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OP-ED: Covid-19: The acceleration of globalization

  • Published at 12:54 am December 11th, 2020
Gatwick Airport empty
An almost-empty Gatwick Airport. To stay connected during the pandemic, the world has gone virtual REUTERS

The pandemic may be the first global event in the history of the human race

An unusual paradox underlies the pandemic predicament that paralyzed the world in 2020. We have been transformed into countless individual islands, with each one separately constrained by anti-viral manoeuvrings that deny us hugs, handshakes, public events, and private gatherings that could risk the all-important “bubble.” 

Yet, despite this fracturing of our societies into billions of individual shards, our lives have never been so interlinked and identical. 

“The current pandemic is probably the first global event in the history of the human race,” says Branko Milanović, the consistently insightful Serbian-American economist, and specialist on the topic of inequality. The 67-year-old, who was a lead economist for the World Bank, is an essential independent thinker of our times (and an outstanding follow on Twitter, where he’s @BrankoMilan).

Earlier this week, in a joint publication by the Brussels-based International Politics and Society magazine and Social Europe (which is headquartered in London), Milanović argued: “If, in a couple of years -- when hopefully it is over and we are alive -- we meet friends from any corner of the world, we shall all have the same stories to share: Fear, tedium, isolation, lost jobs and wages, lockdowns, government restrictions, and face masks. No other event comes close.”

There is the additional factor of 21st century networking technologies, which keep us glued to the same screens at the same time everywhere in the world. Milanović explains: “To be global, the event has to be experienced more or less equally by everyone at the same time. Limited by physical contact or presence, however, we cannot reach many people, simply because there is no possibility for each of us to meet thousands, still less hundreds of thousands, of others. So the first global human event, ironically, had to be an event devoid of human contact and physical touch -- it had to be experienced virtually.”

Milanović predicts: “Covid-19 probably made us leapfrog about a decade in realizing the possibilities of decoupling work from physical presence in the workplace … This will not have an effect only on people working from home -- the change will be much more profound. A global labour market will come into existence without the need for migration.” He concludes: “Global value chains and trade might suffer a temporary setback. But in terms of labour mobility or, more exactly, labour competition -- which is extraordinarily important -- it will move forward.”

Aspects of what is described here are already familiar to us in South Asia, where they’re called “outsourcing,” and also play a big part in what is touted as “value-added manufacturing.” These have been invaluable factors in fostering economic growth in the sub-continent, and most especially for the swathe of countries that lie directly to the east, from Malaysia and Thailand (which are both on the verge of catapulting out of middle-income status) to Vietnam, which has boomed non-stop throughout the 21st century, and now grows steadily faster than China.

All these nations have done an excellent job in containing the impact of the coronavirus emergency. For some perspective, Vietnam -- which shares nearly 1,300km of borders with China, and is home to 92 million people -- has registered under 1,400 Covid-19 cases, and only 35 deaths. Meanwhile, my home state of Goa -- India’s smallest, with less than two million citizens -- has racked up nearly 50,000 cases with over 700 fatalities.

When you add in the burgeoning economies and labour forces of Indonesia (267 million people) and the Philippines (110 million), it becomes clear the future global economy that is envisioned and predicted by economists like Milanović will surge substantially from our geographical neighbourhood. But just like it has played out all through the pandemic, we will stay home while connecting and competing remotely with every other part of the world. 

This calls for substantial realignment of national priorities towards education, training, and infrastructure of all kinds: From manufacturing to digital. That process will be aided by the free flow of capital that has already been established over recent decades. The x-factor in our future potential will be human development -- the health, welfare, stability, and security of each national workforce. It is here that Bangladesh has the decided advantage over all other countries in the region. 

By contrast, India has heedlessly tied itself in knots with the politics of hate, and rampant crony capitalism. Narendra Modi’s government entered the Covid-19 era at war with students and minorities, then alienated millions of guest workers who were forced to stream out of the cities on foot. Now, another massive dispute, punctuated by the biggest strike in world history, as over 200 million workers observed the nationwide “bandh” supporting the withdrawal of legislations seen as anti-labour and anti-farmer. 

All this past fortnight, instead of readying itself for the new global economy, the Indian work force has been on the streets. It does not bode well for what will come next.

Vivek Menezes is a writer based in Goa, India.

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