People and firms are struggling with life under lockdown, but the government's predicament is greater. Many countries are now familiarising themselves with the economic self-distancing that will change our world as we know it.
This process has made many speculate that globalisation is on the brink. Our economic world order is fading, they say. Even the World Health Organisation is being marginalised! When it comes to a time of crisis, our collective perspective of the open free trade system has changed. The world is self-isolating.
But the spread of coronavirus is a byproduct of globalisation, not its result. This is not the first pandemic to bring the world to the point of paralysis. Emergencies such as these do not, alone, change the course of history. However, decisions made by politicians and rulers in response to them certainly do.
The Black Death was not the sole reason behind the “Waning of the Middle Ages”, as the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga argues in her book of the same title. The spread of that virus in Europe coincided with the peak of the Thirty Years War, which was the real force behind the global shifts that followed.
The same can also be said about the 1918 Influenza pandemic, which broke out at the end of the First World War. Europe did not scramble towards another conflict, which changed the face of the continent and the world, because of the flu. In fact, the rise of xenophobia and nationalism, particularly in the 1930s, was a central effect of the Great Depression and also led to the rise of extreme and erratic leaders who thought only about isolationism, and put little faith in cooperation during crisis.
Today, President Donald Trump is making similar mistakes in his fight against coronavirus. His response at the beginning of the outbreak was slow, immature and shambolic. His lack of leadership, both in the US and towards Europe, left each and every country no choice but to focus on surviving, without any regard to the neighbours or allies. He prefers pandemic power politics and likes to call coronavirus the “Chinese virus.” But what he doesn't seem to grasp is that his leadership is losing the US the battle of survival as the world leader in the face of China's success in the fight to contain the pandemic.
The acceleration of the ongoing rivalry between the US and China during this outbreak was, of course, inevitable. Regardless of who will be the next US president, suspicion and distrust towards everything Chinese is now deeply entrenched in modern American political thought. The trade war, the UK Huawei 5G saga, and the US plan to exclude China from its high technology, were all political forces already pushing against globalisation before the pandemic began to spread.
It also taught the world a useful lesson: trying to “flatten the curve” of China's rise, instead of adopting a policy of cooperation with it, will hit the US and its allies hard. And it will not contain China's ambitions.
As China recovers from being the “source" of this pandemic, it will have two objectives: to end disruption to its supply chains and burnish its image on the world stage. By isolating Europe, closing the borders and focusing only on solving the problem of Covid-19 inside the US, Donald Trump is helping China reach its strategic goals.
The range and speed of the outbreak in Europe and the US are due at least in part to a lack of strong political leadership and a ready willingness to burn the bridges once a crisis happens abroad. Nationalism is not a result of the coronavirus outbreak, but it is contributing to the social and economic severity of the pandemic.
As this pandemic keeps gnawing into Europe and the US, China is stepping forward as a bulwark behind “defeating” the coronavirus. In offering (and receiving requests) to help western and other nations contain it, China is doubling down on its success by promoting, in addition to its model, South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan's experiences in fighting the virus too. China is using globalisation to isolate the US and tarnish what Stephen Walt, the American thinker, calls the “Western brand".
China is committed to saving the globalised system. Many countries might be plunged with an economic and cultural self-quarantine in the short term, but once this is all over, they will fall back into line as the world aggressively pursues the normality it briefly lost.
Trump is a bit of tough luck for the whole world. His ignorance and poor leadership might extend the transitional period before we come back to that normal, but the virus won't end the world order altogether.
China has been promoting its brand since Trump took office. This brand is simple to understand: globalisation is Chinese. And while coronavirus is one of globalisation's problems, the global economy will mobilise to turn the tide against it.