Will the COVID-19 pandemic affect globalisation?

18th May 2020

As has been discussed in previous articles released by Wilson James, the COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound impact on the UK economy but to what extent will this pandemic alter the fabric of the international community? Is it possible that we will see a paradigm shift in a post-COVID-19 world, moving away from the values of neoliberalism and globalisation, and further towards elements of nativism and nationalism?

In recent years the values espoused by neoliberalism have been coming increasingly under scrutiny. To many, the very successes of globalisation that have allowed for the ‘free flow of information, ideas, money, jobs and people’ have become the very factors that created both the current health and economic crisis.1  Prior to the pandemic, a retreat from neoliberalism was already on display with  Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union, the election of a perceived isolationist Donald Trump to US President and the ensuing China-US trade war, as well as the general rise of populism in Europe all being signs of this.2  However, the economic shock of the 2019 coronavirus pandemic may very likely speed up this move away from globalisation and closer to local production, in part the global disruption is due to the integral role China has come to play in the world economy, having increased its global output from 4% during the SARS epidemic to 16% present-day3  with EU Trade Chief Phil Hogan summing up the mood by stating that Europe had become too reliant on ‘one country, one continent’ (a topic which is talked about further by the RAS here).4

Inevitably this economic shock will readdress governments’ priorities from outward-looking international governance, to inward domestic concerns, resulting in the weakening of international institutions and the decline in regional cooperation.5  One such example of this step away from global governance is President Donald Trump’s decision to pull funding from the World Health Organisation, claiming that the United Nations body had been promoting China’s ‘disinformation’ about the virus.6  US funding of the WHO accounted for approximately 15% of the organisations funding and will not only affect the efficacy of any global response to this pandemic but will also have negative consequences to other vaccination and health programmes operated by the organisation.7 8  A bastion of neo-liberal values, some members of the EU have also been guilty of shunning solidarity with Germany, Netherlands, Austria and Finland being dubbed ‘the frugal four’ after rejecting the implementation of ‘coronabonds’. These bonds would spread the accrued debt as a result of fighting this pandemic between all member states as opposed to only one and help those worst hit by the pandemic such as Italy and Spain.9 The disagreement has threatened the message of solidarity portrayed by the EU with the Italian Prime Minister, Giuseppe Conte, in late April threatening to block a statement from the EU leaders on the response to the COVID-19 pandemic until they had ‘a panoply of adequate instruments for the challenge that we are facing’.10

Some governments have also taken this crisis as an opportunity to become more authoritarian, as hypothesised by Harvard professor of International Relations, Stephen Walt, who predicted a ‘retreat from hyper-globalisation’ and stated that the pandemic would strengthen the state and ‘reinforce nationalism’, allowing governments to adopt emergency powers.11 This use of the crisis to facilitate a move further towards authoritarianism has been seen in Hungary by the nationalist Orbán government who seems to have used the pandemic to suspend elections and rule by decrees, imposing five-year sentences for those who obstruct the state’s crisis response’.12 Similarly, in Turkey, reports have emerged of President Erdogan jailing journalists who report on him unfavourably and claim that his response to the crisis has not been enough.13 This pandemic has also been used by those of the far-right to promote their nativist ideology and to reinforce existing prejudices. This has been seen in particular in Italy where former Deputy Prime Minister, Matteo Salvini, attempted to link COVID-19 to African asylum seekers to protest the docking of the NGO Viking rescue ship, containing 276 African migrants, in Sicily.14 Salvini criticised the Italian government, calling them irresponsible for ‘allowing the migrants to land from Africa, where the presence of the virus was confirmed’.15  At the time of the statement, Africa had only one confirmed case of the virus, in Egypt.

It would appear that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought about the continued retreat from hyper-globalisation and with this positives may emerge, such as the increased process of onshoring, which will help stimulate domestic economies in the aftermath of the crisis. However, this must not come at the cost of economic and political freedoms and international co-operation. The global community is intrinsically connected and whilst some may pull back from their international and regional obligations it is still important for global governance to prevail to act as a watchdog against isolationism and creeping authoritarianism.