubts about the reliability of China as a partner.

The virus already has dealt another blow to slowing economies, and emboldened populists to revive calls — tinged with racism and xenophobia — for tougher controls over migrants, tourists and even multinational corporations.

Among all the challenges to globalisation, many of them political or ideological, this virus may be different.

“We always forget that we’re at the mercy of nature, and when episodes pass we forget and carry on,” said Ivan Vejvoda, a fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna. “But this virus has put forward all these questions about the interconnectedness of the world as we’ve built it. Air travel, global supply chains — it’s all linked.”

As the virus spreads to Europe and beyond, Vejvoda said, “it makes China seem a bit more fragile and dependence on China as ‘the factory of the world’ more iffy.”

The rapid spread of the virus from Asia is “another straw on the camel’s back of globalisation,” said Robin Niblett, director of Chatham House, the London research institution.

The political tensions between the United States and China over trade, and as well as concerns about climate change, already had raised questions about the sense and cost of shipping parts country to country and the potential for carbon taxes at borders, he noted.

Coupled with the risk of a supply chain that is vulnerable to the breakout of the next coronavirus, or the vulnerabilities of an increasingly authoritarian China, Niblett said, “If you’re a business you have to think twice about exposing yourself.”

Particularly now, with more countries using sanctions and economic interdependence “as a new form of coercive diplomacy, and it adds up to becoming more risk-averse toward globalisation,” he said.

People in masks walk past closed shops in Milan on Feb. 23, 2020. The spread of the deadly epidemic to Europe’s fourth-largest economy has heightened fears of disruption in the global supply chain. (Andrea Mantovani for/The New York Times)

People in masks walk past closed shops in Milan on Feb. 23, 2020. The spread of the deadly epidemic to Europe’s fourth-largest economy has heightened fears of disruption in the global supply chain. (Andrea Mantovani for/The New York Times)

Globalisation of disease is hardly new, noted Guntram Wolff, director of Bruegel, an economic research institution in Brussels, citing the massive deaths that followed the European arrival in the Americas, or the plague, which the now-cancelled Venice Carnival in part commemorates.

“What’s different is that with the airplane things can spread very fast,” he said. The immediate impulse is to recoil and erect barriers. “We already see flight numbers down dramatically.”

Climate-conscious citizens were already discouraging discretionary air travel, as were digital technologies that allow remote participation and transmission of information.

“You wonder if perhaps the peak of the global aircraft boom has passed,” Wolff said. “Many people are asking if we really need to have that kind of regular daily travel by air to all parts of the world.”

In a way, this virus underscores the imbalance in globalisation. Private-sector supply chains have become very effective. Air travel is comprehensive and never ending. So the private sector is constantly moving around the world.

But any sort of coordinated governmental response is often weak and disorganised — whether on climate change, health or trade. And efforts to strengthen globalised public efforts are attacked by nationalists and populists as infringements on sovereignty.

Nor can governments do much to unfreeze supply chains, and few governments in Europe have the financial flexibility to inject much extra money into the economy.

Theresa Fallon, director of the Center for Russia Europe Asia Studies, agreed that much of the pushback may now be directed at China.

She recently returned from Milan, where officials are checking temperatures of travellers, doctors are careful about office visits and locals were visibly keeping their distance from Chinese tourists, she said.

“China’s growth has been a long, positive story but now gravity has hit,” she said, with the virus arising as “a kind of black swan that underlines how different China is.”

Many companies “are rethinking about putting too many eggs in the Chinese basket,” she said, especially as hopes of China becoming more like the West are fading.

“We see more centralisation and lack of trust in China,” in its statistics and its ability to manage the crisis, she said. That was so even as Chinese leaders try to influence what they call “discourse management” with international institutions like the World Health Organization, in attempts to downplay the epidemic.

That crisis of confidence in China extends beyond China’s ability to handle the virus, said Simon Tilford, director of the Forum New Economy, a research institution in Berlin.

The lack of trust “will only reinforce an existing trend among businesses to reduce their dependency and risk,” he said.

But the spread of the virus to Europe will also have a significant impact on politics, likely boosting the anti-immigrant, anti-globalisation far right, Tilford said.

“We already see a lot of populist concern about the merits of globalisation as benefiting multinationals, the elite and foreigners, not local people and local companies,” he said.

Politicians who insist on control over borders and immigration will be helped, even as the virus transcends borders easily.

“Their argument will be that the current system poses not only economic but also health and security threats, which are existential, and that we can’t afford to be so open just to please big business,” Tilford said.

That argument may attract voters “who hate overt racism but fear loss of control and a system vulnerable to a distant part of the world,” he added.

The racial impact of the spreading virus is delicate, all agreed, but there.

“It’s always different when it happens in your own neighborhood, among people like yourself,” said Stefano Stefanini, a former Italian diplomat. “When it happens in Denmark or Spain or Italy you have more of a feeling that it happens among people who share the same lifestyle — so you can see it happening to you.”

But the virus also allows people to express hostility to the Chinese that they may have felt but had been reluctant to articulate, Tilford said. “There is already an undercurrent of fear of the Chinese in Europe and the United States because they represent a challenge to Western hegemony,” he said.

That fear is being stoked by the Trump administration’s campaign against Huawei, China’s telecommunications company, but also by reports of Chinese repression and censorship through the use of advanced technology.

Many Chinese living or traveling in the West have reported a quick spike in abuse and avoidance in public places and transport. “It’s a sign of how close to the surface these sentiments are,” Tilford said.

The media, too, shares this sense of cultural distance and difference, Stefanini and Tilford said.

Stefanini recalled debates in the Italian Foreign Ministry about whether to send condolence messages, depending on the numbers of deaths and how far away they occurred.

“Events in Australia get massive coverage, but mass floods and deaths in Bangladesh barely register,” Tilford said. The outbreak in China “feels distant geographically and culturally, with a touch of racism, as if we measure lives lost in a different way,” he said.

Italian sociologist Ilvo Diamanti had a more philosophical concern. The spread of the virus to Italy “has called into question our certainties,” because “it makes defence systems in the face of threats to our security more complicated, if not unnecessary,” he wrote in Monday’s La Repubblica. “The world no longer has borders that cannot be penetrated.”

To defend against the virus, Diamanti wrote, “one would have to defend oneself from the world,” hiding at home and turning off the television, the radio and the internet. “In order not to die contaminated by others and become spreaders of the virus ourselves, we would have to die alone.”

This, he suggested, is “a greater risk than the coronavirus.”

c.2020 The New York Times Company