Covid-19 & the World Order

You may recall that astrologers were predicting that something of huge consequence would happen in January 2020, something that would have as long-lasting an effect on the world scene as the Protestant Reformation in 1518, which of course signalled the end to the Catholic Church’s stranglehold on political and religious power.

Well, as it turns out, that is exactly what has happened with the arrival of Covid-19.

For those of you who think that when this pandemic is over, everything will get back to the way it was before, then think again. The following comes from a recent virtual lecture, Plague planet: Coronavirus and world politics, given by Sir Tony Brenton, former British Ambassador to Russia and lecturer at the University of Cambridge.

‘There is such a difference between the way we really live and the way we ought to live that the man who neglects the real to study the ideal will learn how to accomplish ruin, not his salvation.”

Niccolo Machiavelli 

Prior pandemics have taught us that more often than not, in their wake comes a significant change in the world order.

  • During the Phoenician war in 400 BC, a pandemic hit Athens and killed Pericles, its leader. Doubtless, this contributed to the ultimate defeat of Athens, once the strongest city-state in Greece, and marked a significant change in the power base throughout the Mediterranean. 
  • Likewise the Black Death in 1348, which in killing 1/3 of the population of Europe, destroyed feudalism and cleared the way for the Renaissance.
  • When a small group of Spaniards arrived in the New World in the 15th century, their horses and firearms gave them the upper hand over the locals. But the real clincher was the smallpox they also brought along. That wiped out two vast empires, the Incas and the Aztecs, paving the way for Spain’s reign in the region for the next 500 years. 
  • In the early 19th century, after typhoid killed 60-70% of his troops in Russia, Napoleon was forced to retire from European politics. 
  • Finally, although the Spanish Flu of 1918-20, which killed more than 50 million people, (more than were killed in World War I), does not appear to have made a similar long-lasting impact as have prior pandemics, the war that had just ended had already done so.

What might we expect in the wake Covid-19?

  • Significant change in the pre-Covid world order – it’s fair to say that pre-Covid, the relationship between the United States and China was not great, but post-Covid it’s primed to really go downhill. Leaving aside projections that the Chinese economy might well overtake that of the Americans within a decade, China has shown itself remarkably capable of dealing with the pandemic whilst strong-man governments like Brazil, Turkey, the United States (under Trump), and even the United Kingdom (under Johnson) have not fared so well. It’s even been suggested that his failure to adequately deal with the pandemic, cost Trump the 2020 election. Add to this the likelihood of increased populism (i.e., we’ve had enough of immigration and being subject to rule from afar) and we may be facing a serious rise in the protectionist ‘nation-state’ with China potentially leading the way.
  • Does this spell the end to democracies as we’ve known them? Maybe and maybe not, but it certainly suggests that the Chinese now have good reason to suggest that autocracy trumps democracy.
  • Likewise, keep an eye on how things develop regarding personal freedom and human rights. Authoritarian governments have been using the pandemic as an excuse to reclaim some of the liberties their citizens had taken for granted. Political demonstrations have been banned and travel curbed and governments have been gathering unprecedented personal data on their citizens. In more than 60 countries, elections have been postponed. Certainly, in some countries these rights and freedoms will eventually be restored but in other countries, quite possibly not. 
  • There’s every indication that post Covid-19, the rich will continue to get richer and the poor, poorer. This is not just the result of wealthier Western governments pumping unprecedented amounts of money into the system to keep their economies afloat. Even within a single country like the United Kingdom, the wealthier workers kept their jobs by joining ZOOM calls whilst the smaller businesses and blue-collar workers were just-plain out of luck. Furlough and support schemes helped, but only time will tell if it was enough. Poorer countries, on the other hand, may find themselves doubly hit. Not only do they not have money to keep their economies afloat, but as globalized trade starts to unravel as the result of an upsurge in populism, they’ll have less and less chance of recovery. 
  • Decline in global cooperation – International systems like NATO and the WHO that were more or less working have taken a hit. International trust has been seriously damaged. There simply was too much emotionally fuelled finger pointing and greedy self-interest in play. Consider Merkel accusing the Americans of 21st century piracy when a huge shipment of supplies bound from China mysteriously turned up in the United States. Consider how just at the time the WHO needed everyone’s full support, the biggest player, the United States under Trump pulled out because the WHO refused to blame China for the pandemic. Even though on Biden’s first day in office, the United States re-joined WHO, damage has been done. And it wasn’t just Americans who behaved badly. When Italy was struggling with the pandemic, the European Union of which it is a member, refused help leaving China to step in to the rescue. As individual governments focused on Covid-19, their attention turned away from pressing issues like global warming – this may improve over time – but delays are still to be expected.

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