Despite its early missteps, China’s handling of the pandemic was nothing short of heroic. Actions were taken swiftly, lockdowns were put in place and the healthcare system successfully coped with the outbreak
The casualty figures show no sign of stopping anytime soon. With the number of COVID-19 infected and deceased going up by the day, governments across Europe and North America are scrambling to put measures in place. At the same time, talks of how the world will look like after the containment of the virus are slowly starting to emerge. New York Times columnist Thomas Freidman writes that the world will now have a new historical divide, BC—before corona and AC—after corona—while acclaimed author Yuval Noah Harrari feels that in the post COVID world, people might have to forgo their privacy for the sake of their health. Many others have their own arguments.
Only time will tell how the experts’ prophecies will play out. But history does show that big events, be it pandemics or war, have always impacted the existing theological, philosophical, economic or political beliefs. The bubonic plague which spread across Europe between 1347 and 1351 challenged the religious dominance of the Roman Catholic Church with many questioning why God inflicted such suffering on humankind. The spread of smallpox and efforts to contain it in the 20th century led to a revolutionary change in the global health system. The effect of wars has been no less. World War I left much of Europe in severe economic distress and the dominance of Germany and the Ottoman Empire crumbled. The end of the Second World War ushered in another profound political change—the rise of the US and USSR as global superpowers.
Historical events are a strong basis for predicting future events. But we cannot simply rely on them. There is no doubt that COVID-19 will be one of the historical landmarks in human history. But what guarantees that it will bring about tectonic shifts in the global order? After all, we live in a completely different world today compared to the world that existed during the time of bubonic plague, smallpox and the two World Wars.
Rise of China
There is no denying that we now live in a more scientifically advanced, peaceful, globalized and interdependent world that does limit chances of drastic transformations. But indications that we were in for some change was already apparent since a few years back. What were the indications? For one, the swift economic growth of China and India had already started to give signals that the coming decades belonged to the East. A change in the global order was slowly being predicted. In this context, what the COVID-19 outbreak has done is that it has simply accelerated the process. Kishore Mahbubani, author of Has China Won? The Chinese Challenge to American Primacy aptly puts it in one of his recent interviews.
He says that a post-Covid-19 world will see a move away from the US-centric globalization to more China-centric globalization. I would go a bit further and term this Asia-centric globalization. How the outbreak will help accelerate this process is what we need to look into. To begin with, despite its early missteps, China’s handling of the pandemic was nothing short of heroic. Actions were taken swiftly, lockdowns were put in place and the healthcare system, despite being overwhelmed, successfully coped with the outbreak. The political leadership never appeared to falter and in a matter of just three months, the country was largely able to contain the spread of the virus. China’s success in handling the pandemic reflected how robust and efficient political system is in the country—the same political system that the West was so fond of lambasting. Moreover, at a time when the West, which often spearheaded aid efforts in the aftermath of calamities appeared completely paralyzed, China used the opportunity to engage in strategic diplomacy earning itself some crucial brownie points.
When Italy’s health system started feeling the heat from burgeoning cases, help came from China. At one end where the US was ignoring calls to suspend its sanctions in Iran, China was already lending its hand. China’s medical assistance to Serbia even generated a public display of gratitude from the Serbian President. In an emotionally-charged press conference the President called Xi Jinping a ‘brother and a friend’ and said that the only country that could help them was China. Medical assistance was even provided to Nepal. Such efforts not only earned China goodwill but also largely boosted its global image as a ‘messiah’ for countries in need.
Not just China, equally successful were efforts of Singapore, South Korea, and India (as of yet). The steps that the three countries took to contain the virus—from ramping up their tests to implementing immediate lockdowns—were no less commendable than that of China. While the former two have already contained the spread to a large extent, the world is yet to see the results of India’s steps. If it will bear fruit as expected, it is going to be a major boost for India. In contrast to the Asian countries’ rather swift and drastic measures, the West appeared completely unprepared to handle the crisis. The West’s response to the virus laid bare its vulnerability and broke the façade of its mightiness. Despite claims of having some of the best health systems in the world, the US and much of the European countries completely faltered. The rapid surge of cases in the US and Italy were signs of lax systems, inefficient bureaucracy and the challenge of implementing swift measures in the ideal ‘democratic’ system. Not only did this tarnish the West’s ‘mighty’ image, but it also lent a blow to its values—values of materialism and scientific revolution under which the West lived in a false illusion of invincibility. This, in the long term, will be crucial in accelerating the move mentioned earlier.
Change is inevitable, hence, a change in the global order is inevitable. However, if one is expecting a swift change, they are in for a disappointment. Students of international relations know that any change in the global order is always gradual. Since the global economy is in tatters, it will take countries, China included, some time to get back to their feet. Reviving an economy requires boosting both supply and demand. With the pandemic hitting incomes and purchasing power of people at home and abroad, the economy might still take to revive despite factories coming into operation.
But even on this matter, the Eastern economies appear ahead. A recent report by McKinsey and Company predicted that it could take the US another three to four years to recover from the economic impact of the virus while for China it projects a much earlier resuscitation time of 2021. Even when the economies revive, the change will come about slowly. For instance, the Eastern countries will gradually have a stronger say in matters of global concern. The West will not be able to go about its way unopposed in all matters.
Economic transactions will be centered more around the East. Who knows, Eastern values might even reign supreme over Western values of materialism, individualism and crony capitalism. It might take a few years or a decade before the world can say that the East is now the new West, but the day will definitely come.