Weak global governance is partly to blame for the glaring covid disparities that now afflict the world
In an essay published in 1979 (‘Pour une morale de l’inconfort’ or ‘For an ethic of discomfort’), the French philosopher Michel Foucault posed these uncomfortable questions and an unsettling observation: “On assiste à une mondialisation de l’économie? À coup sûr. À une mondialisation des calculs politiques? Sans doute. Mais une universalisation de la conscience politique—certainement pas." These words, as translated into English by Homi Bhabha in a 2004 lecture, read: “We are witnessing a globalization of the economy? Quite possibly. A globalization of political calculations? Without a doubt. But a globalization of political consciousness—certainly not." While Foucault, who died in 1984, has recently faced allegations of sexual misconduct, and his life and work are subject to scrutiny, the questions and observation he posed about the incomplete project of globalization remain pertinent.
At the very beginning of the process that we call globalization, Foucault was far ahead of his time in recognizing that globalization of the economy, and of the political calculus at the same time, was in motion. Equally, he recognized that these developments had not fostered a globalized political consciousness, and nor were they likely to. We may read Foucault as understanding that a globalized world of trade and financial flows, and the pervasive reach of multinational firms, which perhaps reached its peak in modern times just before the global financial crisis in 2007-08, had not generated a concomitant global political and social response—whether related to education, health and the environment, or inequalities of wealth, income and opportunity.
In simpler terms, a globalized economy has not engendered any correspondingly meaningful system of global governance. This has been increasingly on my mind, as the world copes with a two-speed response to the current covid pandemic. While parts of the rich world are speeding towards normalcy, much of the developing world is yet to begin a vaccination drive of much effect. For example, while the tiny British colony of Gibraltar is fully vaccinated, many poorer countries in Africa, Latin America and Asia have given a first vaccine dose to only 1-2% of their population, with almost no one having got a second dose needed for full vaccination.
Even India, with its indigenous vaccine-manufacturing capability, and a home-grown vaccine as well as a licence to make the Oxford-AstraZeneca jab, both putting it in an advantageous position over most other developing countries, is currently in the grip of a devastating second wave of the illness. While domestic policy failures played a significant role in India’s situation, it cannot be gainsaid that the proposition of vaccinating a billion people, many of them poor, in a reasonable span of time was always going to be a tall order. This is even truer for developing countries that lack India’s advantage as a large producer of vaccines.
The globalization project, which began in earnest in the early 1990s, always conceived of a world of ever freer flows of goods, services, capital, technology and (to some extent) people, envisaging a tide of prosperity lifting all boats, but its weak link was always a creaky system of global governance built on the shaky foundations of institutions created in the dying days of World War II. Thus, there were no mechanisms adequate to address gaping and widening global inequalities in wealth and income, to say nothing of fighting climate change, which necessarily requires a globally coordinated solution, given its spillovers across national borders. Greenhouse gas emissions, after all, contribute to the global stock, no matter which country emits these. Even on a relatively arcane and technical subject such as the coordination of national monetary and exchange-rate policies to mitigate cross-border policy spillovers, often most damaging to developing countries, there has been occasional talk, especially after the crisis of 2007-08, but no real action.
The assumption that the world could muddle through with a globalized economy, but without any serious effort to create institutions of global governance that could manage the social, environmental, and other dislocating consequences, was barely tenable in the wake of the financial crisis. Indeed, one of its fallouts was the rise of economic nationalism, which, in effect, has attempted to unwind globalization, at least partially. Think of everything from former US President Donald Trump’s ‘Buy American’ policy, which his successor Joe Biden has continued without missing a beat, to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Atmanirbhar Bharat policy of self-reliance.
What financial crises and the rise of populist politics could not quite manage to do in the span of several years, the covid pandemic has succeeded in doing in one fell swoop. The outbreak has cast into sharp relief the fractures of incomplete globalization that abetted the rapid propagation of the virus and its variants around the world, and has also given us a world of vaccine haves and have-nots. While Americans and Britons relish the return of restaurant dining, concerts and other such manifestations of normalcy, and this is a likely prospect in the coming months for much of the advanced world, most of the developing world remains vulnerable to the risks of infection, disease and death on a large scale.
The advanced world ignores the possibility of such a divide at its own peril. Unlike our imperfectly globalized world and its faltering institutions, the virus treats every person, and every country, equally.
Vivek Dehejia is a Mint columnist
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