03/07/2020

New compasses for uncharted waters

 

The COVID-19 pandemic will be remembered in history as one of the most sudden and shocking global disruptions at the same time. Nothing had before impacted on such a vast part of the modern world with such speed and such devastating and widespread economic and social consequences.

All agendas share an identical priority: COVID-19. But, beyond the emergency, the great global problems are still pending: trade, indebtedness, climate change, migrations, the administration of technologies such as 5G, ongoing wars, and many institutional conflicts, such as those taking place in our region.

The pandemic spread in a world of such defined characteristics that made its advance possible. Every virus needs a carrier. The COVID-19 arrived on a populated and urbanized planet like never before in its history. More than half the population lives in cities, where contagion is more likely.

The virus also spreads better with the existing massive circulation. The current world population is moving in large contingents and rapidly. In 2018, tourism reached its record (1,400 million travelers). They were the greatest messengers of the virus.

This pandemic especially affects older adults, in an aging world: in 2019, there were more people in the world over 65 years old than under 5, for the first time in history.

The COVID-19 also broke into societies, economies and governments indebted and weakened by the recession inherited from the 2008 crisis, aggravated by a trade war. The current immense slowdown overshadowed the economic depression of the 1930s.

Protectionist, isolationist and nationalist tendencies did not help either. The weakness of the multilateral system was furthermore accentuated when each State began to respond to the emergency with its own formulas, this including closing borders.

And the planet: the virus found it on very low defenses, exhausted and stressed by the exploitation of its resources, without brakes on the accelerated process of global warming that favors diseases and pandemics.

 

Answers

There were different national health, communication and economic strategies. Some had acceptably good results, others debatable, and others tragic ones. We can discuss those strategies, but none have proven infallible.

Two central aspects that determined these national responses. The first is the most conditioning feature of our time: inequality. The more affluent countries asserted the weight of their economies to face the virus: in health, with health resources; in the economy, with financial resources; in technology, with effective prevention resources.

Regardless of the strategy, whether they were general quarantines or "herd immunity", nations withholding the greatest economic power were able to decide over which of them to choose and apply them in practice. And those who could have begun the race for the vaccine.

Countries with fewer resources, on the other hand, will pay high costs, economic or social, in money or in victims, according to the priorities established by their leaders and the almost damning structural disadvantages for their societies. By saying this we can think of Africa, but also of Latin America.

Our region was a clear example of how its poor “pre-existing” socio-economic and sanitary conditions cut its possibilities to face the pandemic and will strongly condition its general recovery.

This inequality between nations was also verified within borders: between social sectors capable of securing the space and the sanitary and economic conditions to face the crisis and those limited or postponed, to which only the State can reach and help in these circumstances. And this has resulted in infected and dead people, both in great powers or in developing countries.

Such inequality will accentuate and fuel further conflicts at the global and local levels in the future post-COVID-19 if public policies aimed to reduce the gap are not generalized. This reflects a trend of the current capitalism, which in the long term makes any international and political system unsustainable, with or without pandemics.

The other aspect to contemplate is that of the international cooperation: the indisputable truth that, in the end, no one can save themselves without others, as Francisco told us.

The pandemic coincided with a very scarce moment of the multilateralism that was born in the postwar period, which in time gave rise to the UN and established certain rules of the game. What is known as the "liberal order". Today, this long-standing order has been displaced by a “multipolar disorder”, with trade wars, the breakdown of disarmament agreements and, in the face of the pandemic, attacks on the multilateral organizations themselves.

That global disorder, where from a G7 or a G20 we are heading towards a G0, had already miscalibrated our compasses after the 2008 financial crisis. Now, we do not know what lies ahead: we sail with ancient compasses in a sea of uncharted waters.

A great debate has opened on globalization and de-globalization. Some predict that the pandemic will accelerate a slowdown in globalization and envision the beginning of an era of all-against-all, between powers and blocks, where the law of the strongest prevails over consensus, between barriers and friction. They even talk about a new Cold War with different actors.

Other opinions suggest that we are experiencing only a pause in an unstoppable process of productive and social interconnection that began long before the 1990s, that overcame other crises, and that, although globalization takes other forms, we will never return to the world of fixed borders and isolated nations.

It is too early to issue verdicts, with so many questions at stake, but in that uncertainty, multilateralism continues to be a value to be claimed for, a necessary tool, regardless of under what order the world be in.

In regions like ours, it is advisable to value common interests and advantages and make them stand out with a joint strategy face to the world, recognizing differences, even accepting that there is no single form of association, that integration is an ideal to follow. No one can save themselves without others, not even in Latin America.

Apart, we are weaker. And everything indicates that, if the trade and technological control dispute between the major powers and blocs are sharpened, Latin America will be the scenario of that struggle.

We must revalue multilateralism, even if it needs reforms. Like democracy, it is imperfect but nothing better has yet been created. As a country and as a region, it is our best possible scope for negotiation.

 

Jorge Arguello is the Ambassador of the Argentine Republic to the United States of America.

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