On 31 December last year, China alerted WHO to several cases of unusual respiratory ailment in Wuhan, a port city of 11 million people, located at the junction of the Han and Yangtze Rivers, in the central Hubei province. The virus was unknown, and hence, neither its treatment nor any vaccine was available. On 11 January 2020, China announced its first death from the virus, a 61-year-old man who had purchased goods from the now defamed Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, often cited as the source of the original outbreak.
On 13 January, the WHO reported a case in Thailand; a woman who had arrived from Wuhan. Later this novel coronavirus was named COVID-19. COVID-19 soon turned into a phenomenon that surpassed all imagination, even in the make-belief world of movies like the Contagion. New lexicons like self-isolation, social-distancing, lock-down and containment zone have joined quarantine to become household usages. On 11 March, WHO declared the spread of the virus and deaths being reported internationally, as a Pandemic. Since then, over twelve hundred thousand tested positive, and over 70,000 are dead.
The pandemic has led to a global lock-down, totally rattled governments, created paranoia among populations, sunk national economies, and led to projections of a gigantic catastrophe of insurmountable magnitude. The gravity of the catastrophe is that there is no end in sight; it is the trickiest war, as the war was never anticipated! And the fear is that even now we are not exactly in the eye of the storm; there is much more to come!
Where did SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, originate from? Conspiracy theories abound on the origination of the COVID-19, with the most likely being that it emanated from bats or/and pangolins consumed with superstitious fads – health bounties driving consumption. It is also conjectured that the virus was a product of human engineering, a deliberate miscalculation or accident involving the biological warfare agent. Wuhan Center for Disease Control and Prevention that researches coronaviruses is located just 280 meters from the Huanan Seafood (wet) Market. It is mandatory to understand the origination of such virus, the answers to which should lie in Wuhan, China. However, let that be the subject of investigation undertaken separately.
The quintessential question remains that will it be status quo ante in the world hereinafter, after the vaccine and the treatment is developed, and the murderous nature of the virus is put to rest? Will the world see a global geopolitical reset that thwarts the forces of globalisation and economic interdependence? Where will India be as and when this eventology subsides?
Will there be a Global Reset
There can be no soothsayers predicting what the world will look post-COVID-19. As nations progress thick into combating the scourge, examining and planning for the future is imperative. The all-important issues are the geopolitics among nations and essentially the contestation between the US and China. It all commences with retention of the US global leadership or dissipation of power, since as the trends depict, the US will be maximally affected by this public health emergency.
There is also the question of China becoming the overall gainer, getting well on its way towards the one hundred year marathon up to 2049! There are calls for ’punishing’ China and holding it responsible for this calamity. The Chinese propaganda machinery seems bent upon creating a narrative designed to distance itself from questions pertaining to the origins of the virus.
China has commenced assistance to a large number of nations to fight COVID-19. In pursuance of its global intentions and employing its soft power, China has obtained praise for sending “planeloads” of ventilators to assist Italy when the European Union was blocking medical supplies and ignoring pleas from that country. When no European state answered Italy’s urgent appeals for medical equipment and protective gear, China was the only country to publicly commit to sending 1,000 ventilators, two million masks, 1,00,000 respirators, 20,000 protective suits, and 50,000 test kits.
China has also dispatched medical teams and 2,50,000 masks to Iran and sent supplies to Serbia, whose President dismissed European solidarity as “a fairy tale” and proclaimed that “the only country that can help us is China.” Alibaba co-founder Jack Ma has promised to send large quantities of testing kits and masks to the United States, as well as 20,000 test kits and 100,000 masks to each of Africa’s 54 countries.
These actions cannot be called purely altruistic and will have strategic interests. However, China may have, only short-term gains, as the nations of the world will remain vexed by the anguish they have faced. The futuristic chemistry between US and China, and China and other nations will be an important pointer to what is geopolitically in store for the comity of nations. The long-term end-state seems ripe for even a full-fledged US-China cold war!
This crisis may reshuffle the international power structure in ways that may be difficult to imagine. Key decisions – right or wrong, timely or delayed – are being arrived at by respective national governments, as the anguish is felt within the national boundaries. Nearly all nations – developing or developed, are largely combating it independently. The afflicted nations facing the grave havoc, have declared national emergencies, displayed greater nationalism and become insular to conditions in other states, as an apparent result. Indeed, these trends of extreme nationalism may persist for some time. However, multilateralism and regionalism may come more on the centre-stage, an example being SAARC given a new lease of life.
The virus has posed serious challenges to global peace and stability. The architecture of global governance and global financial institutions will face enormous pressures. As the most powerful and developed nations that comprise the P5 or the G7, have been at the receiving end of a major virus onslaught, they may not be able to force their will on other nations.
WHO is under strain, being a 20th century vestige, as is the UNO. The inability of the UNSC to give a joint statement is a case in point. It may take considerable time and effort to evolve newer architectures acceptable to all. G20, in its efforts to eventually revitalise the economic recovery, may overshadow the UNSC or even the Bretton Woods institutions. Global governance systems were already under pressure, the Covid19 may provide the right impetus for much needed reforms, with the dissipation of power among larger number of nations, and the onslaught of nationalism.
The world pre-COVID-19 had fundamentally conflictive nature of politics and inter-state relations. West Asia, South China Sea, the Middle East, Africa nations, Afghanistan, to name a few, had remained hot-spots, fuelled by internal and external geopolitics, and fanned by suppliers of military wherewithal.
COVID-19 has indicated that a global challenge, unseen and unimagined previously, does not distinguish between nations, religions, caste or creed. It may dawn on the wisdom of many a nation on the futility of conflictual politics that abound, and may direct energies towards solutions to long drawn geopolitical animosities.
There is the issue of economic recovery. Globalisation was already under test, and slowbalisation was being predicted as inevitable. Despite globalisation already under strain, the logic prevailing pre-virus was still that we are also witnessing the decline of the nation-state. The processes of globalisation had eroded the traditional power that a state had over its boundaries. The proliferation of this virus that emanated from Wuhan has proven that the world was strongly interconnected and interdependent.
On the other hand, borders have received newer sanctity by closure and self-isolation (worldwide, and most evident in the European Union), and territorial integrity and support to own population and diaspora have a new meaning. The evident fact is that there has been mass unemployment caused by lockdowns and closure of businesses. The latest figures for new-unemployed in the US are over seven million. Whenever the pandemic eases, the national governments will be forced to take measures to re-energise economies in a manner that brings in a strong push to the generation of employment, internally.
As per the IMF, the world is moving into the recession that will be much worse than the one in 2008-09, it may take years for most nations to recoup to previous levels. Multi-national corporations that relied on outsourcing business and manufacturing in low wage and ease-of-doing-business nations, will be coerced by parent nations to support national efforts in ensuring employment first. The global value chains like Amazon will take time to recoup to previous levels. The impact on the global economy is most evident.
The coronavirus pandemic will therefore not only have long-lasting economic effects but will also be the beginning of a fundamental change in the world, with many countries facing difficulty in recovering. Much reduced people-to-people contact and economic isolation are assured aftermath over an extended indeterminable period. Economic stabilisation and economic stimuli will have to go parallelly. At this juncture, it may be only crystal-gazing, but an economic tailspin, or even stand-still for a longish time, will affect globalisation greatly.
The pandemic hence will strengthen the state, and reinforce nationalism. Governments of all types adopting emergency measures to manage the crisis will be reluctant to relinquish these controls when the crisis is over, and the nation seems to be on an even keel. Maybe, COVID-19 will become an opportunity to rethink the method of rebuilding and reshaping the economies, one that will be fundamentally different than the one in vogue. As national economies look inwards, seek selective self-sufficiencies, and if nationalism takes stronger roots, nations like China-based upon manufacturing and export-oriented trade, will feel the immense strain.
Effect on India
Post-COVID-19, India will have to commence counting the costs, in all its manifestations. Like many other nations, India too may be turning inward, in a search for strategic autonomy. Apparent changes will also reshape how we see the world and our region, geopolitically, geo-economically and geo-strategically. India having exhibited strong national leadership, and regional and international initiatives may be called upon to lead global cooperation. COVID-19 will then become an opportunity for India to provide direction to an enormously damaged global environment.
India will have to plan amelioration of the significant weaknesses that the COVID-19 phenomenon has highlighted internally, like the vulnerability and inadequacies of public health systems, health infrastructure and the health-worker to population ratios. There have also been evident lacunae in social delivery systems – like the public distribution system and limitations of the reach of direct benefit transfers. The extent of and dislocation of the migrant population in India has enlivened stark national realities.
The state police have a crying need to improve ratios with population, training, modernisation and a significant policing cultural change. The pandemic has immensely affected the productive capacity of the Indian economy. Businesses will have to deliberately attempt reconnecting with their labour force. Indeed, India will also face a significant drop in growth rate, one that may take years to move out off.
As the lock-down continues and remains open-ended, India will witness eventual societal and behavioural changes brought about by a novel environment, like the long drawn out work from home, the need to remain operational with a virtually connected disbursed workforce, the ease of living on a shoe-string subsistence and the re-emphasised necessity of significant savings for rainy days. This will be a remaking of society that may become a new normal.
The dislocation in India has affected a larger share of economically vulnerable workers. The national priorities will change significantly to be prepared better for the next disaster. As has been repeatedly stated, Indian expenditure on public health care is abysmally low. The nation will need fiscal resources and cost-cutting, wherever feasible to divert national resources to the most necessary areas. It can be appreciated that the defence budget, which has already been under strain, will be further stressed to provide for the national effort in other sectors. Socio-economic priorities will far out-weigh the defence needs, as the amelioration of conflicting scenarios, in favour of human security, will be the preferred focus.
Prudently, it becomes an optimal necessity for the defence managers to re-examine future wars and warfare in the light of newer geostrategic realities, and plan a modern joint force, and reappraise the defence budget. The alternative being, depleted budgetary support coming down on the defence forces as a fait accompli!
As a geopolitical competition, animosities and conflictive nature of nations, as also globalisation, has been intrinsic to mankind through its history, it is possible that COVID-19 could become only a blip in history, and that the past geopolitical realties will resurface – a kind of status quo ante. However, the nations of the world are accosted with unprecedented and unimaginable pain and anguish. COVID-19, hence, will become the moment of truth, and the catalyst for fundamental change globally!
Lt Gen Rakesh Sharma (Retd)