Syed Sharfuddin. The Round Table: The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs. Volume 109, Issue 3, 2020.
The 1918 pandemic, popularly known as the Spanish Flu killed over 50 million people worldwide, in which over 14 million died in British India alone. The impact of this pandemic was deeper and global. It had a major impact on World War I. It altered the boundaries of imperial powers and caused large-scale poverty due to unemployment and inflation in many countries. The pandemic strengthened independence movements in the former colonies and forced countries to make policies for universal healthcare. It also led to advancements in epidemiology, virology and development of vaccines.
Fast forward a century, the Covid-19 pandemic has been running its devastating course in different parts of the world at different timelines. By the start of June 2020, the pandemic had reached 213 countries with over 365,000 deaths and counting, and had peaked only in China, the US and Europe. Populations in Africa, the Middle East, Latin America, South and South-East Asia and Australia were slow to catch the infection but did not escape it completely. There were no indications if the pandemic would reach its end like its smaller predecessors SARS (2002) and MERS (2012) or would make a resurgence in the winter of 2021. But one thing is sure that when it is finally eliminated, we are not going back to the world we lived in 2019. The post-coronavirus world will be different in many ways—economically, socially and health wise. No one will come out of this crisis without losing something.
It is ironic that this pandemic has attacked one thing most precious to modern civilisation, which is human liberty. In most parts of the world, our way of life has been characterised by individual and social freedoms for which countries have gone to wars and won them after making costly sacrifices. The Nazi ideology, Fascism and Marxist coups of the past century could not change this way of life. In our own time, terrorism, ISIS and xenophobia could not dampen it. But now this important asset of our civilisation is seriously threatened by a coronavirus and its aftereffects.
There are many assessments going around as to what kind of world we will inherit in the next decade after the cataclysmic change of 2020. These are based on evolving hypotheses, as countries are still busy firefighting the pandemic. Apart from emergency financial measures announced by individual governments and international financial institutions to keep businesses and countries afloat, and help those who are currently out of work, countries haven’t had time to think through their plans for the future. There is, however, plenty of material to sift through and put together a construct of what the future may look like for humanity in the coming months and years when life gets back to a new normal. This essay attempts to identify the parts of this puzzle which, if and when put together by governments, could give an idea of the way we will be in the future.
The overall economic impact of the pandemic on world economy is gloomy to say the least. According to estimates by international financial institutions, the economies of Europe and other developed countries will decline between 4% and 6% by the end of the first trimester of the year threatening a global recession. Overall global GDP is estimated to fall between 2.4 to 2.8% in 2020. To prevent a total collapse of the economy, there is a strong push from regions, which have not suffered as badly as others to ease restrictions and reopen shops, transport, businesses and the service sector. President Trump is leading this campaign. European countries have also started to gradually open their economies while taking the necessary health precautions. For at least 6 to 12 months selected restrictions are likely to remain in countries where coronavirus has already reached its peak and if it surges in other parts of the world, these restrictions may widen or applied more stringently.
As a result of the global economic downturn, which may prove worse than the financial and economic crisis of 2008-9, nationalism will dominate any future discussion on international cooperation. Although globalisation cannot be eliminated, it will take a back seat, as countries will vie to care for the well-being of their citizens first before helping others. Deep divisions were seen in the positions of the EU Finance Ministers who met in April 2020 to approve a half-trillion Euro financial emergency package for member states fighting the impact of the pandemic. The fund will help EU governments, companies and people who are trying to overcome the adverse economic impact of the pandemic in their countries. In the US, divisions were also seen between state governments and the federal government on sharing ventilators, personal protection equipment and drugs considered essential for stopping deaths, as well as reopening the economy. This was exacerbated by the campaign for the forthcoming US Presidential election in November 2020.
In many countries, small and medium businesses may be considering going into administration or large scale staff reductions unless they secure government loans on easy terms to make a comeback, or find new ways of doing business. Green and sustainable industries will gain more ground and receive greater support. The new business emphasis will be on reducing the carbon footprint, pushing natural and healthy food options and promoting hospital hygiene and gyms compared to investing in mining or construction of new shopping malls and hotels. The dominating issue for the next few years will be health. Oxygen pods may emerge in urban centres to give a boost of fresh air to people returning home after work. There will be more garden space in future city planning, and public places will be open and airy to help reduce infection.
Home deliveries for groceries and general merchandise will increase as evidenced during the pandemic. Amazon was one of the tech giants, which recruited staff instead of sending them home on layoff. Apple, Google, Amazon, eBay and Alibaba will improve e-commerce instruments, tighten cybersecurity, provide guarantees to buyers for secure financial transactions and compete with each other on the speed of delivery. A large self-employed force of young people will support e-commerce doing home deliveries instead of playing virtual games in their spare time. It could become a regular feature for internships and summer jobs for college students and young graduates.
Although the US no longer accepts the WTO’s arbitration in resolving its trade disputes with third countries, trade rules will continue to be the most important concern of this world body. It is most likely that countries will adopt greater protectionist policies and impose high tariffs on imports to support their local industries. Until the economies of major industrialised countries stabilise, there could also be tariff wars on selected manufactured goods to protect national economies. China will face greater resistance restoring its export volumes to pre-coronavirus figures.
Hospital care will undergo a major transformation with clear guidelines for medical practitioners about hospital admissions during emergencies. Many countries will introduce health insurance to cover medical care. Services like the NHS in the UK, which is under tremendous pressure, may also undergo a review to balance critical care with outpatient treatment. Some NHS trusts had already outsourced MIR scans and physiotherapy care. This may be taken to the next level to include other investigations before hospitals intervene. The mental health sector, which has always been under-resourced in many countries, will assume a priority to cope with the trauma and stress of the current pandemic. More funding may be allocated for research into new vaccines to control the outbreak of future pandemics mimicking SARS and Covid-19.
New international health protocols will be negotiated for co-operation in early warning and information sharing between countries. These will focus on agreed reporting systems, supervised controls and cooperation in drawing up common contingency plans for accidental leaks of pathogens, radiation and viruses. A more transparent regime will also be in place to monitor research on viruses and their research sponsors.
Questions will be raised why countries with advanced health systems did not act early to respond to the warnings about the spread of a global pandemic. These concerns were raised as early as 2018 on the centenary of the Spanish Flu. The billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates recently said in a TV interview on the Daily Show With Trevor Noah that although he predicted in 2017 that a global pandemic was around the corner, he had no idea that it would be so soon. Neither the US National Institute of Allergy & Infectious Diseases which is headed by Dr Anthony Fauci, nor the Gates Foundation invested sufficiently in developing effective vaccines for the known strains of coronavirus. There is now a race among the world’s leading pharmaceutical companies to find an anti-Covid-19-vaccine which is safe for everyone. Opponents of Big Pharma say that the pandemic is being used as a smoke screen to advance their agenda of making trillions of dollars by pushing the vaccines globally and making them a part of every individual’s annual drug management programme. There may also be associated risks with the development of a new vaccine, and if the virus returns next winter.
During the coronavirus lockdown, primary and secondary education quickly shifted from classrooms to e-learning in many countries. Turkey went a step further and dedicated free TV channels for e-learning for the benefit of households which do not have internet. Aided by dedicated chat groups and video classes, students adjusted to a new mode of learning, which is likely to become the new standard in education. Although this will affect traditional teaching, it will be more efficient and effective because of its plug and play feature and group engagement through dedicated chat-rooms. Teachers will be trained in the new ways of e-learning even though the need for classrooms and schools will still be there to provide children outdoor space for sports, personal interaction with their peers and a break for parents who are in fulltime jobs and need nurseries and schools to keep their children usefully engaged during office hours.
Another useful experience from the coronavirus pandemic was the way governments adjusted to the requirement of citizens paying their household and business bills and accessing other government services through e-government portals. In a post-corona world, countries will focus on expanding e-government services to enable citizens to pay utility bills, rates and taxes, obtain official documents and receive government notifications directly in their mailboxes, as these are issued. Banks had already integrated IT in their services at a high level of customer interaction. These will be further developed to reduce cyber-crime and eliminate the need to have bank branches located in every village and town. Banks are likely to become more invisible to the public with only head offices located in major cities. Biometric and voice identification is already being used by banks to identify clients electronically. In the future credit cards could be replaced by iris recognition or embedding smart chips in human bodies.
Mobile and fixed broadband data will acquire the same importance as gas, electricity and water for every household and individual. Advancements in IT will ensure that citizens will have access to free public WiFi hotspots at airports, hospitals, train stations, shopping centres and other public places. Private and business subscribers will pay a fixed rate for unlimited 5G data on an annual basis. Councils may subsidise these for citizens receiving state help and support grants.
This sector will see the highest growth. Heavy reliance on the internet during Covid-19 forced major IT giants to adjust their public websites to allow clients access to increased cyber communication. Companies such as Zoom and Skype, which provide web-based conference servicing saw their shares rise in the stock market. Home entertainment giants Netflix and Disney gained new subscribers in millions. Google and Apple joined hands to compile statistics on coronavirus. In the post-corona phase these giants are likely to invest more in IT services to meet rising demand.
The controversial 5G broadband will advance to support artificial intelligence in industrial and social applications. Hospitals and defence industries will find it more cost effective to use robots and drones to avoid human exposure to hazardous situations. Health professionals may stop seeing patients face-to-face in routine appointments unless they have gone through the first stage of initial consultation through video link. Medicines will be approved by GPs for patients online and delivered at home without the recipient having to go to the pharmacy for collection.
Countries may also use IT to monitor the movement of citizens through tracking software in mobile phones or chips embedded in driving licences and photo ID cards. Police may be given limited access to citizens’ financial, employment and criminal records at the click of a button on their mobile instruments. Any outcry for privacy will be outweighed by considerations of security and health. Human rights defenders will be worried about the power this could give to authoritarian governments for silencing opposition and blackmailing them into submission. In established democracies, there would be legislation to define the limits and mandates of authorised government agencies, which will have the power to monitor citizens’ movements under law, and a mechanism will be available to citizens to challenge misuse through courts. With the passage of time, the location of every individual will be traceable through satellite, just as machine-readable passports contain all the relevant information about their holders on government portals.
After staying in their homes for months, holidaymakers will want to have a break provided the places they are going to visit are free from infection hazards. Tourism will comeback but will take time. The reopening of tourism will also help the return of regular and budget airlines and associated travel-related services to enable thousands of dormant workers back to work, and bring these businesses into liquidity.
Countries which have invested heavily in the tourism sector such as the Gambia, Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago, Spain, Portugal, India, Egypt, Tunisia and Turkey will work closely with the hotel and resort operators to ensure that they provide an insulated and infection-free environment to tourists. In such places tourist resorts will be self-inclusive and locals will not be allowed in. Service staff will be admitted only after they have been tested periodically to ensure they are free from any infection or illness.
There will be new visa rules for visitors in most countries. States where the virus has peaked and life has returned to normal will impose visa restrictions on nationals of those countries where the pandemic has not reached its peak. Countries may even require a new coronavirus health insurance or vaccination certificate, if a vaccine is developed and marketed worldwide, before a visit visa is issued to overseas visitors. In such a scenario, health considerations and precautions might place at a disadvantage old-age pensioners who have both time and resources to undertake frequent holiday trips compared to working families.
The travel advisories of developed countries will become important reference points for travel insurance companies to settle any medical or travel-related claims. These advisories will also give issuing countries a political leverage over the host countries and could be misused in forcing these countries to enter into difficult tourism agreements and support international initiatives they have reservations against, or cast a favourable vote for the sending country at the UN and its related agencies.
During the current pandemic, local governments spent more than three times their approved budget on community policing, hygiene and care services. Their revenue from traditional sources, such as public transport, traffic fines, delayed rates and rents from council properties suffered severely due to self-isolation and economic lockdown. They are unlikely to recoup their losses from the concerned city and provincial governments because the latter are also under severe financial pressure. This loss will result in major reductions in council services in the coming months. For example, garbage collection may be extended to 3 weeks and libraries and community services may be closed. The only other way to secure the same local government service as existed before the crisis will be an increase in council rates, which households will have to bear from their budgets.
Office workers were already used to open workspaces and hot-desking. This pandemic has taken the notch a step further. It has shown how admin costs can be saved by managers by making staff work from home. There will be less waste of time for workers commuting to offices and spending money on lunches and coffee breaks. Businesses where large inventories and stocks are not required to be stored will rent small office spaces and encourage staff to work from home. Firms will hire workers for 3 days instead of the traditional 5 day a week to share the employment pie with a large number of people looking for employment. Travel agents may disappear from high-streets, as most would start working on e-ticketing from home.
Business travel will reduce considerably resulting in greater reliance on virtual meetings and reduction in business class seats in airlines. A positive outcome of this will be less carbon footprint for international companies using air-miles to do business.
This pandemic, unlike the Spanish Flu, has targeted the elderly and those with medical complications, as well as those living in crowded and poor neighbourhoods. In the coming years, a lot will change in how society looks after its poor and elderly in providing health and care services. Countries where there is a rising elderly population will have to find new ways of raising funds for work pensions and social care. In the UK, proposals to increase national insurance contribution to fund rising care costs have been discussed for many years. This may actually become a norm not just in the UK but also in many European countries. Regulations for private care homes will also be strengthened to ensure that these homes do not fail their elderly during the time of crises, as was woefully experienced in Spain, Italy and the UK during the coronavirus pandemic.
In the new world order, many social norms we take for granted will collapse. Coffee shops and bars may have to change the way they served their customers before, relying on take aways and perhaps charging them extra for use of indoor space. Smoking already became a taboo 10 years ago. Tobacco companies have struggled to reinvent themselves. Now they will wind up completely. The next target will be alcohol and fizzy drink manufacturers because of concerns about diabetes and alcohol misuse, as health will take the top priority. Social distancing will become the new norm and individualism will undermine social and cultural contacts, including people taking crowded trains and attending weddings and social gatherings.
On the negative side, the destitute will take to crime, cyber fraud, drug abuse and in extreme cases fall into depression and suicide. Enemy states will utilise these elements to disrupt life and create internal dissent in order to advance their agendas. Wars will not disappear but the way these are fought will change. In this gloomy setup, the poor and disadvantaged will suffer most in all aspects of their daily lives. In a strange way, individualism will become the keyword for human survival in a globalised world.
Faith and Fatalism
As in all times of crisis, there will always be the business for the church, temple and mosque as an expression of religious freedom and human frailty. Covid-19 brought ayatollahs, priests, pundits, imams and rabbis to call on their followers and seek forgiveness for their sins in the hope that this divine retribution will be removed in the same way as in the ancient times when Yahweh helped the children of Israel during the rein of the Pharaoh and the Great Plague. There will always be strong pockets of the faithful in every country who will disagree with science and modern approaches to addressing problems and instead return to the established religion of their forefathers. The faithful do not just comprise the fatalists in society but also include educated persons, doctors, teachers and technocrats from different professions. In many countries people from different walks of life defied their government’s social distancing advice to attend communal worships.
During the pandemic, several thousand volunteers, citizens’ groups and charities working in disaster relief and poverty alleviation distributed food and supplies to poor and vulnerable people in support of their governments’ relief efforts. Activists and civil society groups also monitored their governments’ response and pointed out flaws which had escaped authorities’ attention. Their work helped the media point out the under-reporting of deaths in care homes in many countries. They also highlighted the ineffective equipment procured from Chinese suppliers in the initial stages of the pandemic to overcome shortages in hospital supplies. In the aftermath of the pandemic when the need for help could be greater, the non-state sector will be under huge pressure to meet the demand. Many international NGOs have predicted a fall in their income from fundraising campaigns, made worse by further cuts in government aid and institutional funding. In the immediate short term, small charities dependent on donor support for cash flow might wind up due to lack of sufficient public donations. Even large charities might be forced to enter into uneasy partnerships to continue with poverty alleviation projects in target countries for greater cost savings.
Developing countries have largely escaped the full brunt of the coronavirus death toll. But if it hits them in the next phase, they will be devastated because of poor health infrastructure and inability to even carry out such basic precautions as isolation of infected people from the healthy population and treatment in hospitals. Lack of ICU units, ventilators and personal protective equipment for doctors and nurses could play havoc with the lives of qualified professionals, as well as patients.
Full and partial lockdown in some of these countries revealed the weaknesses of their economies to absorb financial shocks. Most developing countries have a large labour force which survives on daily wages. They are deprived of livelihood during long economic lockdowns. Tensions built up between the centre and federating units in many developing countries on whether to keep the economy partially open or impose a full lockdown to reduce the spread of the disease. In Malawi, the government was stopped by its High Court from imposing the lockdown. In Pakistan the Supreme Court took a different stance and cautioned the government against not being pro-active to stop the pandemic from spreading. These tensions may go beyond the pandemic and contribute to deeper political instability. Countries where elections are due in the next two years will put the blame on others to hide their government’s failures.
Many developing countries have applied for assistance with international financial institutions for debt rescheduling and emergency funding, resulting in greater debt burden in the future. The ability of most of these countries to stabilise economies without emergency international assistance will be severely limited resulting in low GDP growth, large trade deficits, loss of jobs and domestic loan defaults by small businesses.
Developing countries with low GDP growth, high debt repayments and high import dependence on oil and essential technologies will find it hard to maintain independent foreign policies. While not wanting to be in that position their negotiating power will be severely weakened toward their international creditors in a manner reminiscent of Bolshevik Russia signing up to Germany’s terms in the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in 1918. It may be a harsh comparison to make but this is how those countries will feel after finding themselves totally caught in a vicious trap of political and economic instability, continuous debt servicing and rising development costs.
It is becoming clear that in a post-Covid-19 world, a new international order will be redrawn by the powerful countries taking into account the lessons learnt from the performance of totalitarian regimes and free democracies in dealing with the current pandemic. But let it not be a repeat of the post-World War II arrangement where the victors constructed an international order for the rest of the world, and imposed their conventions on every state to follow without consulting their peoples. It is interesting that the Bretton Woods System and the League of Nations, the precursor to the UN, predated the independence of many Afro-Asian countries which became independent as part of the decolonisation process and had to accept many international conventions and protocols as successor states.
Countries with complete or partial success in controlling the pandemic with lower death rates (China, Singapore, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Taiwan and South Korea) do not have political systems the world may necessarily aspire to follow, compared to the liberal democracies in the US, UK & the EU, which were unable to prevent the spread of the disease in the initial stages, resulting in thousands of deaths, including those of their health professionals. They may also not do as well as China in recovering from the economic recession that is predicted to engulf the world in the remainder of 2020.
The creation of a new international order will need to take into account the fine balance between political totalitarianism and free-market economy as both have shown to have different strengths. Even if the death figures were censored, China saved its nationals from coronavirus deaths to a considerable level despite being the most populous nation on earth, while the US, the UK, Italy, Spain and France could not do so with their best healthcare systems and equipment.
A unipolar world will not suit the new international order. It should not be an order where a country decides to limit the export of a medicine needed by its population to treat the symptoms of a disease but reverses its decision after receiving a phone call from another powerful country threatening of ‘consequences’ if the shipment of the medicine were stopped. It should not be an order where the owner of a natural resource is not the country where it is based, but another country, which has the power and ability to destroy it, if its terms are not accepted. It should not be an international order where the raw material from a country is exported in cents per metric ton but after reprocessing and value addition, it is imported back by the same country in dollars per metric ton.
Growing disparities within and between countries may result in work strikes and a sharp increase in government subsidies. This may also revive the debate about the relevance of old ideologies of liberalism and socialism to address economic problems, as represented by the US and Chinese economic models, and sharpen the rivalry between these powers.
In the new international order the role of multilateral institutions will be critically reviewed. Countries will be reluctant to fund organisations, which are no longer relevant in the new world. The funding structures in the UN, the Commonwealth, WHO and OIC point to a fundamental weakness under which major contributors hold the power to force these organisations to work for their national interest first before pursuing wider common interests. New rules will be adopted to make these institutions more accountable to donors. This will obviously take the democratic reform agenda a step back. The inability of the UN to prevent conflicts, control refugee flows and respond with successful disaster mitigation, and of the WHO to predict and prevent this pandemic and earlier epidemics have already come under strong scrutiny. Part of the reason for their underperformance is that the rich and powerful countries have stopped taking global institutions seriously. There are parallel limited and global forums such as G-7, G-20 and World Economic Forum which are taken more seriously than the UN and its agencies. There is also duplication and absence of coordination in the work of international organisations.
Intergovernmental meetings might rely more on virtual meetings to make these more efficient with the groundwork done by their diplomatic missions located in the organising country. In March 2020, the Indian Prime Minister successfully convened a virtual conference of SAARC leaders to coordinate response to the pandemic. The EU Foreign Ministers also met virtually to agree the EU emergency credit for members. Since then, many high-level regional and global political and business meetings have taken place virtually in support of this new trend. It is not inconceivable that at the 2020 UN General Assembly Session next September, some Heads of State or Government might address the meeting on streaming video instead of travelling to New York from their capitals to deliver their country statements.
A lot of work will be required by leaders to re-stitch the delicate patchwork built over decades to agree collaborative mechanisms for making globalisation work for all. If President Trump wins the November 2020 Presidential election, the world may see the return of US isolationism which it pursued during the great depression of the 1930s. On the contrary, US-China rivalry might increase in manufacturing and trade, which is the opposite of what is required to improve the well-being of people worldwide. The only silver lining in this scenario is the role of the EU, UK, ASEAN and Russia, which will not allow this rivalry to cloud international cooperation. They will also resist the emergence of either the US or China as the leader of another unipolar world.
The 2019 initiative of France and Germany, the Alliance for Multilateralism, includes in its goals the reform and modernisation of existing international organisations. However, being a European initiative, it will take time to become globally accepted and made part of the ongoing negotiations for the reform and democratisation of the UN. On the other hand, organisations such as the Commonwealth and La Francophonie stand a better chance to gain acceptance for reform because they represent members who belong to various international and regional organisations within their respective regions, as well as globally.
Global supply chains, which have resulted in increased interdependence between countries for production and labour might weaken and invite countries to rely on their national or regional suppliers. This will have an impact on the cost of production of goods, while depriving cheap overseas labour of much needed jobs. At the same time, such a move will give developed countries better control on their strategic industries and reserves. Such inward policies may reverse the gains made in international standardisation and quality control, to the disadvantage of labour intensive and import dependent countries.
The lesson from the coronavirus disease is poignant. It is a new struggle for the survival of the fittest in humanity’s post-modern evolution. It implies that if you haven’t got the strength as an individual or as a nation to beat the economic, financial and social pressures that confront you, the lease on your survival in a highly competitive world is due to run out soon. Is the world prepared for this grim scenario? Humanity demands that in the march of civilisation we take our weak and vulnerable along with us, even if we have to carry them on our shoulders. But this needs international consensus not to remain just a wish, but to become a reality.