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Home / Opinion / Columns /  Opinion | The globalization of crashes, panics and pandemics

Globalization, once considered inevitable, is facing a serious threat of retrenchment. In country after country, the disadvantages of globalization are seen outweighing advantages. Many governments across the world are openly retreating from what proponents claim have raised income levels but opponents assert have exacerbated inequality. The challengers may have been handed another convenient handle: Covid-19, a coronavirus strain, is fast expanding its footprint across the globe and wreaking havoc on jobs and lives.

At last count, the infection had spread to all continents except Antarctica: Starting from China, the virus has spread to Australia, Iran, Iraq, Algeria, Egypt, Italy, the US, Brazil, South Korea… and it’s still spreading.

How does this tie up with globalization? The process of globalization is aided by three primary channels: Trade, financial flows and sentiment or confidence (which gets transmitted through media and communication). When the North American financial crisis detonated in 2008, the tremors radiated globally through these three vectors, freezing economic activity in most countries.

Disease and infection, which move across borders with the same ease as tradables or money, represent globalization’s ugly face. But this needs a slightly more nuanced view. Trans-border movements of pathogens are not new. Stories, and even nursery rhymes, illustrate how outbreaks of bubonic plague and cholera wiped out human settlements in medieval times. Records also exist of Spanish conquistadors introducing new diseases like smallpox, measles, cholera and influenza, among others, to South America and wiping out whole settlements.

Interestingly, about a century ago, in 1918, when World War I was winding down in Europe, an influenza pandemic killed millions across the world, including in remote Alaska. It was branded the Spanish Flu, but some experts felt—inconclusively though—that the virus had migrated from China. There have been numerous pandemics since that have moved across man-made borders with relative ease: HIV/AIDS, SARS, Ebola, H1N1, Zika and Nipah. Globalization has turned full circle, with Covid-19 once again emerging from China.

After the 2014-16 Ebola outbreak, the World Bank Group and World Health Organization created an advocacy body called the Global Preparedness Monitoring Board (GPMB) to push for political action that could pre-empt and mitigate global health emergencies. The GPMB’s first report, released in September 2019, said somewhat prophetically that the world is not prepared for a fast-moving, virulent respiratory pathogen pandemic: “The 1918 global influenza pandemic sickened one-third of the world population and killed as many as 50 million people—2.8% of the total population. If a similar contagion occurred today with a population four times larger and travel times anywhere in the world lessthan 36 hours, 50-80 million people could perish. In addition to tragic levels of mortality, such a pandemic could cause panic, destabilize national security and seriously impact the global economy and trade."

Panic is already visible. Singapore Airlines, for example, has conveyed to its regular flyers that it would remove all literature, including newspapers and magazines, from its aircraft to minimize transmission.

The GPMB report further says the first impact of any pandemic will be on global trade and tourism, both of which are major economic drivers. Global goods and services trade (including tourism) is estimated at around $22 trillion, accounting for 18% of the global economy. But here’s the thing: A large chunk of goods trade (anywhere upwards of 40%) emanates from developing economies. In the case of any fast-spreading outbreak, such as Covid-19, the erosion of national wealth is expected to be minimal in the rich world and devastating for the developing world. And, in any infection outbreak, the poor suffer the most. “Any country without basic primary healthcare, public health services, health infrastructure and effective infection control mechanisms faces the greatest losses, including death, displacement and economic devastation," says the report.

So, the question returns to what GPMB keeps asking: Is the political leadership ready? It might also be pertinent to ask whether it is fair to criticize globalization for a pandemic-induced loss, or should the focus be on weak internal systems of developing economies, which are unable to slow down the transmission of pathogens.

The challenges of globalization lie in the empirically proven fact that gains from opening up are not equally distributed, with consequences detrimental to human health. As studies continue to grapple with the links—economic, environmental, technological and demographic—between globalization and infectious diseases, it is debatable whether national, or even multilateral, governance systems are adequate for monitoring, preventing and treating pandemics.

In their book on the Bombay plague, authors Ishrat Syed and Kalpana Swaminathan (under the pseudonym Kalpish Ratna), write about a walled-off space in Mumbai’s Haffkine Institute, where Waldemar Mordecai Haffkine in 1897 created the first successful vaccine against the bubonic plague, tested it on himself, and saved millions of lives across the world. This historic room should perhaps become a memorial to the global war on pandemics.

Rajrishi Singhal is consulting editor of Mint. His Twitter handle is @rajrishisinghal

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