Will the Covid-19 crisis redefine the globalised world order?


By Akanksha Sharma

That the multidisciplinary forces of history, economics and geopolitics are at play to realign the present unipolar world has been clear for some time. However, the act played itself out with gusto at the World Economic Forum’s gathering at Davos in 2018: the retreating US, a resurging China and the rest of the western world represented by Canada and France attempting frantically to preserve the status quo. While the war of ideas has continued with a varying tempo between camps on both sides of the globalisation narrative, the elephant in the room is whether an existential crisis can finally, deliver a killing blow to the vision of a connected world.

The world liberal economic order is indeed in an advanced state of meltdown. It is exemplified by the Eurozone’s single market philosophy and exclusive access to necessities. As socio-economic and cultural exchanges come to a grinding halt, for the first time, since the end of the 2nd World War, the planet is once again divided into isolated pockets, focussed on self-preservation, behind iron curtains of quarantine, and secessionist sentiments gaining traction more than ever before.

The debacle is in continuum with earlier events in human history. The European plagues of Biblical proportions, like the Black Death, were instrumental in drumming up xenophobia and repulsion towards anything foreign. Corporal sufferings apart, pandemics are also harbingers of deep-rooted psychological trauma and confusion resulting from a constant fear of death. The underlying uncertainties in all spheres of existence put our primal instincts into overdrive and before anything else, claims liberal ideologies as its first casualty.

So as Covid-19 amps up, shattering lives and decimating economic systems, the world incredulously witnesses its corporate and political elites fumbling with the existing State and business mechanics, sans effect, in an asymmetric war against nature. A notion that a globalised approach to trade and politics is redundant under existing realities has started to crystallise into conviction in the popular psyche due to its inability to muster resolute countermeasures. Should a system funded by private capital any longer be banked upon as a saviour for the human race?

As the existing healthcare infrastructure trembles under a geometric progression in infection rate, tough questions are being asked about the role of the global Big Pharma and private healthcare providers, known for their hideous trade tactics and cherry-picking R&Ds with clear commercial dividends. With the highest bidders taking it all, it is no longer prudent to make public health a variable in the global trade dynamics. There is a pressing need to localise solution development through a marriage of public and private capitals by converging their scale, credibility, reach and ingenuity.

A case in point is India. We have built a robust domestic manufacturing base for generic drugs through a ceaseless private-public partnership. The Donald Trump administration’s appeal to India for supplying hydroxychloroquine doses to help the US in fighting COVID-19 is a tribute to that effort and India’s image as a reliable supplier of cost-effective alternatives around the globe.

The discourse on manufacturing organically brings the state of the global supply chain under the microscope, carefully examining the modalities in which products and services are manufactured and consumed in a globalised economy. It denudes the moral bankruptcies of the first world that savours and thrives on the luxuries produced in the sweatshops of the Global South by preying on its socio-cultural and economic inadequacies.

Despite India’s opposition to China’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative from a geopolitical standpoint, it appeared as an economically lucrative opportunity to the global business community, with over 50 nations joining the project to facilitate Asia’s commercial exploitation. But the fact that the coronavirus invaded Europe through the Silk Route drove home the realisation that the miseries of the workers toiling in distant lands, under unhealthy conditions and minimum wages can at times irrevocably disrupt the western ways of life. It is for the sake of their survival that global businesses must depart from the globalisation of profit to embrace globalisation of labour rights and social welfare.

However, the state of socio-economic prosperity and human rights are closely associated with Hobbes’s Leviathan and its ringmasters. And at present, the response of America, the icon of consumerism and popular democracy, with globalised corporate and military muscles, to the crisis, seems rather pale in contrast to patriarchal regimes like Singapore or China.

The geopolitical ambience reeks heavily of conspiracy theories, from undue influence on world bodies, data-fudging, headline management to applications of brutal high handed measures, with all the hallmarks of a police state, to enforce social distancing. But it is undeniable that as an autocratic rule, China has access to draconian policy tools like the Social Credit System, otherwise unavailable to democratic governments operating under constitutional safeguards and legislative oversights. Also, China’s success in orchestrating global opinion and evading the consequences of its actions can be attributed to the perks of a robust domestic manufacturing ecosystem that spared it the epithet of “the world’s factory”.

The clock is ticking for all the parties across the ideological spectrum. The COVID-19 crisis and its numerous fallouts can lacerate the already weakened roots of the globalised world order, with dire consequences for all the stakeholders, especially for those at the bottom of the socio-economic pyramid. However, that the solution eludes us is far from the truth. The resolution of the conundrum lies in replacing the solely profit-centric business orientations with enlightened partnerships for sustainable development, beginning at the inception of the supply chains.

The COVID-19 episode is a grim reminder that while the bottom line is imperative to keep the wheels of the civilisations turning, it needs to be adjusted with socio-environmental and cultural considerations. Overclocking capitalism has its indelible negatives. Because, like a fission reactor out of control, it will invariably end up in decimating the very globalised world order that it has sworn to serve and protect.

(The writer is, CSR & Sustainability Head, Sterlite Technologies Limited)

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