The coexistence of both extreme nationalism and extensive globalisation within a given country would appear at first glance incongruous, counterproductive, and improbable, indeed. In recent years we have witnessed the discordance between these two trends perhaps more clearly than ever before, with Trump’s “America First” model, the victory of the United Kingdom’s Brexiteers, and populist leaders from Hungary to Iran to Turkey consistently compromising global relations for the so-called benefit of the nation. This ideological war between globalisation and nationalism has increasingly divided populations into distinct belief systems, each of which has become increasingly wary of one another.
Those who buy into the common populist plea to withdraw from systems of global governance, international agreements, and external trade partnerships in pursuit of the “national benefit” resent those who champion the merits of the European Union, the Paris Agreement, and low-tariff international trade. The Greens oppose hyper-globalisation and the unchecked capitalism that it can lead to, the moderates oppose each extreme of the political spectrum which surrounds them, whom they believe fail to find a balance between globalisation and nationalism. In short, the increasingly volatile quagmire that is 21st-century politics is only becoming more vast, complicated, and polarised as 2020 progresses.
The COVID-19 pandemic is about to entirely alter the dynamics of this ideological war.
I do not suggest that political factionalism will cease to exist during or after the coronavirus has sent shockwaves through our world. Political agendas will continue to clash and populists will continue to espouse their predictable messages once the world returns to normal. In short, the triviality of partisan politics will not be rid of by a deadly, crown-shaped microbe. However, if and when the tiresome pettiness of factional politics resumes itself in however many months or years, the difference then is that no one will be listening. After all, who cares about a 5 cent increase in the price of a carton of milk when your very own livelihood has just been thrown into an abyss of doubt?
While politicians stand up in grandiose parliamentary halls to criticise a minor hiccup on the opposition’s part, the world will simply be focused on recovering after fighting off the biggest existential threat it has faced in the entire 21st century, and most importantly, trying to ensure that nothing ever threatens their livelihood in the same manner again.
Not only has this crisis shown us that we cannot return to the same inefficient, petty and business-as-usual politics as before, but it has also starkly exposed the shallowness of populists and their rhetoric of mass appeal as being ignorant to the facts, incompetent leaders and ultimately, incapable of ensuring our survival. Now the onus is on us to take this exposé of populist, hyper-nationalistic leaders, as well as the realisation that politics must become more inter-connected, efficient and people-centred, and use these discoveries to better our system going forward and ensure we do not regress back to where we were before this crisis began. However, in order to achieve this political ideal, great amounts of restructuring must take place on both a national and global scale.
Some of the most significant changes which must be made in the wake of the current pandemic, in both the short and long-term include:
1. Valuing evidence, truth and our experts more.
As Donald Trump espouses his scientifically baseless cures (which have merely led to a higher number of hospital admissions than before as well as a shortage of hydroxychloroquine for those who actually need it), we must realise that now, during the gravest public health crisis of our era, it is more imperative than ever to listen to and heed the advice of our experts. It is irrefutably clear that countries who have followed the guidelines set out by the World Health Organization, as well as by their own top medical advisers, in a quick and effective fashion, have been the most successful in fighting the pandemic in their countries. Now, as society begins to reopen, keeping a close eye on the number of infections and heeding the advice experts grant us will be key to achieving a global, unified effort to prevent a second wave of the virus.
2. A greater unity across social and political classes must be fostered.
This crisis ought to stimulate a deeper and wider recognition of essential workers who, having almost single-handedly held society together during a time of crisis, have shown that they are anything but ‘unskilled workers’ and they are in fact system-relevant, and of high social importance. The crisis has also shown us that regardless of our wealth, ethnicity, or political views, we are all affected when a crisis such as the Covid-19 pandemic arises (although poorer people and those of minority ethnicities are often affected disproportionately), and therefore, we should not let such social and political differences dominate society so much going forward- it is in humanity’s best interest. If we are to rebuild society from the ashes of an economic and health crisis of unparalleled gravity, we are going to have to value (and pay) essential workers more and put political and social differences aside.
3. Our complacency towards future threats has to be shaken.
Complacency towards our dire relationship with the natural world around us, and the harm it is causing both the environment and ourselves, is what got us into this situation in the first place. This crisis has shown us that we are not above nature, and there are consequences when we exploit it. This is not the first occasion in which nature has protested against our negligence, the Ebola outbreak of 2013 prompted widespread panic, travel restrictions and global disruption (albeit on a lesser scale than today’s pandemic) and, at first, we seemed to learn from such a lesson. Government committees of experts on disease-prevention were either established, or existing groups were given significantly more funding in the wake of the outbreak. However, in the US for example, just 3 years after the pandemic response team had been established in reaction to the Ebola crisis, the committee was disbanded in 2018, under ‘streamlining’ measures by the Trump administration. The US was far from being the only country who became complacent towards the threat of a future pandemic, and this is evident from the large number of countries struggling to present a coherent and effective response to the current pandemic. We cannot be complacent this time round. After the Covid-19 pandemic has ended, we must continue to fund the scientific research, and government committees necessary to ensuring against health crises (and climate crises, for that matter) in the future. These crises will arise again, and we need to be prepared once they do.
4. We must improve our national healthcare systems.
Certain wealthy countries have proven, during this crisis, that they do have health systems adequately equipped to ensure the health of their citizens, but they are unfortunately the vast minority. The scenario which has occurred in so many poorly medically-equipped countries, perhaps most notably in Italy and Spain, where doctors have essentially been given no choice but to decide who to take off a ventilator, and ultimately let die, so that someone with a better chance of survival can use that same ventilator, is absolutely appalling. More money must be invested in improving our healthcare systems so that such a burden on our hospitals, and life-and-death decisions as grotesque as the ones made during this crisis never have to be made again. We have shown that we are more than capable of investing in healthcare quickly and effectively during the crisis- in the United Kingdom, the ExCel centre was transformed into a hospital to treat Covid-19 patients within just nine days. Let’s take such efficiency in healthcare into the future.
5. Governments must not revert back to their previous states of lethargy.
Many countries across the globe, whose political systems were about as efficient and fast-moving as a three-toed sloth before the Covid-19 pandemic hit, have seen proof during this crisis that their political systems can, in fact, work. In a country like Ireland, whose government has spent over a decade trying to build a children’s hospital (even with €2bn of taxpayer’s money at their disposal), and could not even seem to purchase a printer of suitable dimensions to fit through the door of the government buildings, it seems as though as brand new, decisive, and effective government has been revived from the ashes. This crisis has shown us that, when our livelihoods are at risk, the government and systems of global governance are perfectly capable of making decisions of national and international importance quickly and efficiently. During and coming out of this crisis, people will continue to turn to their states to resolve the financial crisis, and ensure their future livelihoods and well-being going forward. Governments must not revert back to their usual state of lethargy, and instead use the momentum they have gained during this crisis to continue the efficient, people-centred politics which has prevailed in many countries during the crisis.
6. We should enhance our recognition of the value of systems of global governance (while still maintaining some scepticism towards them).
Our major systems of global governance, such as the WHO, the IMF and the UN, are far from being perfect. They are inherently shaped by the agendas of their most prominent member states (usually those who provide the most funding) and therefore, a certain level of scepticism towards them is natural, if not necessary. However, it is indubitable that global issues require global responses, and our global governance systems are about the only tool we have available that have the capacity to pertinent and far-reaching incentives to countries for cooperation against global threats, and punishment if countries put global security in jeopardy. During this crisis, we have witnessed first hand that countries who have ignored the advice of the experts at the WHO, such as Russia, the UK and the US, have suffered from significantly higher infection and death rates than those who have followed their guidelines (although many will say this is a mere coincidence). The era in which we live of mass appeal of populism has allowed many people to blame this entire crisis on globalisation itself- evident in Trump’s decision to cut US funding to the WHO as a protest against China, or in the prevalence of the argument that globalisation, namely mass international aviation, is what got us here in the first place. Such arguments and acts of antagonism are unproductive- the culpability for the crisis cannot merely be attributed to the WHO, nor to globalisation, nor merely to China, but to a whole host of other factors too, most notably environmental exploitation. Now is not the time to quibble over globalisation’s potential pitfalls; there is simply too much at stake. Instead, we must acknowledge the benefit, and indeed necessity, of global governance in combating global crises.
7. We must change the way that pharmaceutical research and production is done.
We must work to change the practices of pharmaceutical companies, and incentivise them to produce the drugs that are most needed in the immediate future, not those which are most profitable for them. Pharmaceutical companies are currently racing towards producing antiviral drugs, and vaccines against Covid-19, and such urgency is promising, and indeed necessary, in order to put a complete end to the current public health crisis. However, when a vaccine becomes available we must ensure two things: 1) that it is affordable and therefore widespread and 2) that more pharmaceutical research is carried out on the biggest public health crisis waiting to happen- antimicrobial resistance. So far, the danger of antimicrobial, especially antibacterial, resistance has largely been downplayed due to it being a more distant threat, and therefore not as profitable for pharma companies. A recent study by the Antimicrobial Resistance Review showed that by 2050, there could be around 10 million people each year dying from AMR, accumulating $100trn global economic cost from 2015 to 2050. The report stated that in order to avoid such an outcome, $42bn would need to be invested globally, which should come from pharma companies themselves as well as the G20 countries, ultimately providing an investment return of around 2,000%. If pharmaceutical companies are to realise a more humane approach to producing drugs and save millions of lives over the coming decades, they must make essential drugs affordable, and they must advance antimicrobial research. It is in everyone’s best interests.
The current crisis, although tragic in its human and economic cost, has offered us a fresh and exciting opportunity to change the way that politics is done, to deafen our ears to the sounds of political rhetoric and instead, to realise that both national unity and cross-border cooperation need to work in tandem in order to make effective change. The necessity to employ both a national and global spirit in order to combat the virus will, I hope, help to foster a dynamic of symbiotic interplay between nationalism and globalisation within and between our countries, which, in the long term, will allow us to combat other threats to our existence such as climate change more effectively, encourage a more humane, people-centred approach to politics, and lessen the divisions both in politics and wider society. It is now in our hands to ensure that we do not return to the ‘business as usual’ politics that got us here in the first place, and to take the devastation of this crisis and convert it into something positive.
A version of this post was originally published on FourteenDaysProject.com.
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