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Looking to a post-corona world darkly

  • Published at 08:45 pm March 27th, 2020
China baby Coronavirus
A different world / REUTERS

Today’s world is too small for barricades -- we are all in this together

We are in the midst of a global coronavirus epidemic, and nobody actually knows where we are heading. 

The total fog of uncertainty is reflected by the schizophrenic behaviour of stock markets; they get the best information money can buy, and they are experiencing record-breaking ups and downs almost daily. 

However, “unknown unknowns” are not stopping people from speculating what the post-corona world may look like. Thought leaders throughout the world are publicly pondering what might be the lessons and outcomes of the unprecedented structural break in global economy and society. 

One of the clear lessons, even at this early stage, is that there are great differences in the ability of different countries in preparing and containing a huge challenge like this viral epidemic. South Korea, Taiwan, Japan, and Singapore have managed to throttle the spread of corona while keeping society and the economy running. 

Richer countries than these have botched their responses and are now suffering horrific consequences in lives and economy. Political scientists are saying that this stark difference underscores the critical importance of state capacity in national development. 

State capacity is a measure of the governments’ ability to fulfil their mandated functions. Academics measure it in two dimensions. First, the ability of the government to enforce the rule of law all across the country. 

Second, ability of the governments to collects tax revenues from the most powerful people and organizations, and hand it to the most common citizens.  

The success of high-capacity states to manage the epidemic so far do not support the view that authoritarian states like China are models for other countries. First of all, nobody outside knows what is actually happening within authoritarian states like China and Iran. 

Secondly, countries like Korea and Taiwan have been thriving liberal democracies for nearly three decades now. High-capacity democracies are transparent and highly responsive to the people’s needs and demands, not just concerned with their external image and internal hold on power. 

Now it is safe to say that small government libertarians are taking a temporary vow of silence. Efficient, responsive government is a clear matter of life and death.  

The role of the globalized economy and global supply chains in spreading and exacerbating the pandemics have also come under scrutiny. Countries have found out how vulnerable during the pandemic they are, because of the production of goods spread all over the world. 

One of the reasons many governments outside China were late in aggressive containment policies was that they simply lacked means to do so. For example, the bulk of the world’s surgical masks are produced in China, as with most other things large and small. 

When China began its Wuhan containment program, it forbade all export of masks and commandeered all available masks in China. Thus, most of the countries didn’t even have masks to protect their citizens and they had to scramble for alternative sourcing and production. 

That took precious, lives-costing time. So, we may witness a temporary backlash against globalized production. However, it’s safe to bet that the market and price will prevail again in the longer run, and economic globalization will remain as the de facto world order. 

Another important lesson of the crisis is the great role of social media. Ever since the 2016 US elections, social media received a lot of deserved blame as agents of mass polarization and disinformation and creators of information bubbles. 

However, during this crisis, social media often was far ahead of news media and government sources in spreading alarm. Analysis shows that, facing personal threats, people began to rely on expert opinion rather than partisan propagandists in social media. 

Again, there is a great divide. People who follow diverse sources of information, particularly on Twitter, were ahead of general people in understanding the magnitude of the impending threat. This again underscores that sources of information and opinion are crucial in this day and age. Using social media as comfort food for the soul is really an abuse of this remarkable mass technological development. 

The role of religion in this is also coming into scrutiny. Religious gatherings were often the most fertile medium of contagion. As usual, many religious leaders were actively undermining public health efforts of controlling the spread with their ignorant sermons. 

It’s too soon to say how the mass religious sentiments will be affected by this global and mass death anxiety. However, it is safe to say that people have gained new appreciation for the value of technical expertise and empirical information in matters of life and death.  

We cannot say if this crisis will severely undermine a globalized society that was already facing a lot of recent headwinds from nationalism and populism. Historically, pandemics generally increased xenophobia and parochialism among the surviving population, as they blamed “the other” as the source of the calamity. 

On the other hand, people of the world now may belatedly understand that today’s world is too small to erect barricades. We are all in this together -- man, animal, the air, the water, and the virus. 

Shafiqur Rahman is a political scientist.

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