COVID-19 and the Revenge of Globalization
The world experienced three global pandemics in the 20th century, in 1918, 1957, and 1968. All were the result of influenza, two of which originated in Asia. The most deadly among them was the 1918 flu, during which up to 100 million people are believed to have died in a single 4-month period. Of course, that was before the era of air transportation, through which a deadly virus can travel from one corner of the globe to another in just 24 hours.
That was also before the modern era of globalization came into being, in which supply chains and consumers are intimately linked to one another from one end of the world to the other. The world’s populations and economies are now completely interdependent as a result of cross-border flows of goods and services, investments, technology, information, and people. Now that the global COVID-19 pandemic is upon us, we must reckon with the interconnectivity that we all have so willingly embraced over the past several decades.
In one sense, China is unique in terms of the impact the virus has already had on its economy and that of the rest of the world, since so many countries have made China its manufacturing center. In the less than two months since news of the eruption of COVID-19 became known outside of China, the virus has not only decimated the Chinese economy, but sent shockwaves around the world – from transportation-related businesses and natural resource producers to manufacturers and the food industry. From small villages to its largest cities, China’s people are in lockdown and its economy is in free fall – having been transformed from a manufacturing goliath to a whisper of its former self in just two months. Imagine what impact this virus will have if the lockdown lasts for the rest of this year.
The rest of the world will soon discover just how devastating the virus may be to their people and economy, as Iran, Italy, Japan, and South Korea are already learning. All of those governments are in the process of implementing drastic steps to attempt to contain the virus. They will also learn just how unprepared they are to meaningfully address a virus as contagious as COVID-19. However, unlike China, they will not be able to effectively lock down and monitor their populations because (with the exception of Iran) they do not have an authoritarian government that has “minders” from every tiny village to its largest cities. And they also do not have the ability to build hospitals from scratch in two weeks’ time, as China has done.
Numerous economies in Latin America have hitched their wagon to China, in some cases allocating up to 90% of their natural resource exports to Beijing. That was wonderful for them when times were good, but when they turned bad, it points to devastation for their economies, hardship for their people, and potential civil unrest. The same is proving true in the Middle East and large parts of Africa, where a cascading waterfall of negative impacts are slowly unfolding. Soon, Europe and North America will be feeling similar impacts.
In short, we could be witnessing the beginning of a global economic depression similar to, or perhaps even worse than, what the world experienced in 1929. Many aspects of the global economy are of course very different than they were almost 100 years ago, but then, as now, the downfall of major economies had a cumulative impact on the global economy. Many people have been wondering what would possibly tip the economic scales in the United States, which has been well overdue for a recession for at least 4 years, based on historical precedent, with a stock market that has grown accustomed to overreacting to good news and ignoring bad news. The markets in the US and elsewhere around the world now seem to acknowledge that the global economy is about to face a reckoning.
The COVID-19 virus may well prove that the many benefits of globalization have a painful down-side for which there is no rapid or controllable remedy. Given how many opportunities for a global calamity have been avoided in recent years – whether via the outbreak of war, serious recession, or political crises – global pandemics are a useful reminder of just how vulnerable the world remains, as if only a perpetual step or two away from calamity. Let us hope that this reminder does not turn out to be as calamitous as many of us are now imagining it could be. We may never think the same way about globalization again.