Covid-19 has exposed gaps, dealt a death blow to the world order | Opinion

Updated on Apr 18, 2020 02:44 PM IST
Covid-19: So far, neither China nor the United States really believed in pluralism. The Covid-19 pandemic might change their outlook. Pluralism then will have greater acceptability. That might augur well for the world.
A woman wearing a mask against the coronavirus looks at a globe showing China in Wuhan in central China's Hubei province.(AP)
A woman wearing a mask against the coronavirus looks at a globe showing China in Wuhan in central China's Hubei province.(AP)
ByJayant Prasad

Due to the unprecedented nature of the cataclysmic outbreak of Covid-19, global equations will change, even if it might be too early to assess its impact on regional and world affairs. The outbreak of the pandemic is anthropomorphic.

The author’s own guess is that several Level-IV safety bio-labs in the world, the Wuhan lab included, have been doing prophylactic, defensive research against the coronavirus. Such activity is permitted under the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention. Whether a leak happened in Wuhan – and was deliberate or accidental – might not easily be known. The Convention’s implementation will need a thoroughgoing review. The World Health Organisation might redeem its reputation if it enquired into the origins of this pandemic, which it was late to call.

The United States, badly affected by the pandemic, has completely abandoned its traditional leadership role. Covid-19 has exposed its limitations. Its reputation lies in tatters. Though China gained from this, it has not done enough for the global community to repose faith in it to provide leadership in place of the United States. To suggest that China or Xi Jinping has ‘won’ the coronavirus crisis might be premature.

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The reluctance to come to the aid of others, among segments of their peoples as much as among nations, will scar memories and prevent future fraternity. Within the EU especially, a sense of solidarity was absent when the crisis broke. The initial response of its member states towards one another was insular, individualistic, and insufficient. Friendships among them have frayed. This will tell on the EU’s future.

Even before Covid-19 struck, wealth, growth, and trade were shifting from West to East, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from industrialised to emerging economies. This trend will be accelerated. The fall-out of the pandemic is not just medical and economic. It will have strategic consequences.

The pandemic’s impact will not, however, buttress any one ideology. Some countries and regions have dealt better with the crisis. They will be the winners. State institutions, many of which have been devalued over the years, have under-performed in many cases. These will have to be strengthened. The eroding nation-state will make a come-back.

World-wide, there would be a greater acknowledgement of the need to have stronger and more purposive governance. Has the pandemic engendered social capital? To the contrary, it has accentuated social cleavages. The poor and marginalised have been excessively penalised. The pandemic has exposed growing inequalities of wealth and entitlements across and within nations and regions.

The existing models of international cooperation just have not worked. There has been no shared response. Neither is trans-national solidarity visible. The weaknesses of the EU’s supra-national model having been exposed, old-fashioned inter-governmental cooperative models might come into their own. If the older ones, devised in the post-World War II period, do not meet up to the new requirements, new international institutions will come up and some of the existing ones may be re-energised. It took the Security Council, which last year held an informal interactive dialogue on the outbreak of Ebola in the Democratic Republic of Congo, until April 9 to hold an informal, closed door, and unproductive meeting on Covid-19.

The error of the early nation-centric responses has been acknowledged, and there is greater recognition that nations have to combat the pandemic together rather than separately. A new ethic of multilateralism needs to evolve to meet the demands of the situation. But its building blocks are just not visible. The old order has been dealt a death blow. A new order has not emerged to replace it. The world will not be the same again, for sure. What will change, however, remains highly uncertain. The flux in the world will increase.

The world might be saddled with a moribund system for some time more, perhaps until a new crisis comes along. It will be imperative for the United States to cooperate with like-minded countries to meet future global challenges. The days when it could bear the disproportionately greater burden are over.

So far, neither China nor the United States really believed in pluralism. The Covid-19 pandemic might change their outlook. Pluralism then will have greater acceptability. That might augur well for the world. The world needs regional public goods as much as global public goods. Polycentrism will help in this.

Within nations, across regions, and globally, the pandemic has exposed unevenness, marking out the more institutionally capable from those who have under-performed. It has also underlined that the importance of non-military aspects of security cannot be underestimated. Public health spending will have to increase.

For India there are important lessons to be drawn. For India to become a great power, fulfilling the following universal, basic needs will be a prerequisite: security of the nation and safety of its citizens; ending poverty; social cohesion.; transparent and effective governance; clean air and potable water; public sanitisation and universal health coverage; quality education; livelihood opportunities and financial inclusion; decent habitat; inclusion and cultural diversity; universal access to commercially available energy; and the adoption of environment friendly processes. The reach of India’s voice in the world will be directly proportional to the success of its internal accomplishments.

(Jayant Prasad is former Director General of Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. He was Indian envoy to Nepal and Afghanistan.)

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