End of the world as we know it?

The lockdown got us thinking about some big stuff like globalisation.

Outdoor spacw
Outdoor space

Prior to Covid-19 rearing its ugly head, there had already been much discussion about issues with globalisation. The seemingly unstoppable march of national economies, coming together as one global economy, for the ultimate benefit of the world. Globalisation appeared to tick boxes on all sides of the political spectrum – economic growth, wealth creation and a spreading of wealth across the globe, benefiting emerging nations, multiculturalism and opportunities for labour integration. Like the UN, increased integration was supposed to help ease international tensions.

Yet the populist-led Brexit in the UK, election of Trump in the US, Oban in Hungary and Salvini in Italy point towards a world that was questioning globalisation and nodding again towards nationalism.

However, inequality within many individual countries has gone the other way[i]. The saying ‘Charity begins at home’ seems very meaningful to populists[ii] – ‘take care of your family and other people who live close to you before helping people who are living further away or in another country’, is how the Cambridge Dictionary describes it.

With many of us confined to our homes during the pandemic, looking after ourselves has become paramount. We have been filling our larders, discussing how we can avoid having to queue for toilet roll, reading endless articles about fruit and veg about to rot in farmers’ fields and learning to live without new clothes as we darn socks and debate how our kids and grandchildren are going to find work within a shrunken economy.

For a long time the chattering classes have questioned why young people aren’t interested in careers in industries like service and farming. When we eventually get back to going to restaurants, a reduction in travel opportunities, a likely spike in airline prices and fear of leaving your country will probably mean there will be fewer brilliantly upbeat staff from all over the world. And how is that fruit and veg going to get picked? Surely the answer is that, as a society, we have to value the products and services we desire and make their production and delivery well paid enough to change perceptions of some industries as unattractive career options?

There is much talk about reversing the decline in manufacturing in large economies such as the US and UK. About investing in local production again, as major retailers openly talk about ‘security of supply’ and bringing production ‘closer to home’. In terms of sustainability, of air miles, provenance and job creation, there is clearly an upside. But what about the millions employed in developing countries who rely on our consumption for their very existence? What are the implications for them of governments attempting to safeguard jobs by aiding the repatriation of production? Will post-pandemic protectionism see us turn away from globalisation and towards nationalism by default?

We may be able to learn from the past about the dangers of pandemics and what nationalism can bring. As I write this, research by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York uncovering a correlation between deaths from the influenza pandemic in 1918-1920 and extremist voting in Germany in 1932 and 1933 lands in my newsfeed. The disturbing political and social ramifications of a pandemic.

Covid-19 has demonstrated that, on a global level, the economic structures profiteering by keeping people in poverty take on an even darker twist. When the hands that make our products are no longer needed they’re disposed of, facing destitution and starvation.

Will Covid-19 ultimately prove more devastating as the destroyer of economic and political security in some South Asian, Latin American and sub-Saharan countries? The United Nations World Food Programme[i] warns us that “the Covid-19 pandemic could almost double the number of people suffering acute hunger, pushing it to more than a quarter of a billion by the end of 2020.”

For many of us lucky ones, the comfort we have received from being with friends and families during lockdown has felt warm. It’s been a break from the realities of a complex world system of which we are all a part. It’s easy to become insular and forget that some of the countries likely to be hit by oncoming Covid-19-enhanced nationalism already have political, security and health issues. Is our forced retreat into thinking local about to fuel nationalism and light a powder keg far more devastating than the pandemic itself?

A Trump-led US seems hell bent on blaming China for any US economic problems (not to mention the pandemic itself). Surely the kind of rivalry and negative rhetoric that we’re seeing between these two world superpowers is another unhealthy virus that needs to be stopped in its tracks? And that needs to happen quicker than we’ve managed with Covid-19, if globalisation is not to be consigned to a pre-Covid-19 world. Or perhaps, as Stephen M. Walt said this time last year, long before Covid-19 reared its head, “You can’t defeat nationalism, so stop trying.”

Is this the end of globalisation as we know it?