What will tomorrow bring? For millennia this question has kept astrologers, priests and pundits in business as the need to know the likely future is one that is shared by humanity throughout the ages, regardless of caste, color or creed. In times of crisis, of course, the need to know what’s next becomes ever greater and, unlike a horoscope in the daily newspaper, analysis about the likely future finds itself transformed into a multi-million dollar industry, the findings and predictions of which then become the basis for even national-level strategies.
And since there is currently no greater crisis than COVID-19, the prediction mills are working overtime to see what the future may hold if and when the pandemic passes. Here, we will try – with an admittedly large margin of error – and with the help of existing and original analysis, to see what sort of world we are now likely to inherit.
We were already in a post-truth world when this pandemic hit us and now it increasingly seems as if reality itself is simply a matter of opinion. Take the U.S. where, despite all evidence to the contrary many believe that the virus is some kind of mind-control conspiracy.
Global Power Politics
The last decade has been marked by the rise of China, accompanied by a relative decline in the global influence of the United States of America. It is of course important to realize that this is not necessarily a zero-sum game but a question of trajectory and momentum, and currently it seems as if the momentum is favoring China. In the early days of COVID-19, there were many articles and analyses that speculated that this pandemic may be the beginning of the end of China’s rise. Fingers were pointed at the transparency of the Chinese government in handling this crisis, and admittedly in the early days they acted more to repress information than in actually controlling the virus. There was also speculation that the corresponding hit to China’s economy would be so devastating that the country would have to scale back its international outreach and influence. While the jury is still out on the final economic impact, China’s subsequent handling of the outbreak, far from reducing faith in the Chinese style of governance, seems to have given it a boost. The measures, requiring strong state control as a prerequisite, seem to have worked and have strengthened the arguments in favor of the Chinese system, even though the initial handling of the outbreak did see displays of public anger and unusual questioning of the government’s tactics. Nevertheless, Beijing seems to have weathered the storm and is now engaging in very public medical diplomacy, by exporting its capability to other countries. Balanced against that is a campaign that aims at condemning China and holding it responsible for the spread of the virus. While this has been pushed by the highest levels of the U.S. government, there don’t yet seem to be too many buyers for this narrative.
By contrast the U.S. is clearly floundering in the international arena, a trajectory that began long before we had ever heard of COVID-19 but which has certainly been exacerbated by that country’s abysmal handling of, and messaging during, this pandemic. As opposed to the past, no one is looking towards the U.S. for leadership on this crisis, and with good reason.
Now, one may be tempted to write off the U.S. due to this, and certainly the question arises as to how a superpower with all the resources that implies, is so utterly incapable of handling a pandemic than many less-resourced countries. When we add to the mix the civil strife currently engulfing the U.S. it is indeed tempting to talk of inevitable U.S. decline, but mitigating against that is the U.S.’ military and economic preponderance and the innate resilience of their political system. In short, a reversal of fortune is not to be ruled out by any means.
Nevertheless, COVID-19 will certainly accelerate existing trends which were already pointing towards a more ‘fragmented’ world of competing powers and fluid regional groupings. As the Economist Intelligence Unit puts it: “In times of crisis, global rivalries tend to intensify rather than abate… the epidemic will exacerbate long-standing US-China frictions.” On the all-important question of who will emerge a winner, the EIU adds: “China is likely to emerge from the crisis as a bigger player in political as well as economic terms,” while also agreeing with my above analysis that counting the U.S. out would be premature. Nevertheless, it is clear that – in the short to medium term – the initiative will lie with those countries that emerge from the COVID crisis first, and then are better able to get their economies back on track. China certainly seems to qualify, and we can see the proof of that by its increasing assertiveness in Ladakh and the South China Sea. In Ladakh that assertiveness is well-timed, given the multiple domestic crises that India is currently embroiled in with the massive spread of COVID-19 being one.
That ‘first past the post’ argument also applies to regional rivals, such as in South Asia, the Middle East and beyond as well. The chaos that then follows also adds to the likelihood of a more fragmented world, unlike the binary U.S./USSR rivalry of the Cold War. As analyst Marco Vicenzino puts in in his article in the Euronews., “The new geopolitics reflects an increasingly complex and fragmented global landscape where uncertainty dominates a far more dangerous world. This is compounded by a generation of leaders worldwide largely short on long-term vision and strategic thinking.”
Running parallel to this is a general loss of faith in existing global institutions. We have seen the World Health Organisation come under criticism and even financial censure from the U.S., which accuses it of taking a pro-China stance. Similarly, the G-20 has also come under fire for being big on rhetoric but short on actual measures to deal with the economic impact of the COVID crisis. The European Union has also been lacking in its response, and its financial help to poorer members in central and Eastern Europe will be insufficient to their needs, likely giving China an opportunity to step in with aid and other types of assistance. This then will likely harden EU opinions towards China, while also weakening the EU itself. Again, it is important to note that these are predictions based on trend analysis it is certain that the pre-COVID world will not return. As author Alan Gygnell puts it, “The balance of global power, the structure of the international and national economies, the role of multilateral agencies, patterns of social interaction and ways of work will all be different.”
Tightening the Noose
Over the last decade we have seen a global retreat of what we would call ‘liberal democracy’. This has been facilitated in part by the rise of China and the accompanying validation of the Chinese models, but also thanks to a line of shallow, populist, and sometimes quasi-fascist leadership emerging in democracies across the world. The post-COVID world will likely see this trend being amplified further, along with an increase in state monitoring and control because for governments eager to curb civil liberties, COVID provides the perfect opportunity. Take Hungary, where the right-wing president Viktor Orbán has used the crisis as an opportunity to give himself sweeping powers and rule by decree, all in the name of controlling COVID. The argument given is that authoritarian tactics are needed to control the virus but, as history teaches us, such power once arrogated in the hands of the state, is rarely ever given up. We were already in a post-truth world when this pandemic hit us and now it increasingly seems as if reality itself is simply a matter of opinion. Take the U.S. where, despite all evidence to the contrary many believe that the virus is some kind of mind-control conspiracy. Trump himself has taken the fore in turning a public health crisis into a divisive political campaign, further muddling the line between policy and politics.
Or take the UK where, despite Boris Johnson’s abysmal handling of the pandemic, his approval ratings continue to rise. In Pakistan as well, we have seen disinformation and unnecessary politicization of policy measures. The net result is a voting populace that is less concerned with the facts, and more concerned with perception, and none of that bodes well for a democracy. In fact, the virus itself has been weaponised in many countries against the already marginalized and stigmatized groups. It has become just another weapon in the arsenal of demagogues.
The Regional Picture
Before moving onto economic and trade impacts, let’s take a look at the regional situation of South Asia in the light of the above analyses. We have seen the right-wing Indian government use COVID-19 as a weapon against the local Muslim population, who have been at the receiving end of a sustained and deliberate demonization campaign at the hands of the Indian state and media. Again, this is simply a continuation of previous trends that have become embedded in the modus operandi of the Modi government and its allies, but it is picking up pace as India deals with economic issues made worse by their government’s handling of the COVID crisis. So, to deflect criticism, the Modi government will use the two time-tested tools in its arsenal: demonizing Muslims and beating war drums against Pakistan. Note also that China’s actions in Ladakh are a sign of increased assertiveness from Beijing in this region, and also a signal to the world that China was not significantly slowed down by the pandemic. One effect of the Ladakh stand-off, however, is that given that India is unable to respond to China in kind, there has been a stepping up of anti-Pakistan rhetoric and maneouvering. And this trend, long established in any case, will also likely increase in the short to mid-term with the effect that war clouds will continue to loom over this region. We are also seeing this confrontational dynamic manifest itself in India’s attitude towards land-locked Nepal which is thus being pushed faster and faster into the Chinese orbit. Now, while this bellicosity may give Modi political “nationalist’ relief in the short-term, the damage to India’s regional strategy will be considerable if the current trajectory continues, and there is little reason to believe it will not.
Here’s when it gets ugly, especially for Pakistan. We have established that those countries that curb the virus earlier, using whatever means necessary, will be the first to be able to revitalize their economies. Of course, this assumes that the pre-COVID economy was at least satisfactory and in our case that is far from true. With the virus not even having peaked in Pakistan it is impossible to say when and if economic stabilization will take place, but we can safely assume it will not be anytime soon.
The World Trade Organisation expects a drop in the world trade of between 13% to 32% this year, and also predicts that the worst-hit economies will be in Asia and the developed world, which rely on complex supply chains. In Pakistan, after seeing a slight increase in exports we saw both exports and imports decline in March, reflecting a trend made worse by the onset and impact of COVID-19. Moreover, when demand in importing countries picks up, it will likely be for essential items and Pakistan’s export list doesn’t contain too many of those. As demand for discretionary goods like clothes drops in the West, stores like H&M and Zara will see a loss of revenue and in turn this will result in fewer or more cancelled orders.
Moreover, the economic debate around COVID in Pakistan, and I use the term ‘debate’ loosely, has centered on the economic costs of curtailing the virus (lockdowns, restrictions etc.) but very little thought has been given to calculating the costs of uncontrolled viral spread. Simply put, as people lose jobs, disposable income and consumer spending declines, which in turn leads to less demand and thus more layoffs, creating a vicious cycle where the worst hit will be sectors like restaurants, clothing, and furniture because spending money will be reserved for essentials. Even that spending will come out of peoples’ savings, but few have the fiscal space needed for that which means that the middle class drops to become the lower-middle class and so on and so forth. Then, of course, there is the likelihood of travel and trade restriction imposed on Pakistan – in the case of uncontrolled spread – and this we cannot even begin to quantify. Last, but not least, we should expect a major drop in remittances as the job security and income of overseas Pakistanis becomes imperiled.
Are there opportunities for Pakistan in the post-COVID world? Certainly. But at this point they seem vastly outnumbered by the threats. Without an informed and broad-based consensus on how to tackle these challenges we may well find the ship of state is sailing in very choppy waters indeed.
The writer has worked extensively in Pakistan's print and electronic media and is currently hosting a talk show on a private TV channel.
E-mail: [email protected]
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