Pandemics, Borders and Crisis in a Globalized World
March 28, 2020
Crises are usually understood as dangers and opportunities occurring simultaneously. The dangers of the current pandemic are obvious in terms of the potential death toll if measures to curb its spread do not work effectively. However, there may also be dangers if politicians move to use the crisis to perpetuate their power and use emergency powers in ways that either stifle innovation or perpetuate counter-productive policies. What is key to how we all respond to the crisis is to focus on the opportunities for useful innovation, both in terms of improved health care and better futures after the immediate disruptions have passed.
In Canada we have already had discussions of bailing out the petroleum sector due to rapid reductions in the price of oil caused by economic disruptions based on measures to curb the spread of the virus. But here, once again, is a clear indication of the insecurities for societies dependent on this volatile commodity. This crisis makes clear the dangers of economic models dependent on a key fuel source that is vulnerable to both physical supply disruptions and price fluctuations that make serious budget planning difficult for so many governments. All this to support an industry that is making the climate crisis ever more severe?!
The opportunity to say “enough of this” and move rapidly towards a post-fossil fuel economy has arisen; we have already declared a climate emergency and government actions are now showing what can be done in an emergency. Let us hope the opportunity to mobilize resources is now used intelligently rather than to prop up an economy that is now badly outdated. Clearly the lesson from the last few weeks is that governments can act in the common good, and force industries to make what is needed, rather than only what they think will make profits; it all depends on sensible policy priorities in a time of crisis.
The other very obvious lesson that we have all learned in the last few weeks is that we live in a globalized world; one where connections between places and peoples are key to economic, as well as social, life. The current crisis highlights the difficulties of trying to control connections by using boundaries to do so – something that I have been studying for the last few years. Keeping supply chains to support the ongoing movement of numerous things is key to feeding urban populations as well as getting medical equipment to where it is needed. The global economy which supplies us all with essential things is just that: global. But so much of our governing arrangements are dependent on territorial jurisdictions and yes, borders.
Closing borders is at best a clumsy response to a pandemic and one that reveals the limits of public health systems more than anything else. The exemplary response by Singapore to the pandemic, where careful contact tracing and testing has at least so far limited the number of cases, suggests a much better policy. But it is one dependent on paying attention to intelligence about the pandemic and acting in a timely fashion. Schools and restaurants can stay open and economic disruptions are minimized. Although even there, where the vast majority of Covid-19 cases are imported, temporary restrictions on travel have been introduced. This issue clearly reflects the failure to contain the virus elsewhere is making even Singapore’s health administrators nervous.
Key to dealing with emergencies is maintaining trust in governing authorities. In this context, dramatic gestures, such as border closures, are a response to demands to “do something” even if that something isn’t effective. Although this lesson from numerous previous crises has not been lost on many politicians, the unintended consequences may be serious if border closures and disruptions stop crucial supplies and social contacts from functioning in order to literally “keep things moving”. Life is about complex connections, not a matter of separate boxes, and this crisis is teaching this lesson to all of us on a daily basis. The one connection we absolutely have to break is the transmission pathway for the virus – so wash your hands, thoroughly, using the surgical scrub routine!
One of the key themes of globalization is how novel technologies and the possibilities of working together in cooperation doing research and innovation as well as sharing teaching resources is changing lives in numerous places, not least in how medical responses to pandemics can now be undertaken quickly. For students of international affairs, this pandemic is also an opportunity to ponder how our particular research foci illuminates the processes of global society, governance, movement, citizenship, economy and energy among numerous other things. It is also an opportunity to focus on our own intellectual networks, most of which stretch across numerous jurisdictions and think about how to share insights and experiences virtually.
Above all else in these times we need to focus on these innovations, and work on how we might help with useful responses to the current crisis. In this context, focusing only on headlines about the numbers of cases, and the disruptions to the economy, is a counsel of despair. As a School that focuses on global issues, innovation and solving humanity’s pressing problems, we surely have much to contribute in coming weeks and months.
*Balsillie School of International Affairs, Waterloo, Canada