What’s the rush?

Abdel-Moneim Said
Friday 10 Apr 2020

While the coronavirus pandemic may come to mark a threshold in contemporary history, the nature of its impact on world order is far from clear

It looks like observers and analysts of international affairs are in a hurry to proclaim the birth of a new world. Yet again. At no time in history has the world changed as radically or has a new world been born as frequently as in the 20th century and two decades of the current millennium. Virtually every article, analysis or study we come across today heralds the “the post-corona world” and predicts “Life after coronavirus will never be the same.” What’s the rush? 

All this haste is rather worrisome. It seems to overlook the eternal truth that change is what human life is about or that, to quote the adage, a person never bathes in the same river twice. The series of technological changes that have been grouped under such headings as the “industrial revolutions one through four” have changed the world in so many important ways.

Sometimes it didn’t require a series; a single invention was enough. The train, the car, the plane; the steam engine, the internal combustion engine, the nuclear reactor; the telephone, the computer, the smart phone — each and every one of these, in its time, caused a huge transformation in human life and, indeed, in the world order. All these, not to mention humankind’s foray into space, satellites orbiting the earth and the IT revolution have made the world as never before. So, what gives Covid-19 such extraordinary power to turn the world upside down? 

Perhaps the key is to be found in the fact that calculations of the magnitude of change have always been associated with some mega historical event such as World War I and II, the Great Depression in the 1930s, the end of the Cold War, the 11 September 2001 attacks and the 2008 global financial crisis. Can the coronavirus pandemic be ranked among these major landmarks? 

Quantitatively, as I write this, about a million people in the world have been infected by Covid-19 and around 50,000 have died from it. The toll is far less than the number of people who die in traffic accidents or from obesity and malnourishment and certainly far, far less than the death tolls of the world wars and even regional wars such as the Vietnam War or the Iraq-Iran War.

Admittedly, this approach is flawed because the main problem with Covid-19 is how fast it spreads within and between countries and, indeed, continents. Up to now, it is mostly concentrated in the developed world: China, Europe and the US, as well as in some midway points such as South Korea, Iran and Japan. But what is obvious about the current haste to forecast a new world is that it jumped way ahead of the repercussions of the virus to a reconstruction of the world order and a redistribution of power. 

There were already manifestations of this before 12 January when the first coronavirus case was announced in Wuhan. At the time, China was an emergent global power, the US was a global power in withdrawal and Brexit was a signpost that not all is well with the EU. The writing was already on the wall: the world is headed in new directions. We were already talking about a tripolar order and a world after the fourth industrial revolution, and we were trying to identify the cause of change even before we could identify what exactly the change was. 

Perhaps Covid-19 has thrown into relief many things that had already changed but grew more visible during the crisis. Maybe this is the crux of the matter. Historically, crises have served to expose and perhaps give impetus to many forces that shaped the future of humankind. However, it seems precipitous to precede events that are still in progress and to describe our destination while the train is still running at full speed. For example, the race is still on between the mysterious and predatory virus and science and technology’s drive to produce a vaccine to stop it.

When the virus hit, the medical community did not just sit down and wait until the labs produced a result. They tried out previously existing serums which helped hundreds of people recover. As eventually became clear from the statistics, over 90 per cent of those who died from the disease were over 70. Outside of that age bracket, the symptoms were likely to be much milder and the recovery rate much, much higher.

After a period of initial shock and confusion, followed by mistrust, evasion of responsibility and conspiracy mongering, the crisis also exposed the limitations of the nation state in the modern world, especially when it comes to dealing with phenomena that are inherently global. In War on the Rocks, a foreign policy and national security web magazine, on 24 March, Mira Rapp-Hooper sums up the situation beneath the headline, “China, America, and the International Order after the Pandemic”:

“As people around the world fall ill, global markets convulse and supply chains collapse, Covid-19 may also reorder international politics as we know it. No analyst can know when this crisis will end, much less divine the world we will meet at its conclusion. But as scholars have begun to note, it is plausible that China will emerge from the wreckage as more of a global leader than it began. International orders — the rules, norms and regimes that govern international politics, supported by state power — typically shift as a product of great-power wars. For some time, foreign policy experts have observed power to be shifting in China’s favour and hoped for modest, peaceful change within the existing system, rather than US-Chinese conflict.

It now seems that some form of system change may be brought about by an era-defining, exogenous shock, in the form of a highly contagious virus. If world order as we know it is upended, however, it will not be the product of this pandemic alone, but of forces that began long before Covid-19’s discovery, including an American foreign policy that has sought confrontation with China while disengaging from broader international ordering efforts. It is far too soon to say how exactly the international order will change, and whether or not China will emerge stronger. Nevertheless, it is also clear that some aspects of US foreign policy must be transformed if Washington is to retain a leadership role in the system.”

As with all aspects of change in the world or in nations or even in human beings and other creatures, developments and technology and other factors give us an opportunity to adjust and make choices. But the actual upending tends wait until the crisis is behind us. So, there’s no need to rush. We’re not in the post-corona era yet.

*The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.

*A version of this article appears in print in the  9 April, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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