It’s possible the coronavirus will be quickly contained and we will all move on. But if it persists, this epidemic could accelerate a major political shift.
Almost everywhere, the populist right is trying to blame the contagion on open borders and migrants. In reality, the disease has been spread internationally by travelers and tourists — impoverished asylum seekers don’t usually board cruise ships. But that hasn’t stopped politicians from trying to exploit the crisis. Italian firebrand Matteo Salvini railed against the government for continuing to allow in migrants from Africa, though there are few cases of coronavirus on that continent. Far-right parties in France, Germany and Spain have all called for tighter border controls.
In the United States, the attacks have been directed mostly against China. A Fox News host explained that the world was suffering from this epidemic because the Chinese Communist Party cannot feed its people, who have resorted, he claimed, to “eating raw bats and snakes.” Really. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), one of President Trump’s staunchest allies in the Senate, suggested the virus might have originated in a high-security biochemical lab in China. In the 1980s, the far left trafficked in rumors about HIV having been invented in CIA labs. The far right has now found its own virus conspiracy theory.
Trump, for his part, fuels fears by constantly talking about how the disease came from China and how he heroically saved American lives because he “closed the borders to China” in late January. Thank goodness he doesn’t seem to know that the H1N1 virus was first detected in Mexico. If he did, he might close the border with Mexico, just to be safe.
In fact, the focus should not be on massive border closures but rather comprehensive public health systems that can safely and speedily test people, isolate and provide care to those infected and issue clear guidelines for the rest of us. Things have now ramped up in the United States, but the process has been far too slow, in part because Trump eliminated the White House’s pandemic chain of command in 2018. It would have been even worse if Trump’s proposed budget cuts for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other relevant agencies had gone through.
Coronavirus is also wreaking havoc with trade. We are already in a phase of de-globalization, as shown by the slowdown in world trade. A Bank of America study found that, of the companies it studied in North America, 83 percent of sectors were planning to shift their supply chains, many of them out of China. The reasons given were usually tariffs and national security, but now fears of pandemics will probably add to these negative incentives.
Some of these shifts are a natural rebalancing after decades of accelerating globalization. But will they be more than that? It will all depend on politics and politicians. If people’s fears can be exaggerated and manipulated, it is possible to imagine the world heading further down a path of tariffs, walls and barriers. The economic historian Angus Maddison found that after the last great era of globalization broke down, with the onset of World War I, trade and immigration flows were depressed for three decades. It was only in the late 1940s that these trends were reversed.
In many ways we do still live in a world of pervasive globalization, especially in the digital economy. According to a Bloomberg report, trade in services rose by about 50 percent between 2010 and 2018. Royalties and licensing fees, an indication of the spread of information, technology and entertainment worldwide, rose around 60 percent. While migration flows have actually remained stable over the past decade, travel has continued to expand dramatically, year after year. We humans want to have contact with the rest of the planet.
The solution to problems in a global age can only be global — better information, communication and coordination across the world. No one country can stop a pandemic by itself; international collaboration is crucial. Sadly, it is far easier to peddle fear and hate, and explain that it all happened because the Chinese eat raw bats.