The Year of the Rat How the Coronavirus Is Changing the World

Everything will be different after the COVID-19 pandemic. But how? Who will emerge as a winner amid all the changes sweeping the globe? Six economists, diplomats and pollsters share their prognoses for the post-coronavirus future.
A man with an improvised mask

A man with an improvised mask


One needn't look far for signs of the apocalypse. The world is facing the most dramatic economic crisis since the Great Depression, according to the International Monetary Fund, and the pandemic will change the planet from the ground up, writes the newsmagazine Foreign Policy. Are things really going to get that bad everywhere?

At the moment, the world is still in crisis mode and governments remain primarily focused on containing the pandemic. Meanwhile, trends and developments are emerging that provide a glimpse into the future. A decline in globalization seems inevitable. Nation states will be among the winners of the crisis, while international organizations will be among the losers. A more rapid withdrawal of the United States from the world stage is practically a foregone conclusion -- while China is trying to leverage the pandemic to further expand its power.

But Marta Lagos, a public opinion pollster from Chile, also sees an opportunity in the pandemic, with people now seeing that governments are fighting for the common good, not just for a small elite. Jakkie Cilliers, a geopolitical analyst from South Africa, sees the African continent as a potential source of increasing instability, but she also sees opportunities for democratization. Still, there aren't only optimists.

"The Year of the Rat" is the title chosen by the French foreign policy expert Bruno Tertrais for his essay about the post-coronavirus world, named after the current year on the Chinese Zodiac calendar. Tertrais is more of a pessimist, fearing an expansion of state surveillance and hyperinflation if an economic recovery is not forthcoming.

"What Little Was Left of Multilateralism Has Failed"

We are headed for a poorer, meaner and smaller world. In fact, it is already here.

The global economy is supposed to shrink. Countries are fighting over medication and protective equipment. Instead of recognizing that they can only fight the pandemic together, they are choosing to blame each other and close borders. These are the times of everyone for themselves and themselves alone.

The pandemic could have served as a beneficial shock, by bringing the world closer together. Instead, COVID-19 will further deepen the fault lines that have been emerging since the financial crisis. We will see an increase in protectionism, the polarization of society and a further shift to the right. What little was left of multilateralism has failed. We are experiencing the return of power politics.

The problem is that there are too many alpha men in the room. Authoritarian rulers, whether in Japan, China, the United States or India, base their legitimacy on ultra-nationalism. The give and take of diplomacy proves much harder for them as they fear that compromises would make them appear weak.

It will become much tougher for India to achieve her goals in this new world. We want to transform India into a country where every Indian can achieve his or her potential. India’s success in doing so depends on an open world -- and on peace. Both could be in short supply in the future.

There are two worrying prospects: First, India was able to take advantage of the opportunities of globalization. The past 30 years have been the best in our history and poverty has decreased significantly. Today, almost half of our gross domestic product depends on the external sector. We cannot lock ourselves up, we rely on the rest of the world, be it in terms of energy, technology or capital. I do not expect the end of globalization: The virus is proof of our interdependence. But we will experience a new kind of globalization, one that may be less open to goods and investment and largely closed to ideas and workers.

Second, it is still too early to identify who will emerge from the crisis as a winner. But the struggle between the two great powers, China and the United States, and their intentions to rewrite the old order, can be a major source of instability.

New Delhi needs to prepare for these changes. First of all -- and the government has already made a good beginning here -- it must support its neighbors in the crisis. As the biggest country in South Asia, India must be a provider of security, stability and prosperity. Not only to the subcontinent, but to the entire rim of the Indian Ocean, which includes parts of Africa and Southeast Asia.

India can turn this crisis into opportunity. We are good at crises, something that we have proven time and again. Our major reforms, the liberalization of our economy and the related rise of India, have all come at times of crisis.

Shivshankar Menon, a former Indian diplomat, was national security adviser in the government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. He currently teaches at Ashoka University near New Delhi.

"Our Democracies Will Benefit in the Long Run"

When we look at this crisis, we have a feeling that the so-called First World has failed. The images from New York or Bergamo show us that the U.S. and Europe are not the perfectly sparkling gems we thought they were. The North has always been very hard on us, reproaching us for our mistakes. Now, it turns out that the emperor has no clothes. Many of the migrants who recently wanted to go north will change direction. The migration routes of the future will run within the South.

This loss of prestige of the North is also reflected in the fact that no country is capable of assuming a global leadership role. The U.S. is no longer a global power, and China is no longer a role model. What we see instead are nation states going their own way. The question of how they will emerge from this crisis will determine who we will look to for guidance in the future.

I believe that our democracies, flawed as they are, will benefit from the crisis in the long run. For the first time, the restrictions we are currently experiencing affect the entire population and not just a part of it. And they're not being imposed in an authoritarian manner, but instead they're taking place within democratic systems that recognize the rule of law.

In many countries, people are experiencing for the first time that their governments are concerned about the common good and not just the interests of a small, powerful elite. Countries in Latin America will demand more freedom and equality, more democracy. This could lead to social uprisings, not in the form of revolutions but as a redefinition of the democratic exercise of power. We will have to reorganize our economies and establish social protection systems for the unemployed and people who just barely get by at the end of the month.

The most important people in the fight against the virus are garbage collectors and nurses -- all those who previously enjoyed little recognition in society and are now indispensable. This will lead to a new social balance.

Marta Lagos is the founder of the opinion research institute Latinobarómetro in Chile.

"A Missed Opportunity to Find Cooperation With China"

Coming out of this pandemic, the U.S. will be judged by two primary factors: First, how well did we handle the pandemic domestically, both in terms of public health outcomes and the economic impact? Secondly, what role did the U.S. play on the global stage orchestrating the international response to the pandemic?

If you look at the U.S. role historically, you can see that previous administrations stepped up to deal with the AIDS epidemic and led the international community in addressing that. The same goes for the financial crisis. In the Ebola crisis, the U.S. helped orchestrate Europe and others to donate resources to help affected countries in Africa. So the expectation is established across multiple administrations, Republican and Democrat, that the U.S. has a leadership role to play, particularly in coordinating actions across the developed world and among its allies and partners.

This time though, the U.S. has been largely absent and has created a vacuum - and even worse. In some cases, it has actually competed directly with its allies and partners in the chaotic scramble for medical equipment.

It's been a real failure of leadership, and that will color perceptions of the U.S. in many parts of the world going forward, unless that approach is repudiated in our election in November.

Generally, I don't think a majority of people in this country support a retreat from the world stage. If you look at polling, most Americans understand the critical importance of alliances and U.S. engagement in the world to protect our interests at home.

People here are reacting to a couple of things, though. Some of the negative attitudes towards a global leadership role come from a series of military interventions that have not panned out the way they were originally envisioned, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan. There is, on both the left and the right, a reduced appetite for large scale use of the military for things like regime change.

Many Americans, particularly labor workers in highly globalized sectors, have been more skeptical of free trade agreements, because in some cases these agreements have contributed to a loss of U.S. jobs. Globalization has pros and cons. Coming out of this pandemic, we have to think about medical supply chains in national security terms. Can we really be dependent on equipment manufactured in China if it's vital to saving American lives in a crisis? We will likely see greater diversification in health care related supply chains.

The fact that the American electorate has put someone like Trump with his America First policy in place has sown doubt in the minds of our allies. They ask: Will the U.S. turn inward again? It's going to take a series of elections that continue to put pragmatic internationalists in place in order to reassure our partners around the globe. Our allies have to realize that Trump was an anomaly. The only way we can solve big problems like climate change or nuclear proliferation or a pandemic like this is through international engagement informed by a clear-eyed pragmatism about what works and what doesn't.

I do think that we could elect a president that understands and acts on the understanding that U.S. leadership is essential, and who is able and willing to bring the international community together. But that is not saying we're going to go back to the Pax Americana of the 20th century and the uni-polar moment of the post-Cold War period.

It's not just that U.S. leadership has wavered, the world is also changing. The international system is becoming more multi-polar with the rise of China. The diffusion of power is ongoing.

U.S. leadership in a more multi-polar, more contested global environment means we have to better leverage our alliances and partnerships with other democracies who share interests and values with us. We will also need more robust mechanisms than the G-7, G-20 or the United Nations for coordinating action among the democracies, in the Americas, Europe and Asia. We will see a number of ad hoc measures.

Bodies like the World Health Organization are absolutely critical, particularly for the developing world and countries that don't have capable disease control agencies of their own. They look to the WHO, it plays a very critical role especially in times when forums like the UN Security Council are largely absent. The fact that Donald Trump announced cutting funds for the WHO in the middle of a pandemic does not make sense. The U.S. has not done enough to show up and exert influence in the WHO. We should try to fix the organization, not abandon it.

I would also like to see much more of a strategic dialog reopened with China to address some of the most pressing issues in a more straightforward and holistic manner.

This pandemic won’t necessarily strengthen China’s standing, given that in the early stages of the outbreak it didn't share information, falsified facts and punished the folks who were trying to provide early warning. Nevertheless, this was a missed opportunity to find ways to cooperate with China, to address the broader international dimensions of the crisis and to coordinate a more orchestrated effort. The right thing for the U.S. president to do would have been to call a G-7 or G-20 meeting, and to use those forums to coordinate an international response, including China, as opposed to allowing a power vacuum to open up.

Michèle Flournoy, co-founder of the Center for a New American Security think tank, is a director of the political consultancy WestExec Advisors in Washington, D.C.

"The Virus Will Also Threaten the Stability of States"

The pandemic will not constitute a break from the past for Africa. It will be an accelerator of existing trends. This applies to the importance of China, it also applies to Africa's dependence on China, it applies to migratory flows and it applies to terrorism and wars.

It's still early to make accurate forecasts, as Africa lags behind other regions of the world in terms of the spread of the virus. But there are already clearly foreseeable consequences. Africa would need annual economic growth between 10 and 14 percent to eliminate existing absolute poverty. And even with such growth rates, it would take more than a decade. A severe global recession will have fatal consequences for Africa's ability to grow fast enough.

We will see a more rapid increase in absolute poverty this year and next year. And a decrease in income. If growth in South Africa declines by 5 percent, there will be an additional 2.1 million people living in absolute poverty here alone. But even here I see the danger of unrest when the poor reach a certain level of despair. And it’s no less likely in other African countries, which do not offer even this rudimentary safety net.

Many economies will suffer as Africa is heavily dependent on commodity exports. The slowdown in growth in the rest of the world means that Africa will see a significant decline in these exports. In the end, the result could be greater dependence on China. I see great efforts from the Chinese side to help Africa. And I think this will pay off in the end, because America is currently doing nothing to help and Europe is doing very little. China will be an even more important trading partner in the future than it already is.

But the virus will also threaten the stability of states. Peacekeeping missions under the umbrella of the United Nations may have to be scaled down. UN missions as in the Central African Republic, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo could be weakened. Troop withdrawal or the downscaling of these missions could endanger the slow, steady progress that has been made in stabilizing countries across a belt of countries from the Sahel to Central Africa and the Horn. The impact could be to reignite regional instability as increased instability again spreads to neighboring countries.

The virus will also weaken governments in their fight against organized crime, rebels and terrorists. The capacity of the armies involved will be tied up in the fight against the pandemic. They will have to leave the field, in part, to terrorist groups, who will engage even more robustly than we've seen to date. This is another reason why there will probably be greater migration flows toward Europe.

But I do not think that the autocrats in Africa will benefit in the long term. Of course, this crisis highlights the blatant abuses, the lack of state structures, the inability to even guarantee the supply of water. In contrast to the situation elsewhere there is a general trend towards more democracy in Africa and I think that COVID-19 will reinforce this trend. The finger will now be put on the sore spot, the mistakes of the past will become abundantly clear and people will demand accountability.

Jakkie Cilliers is chairman of the board of trustees at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) and the head of the African Futures and Innovation Team in Pretoria.

"Hyperinflation Could Lead to Social Unrest"

We're still at the stage in which everyone sees their views and assumptions as being confirmed by the corona crisis. This is true in the West and East, on the left and on the right. But the possible consequences of this crisis are already becoming apparent.

One of them will be a decline in globalization. Its slowdown had already begun before the outbreak of the pandemic. For economic reasons, but also for reasons of security policy, Western countries have long wanted to reduce their dependence on China. The COVID-19 crisis is now accelerating this trend and economic interdependence will decrease. In the medium term, "just in time" production will decrease. Especially in the health care sector, the emphasis will be on stockpiling.

The interesting question here is: Will this be solved nationally or in cooperation with other countries? Will we act nationally and alone in the health-care sector or together with our European partners?

Another consequence will be a decline in populism and an increase in souverainism. Once an end to the acute pandemic is in sight in most countries, people will see that populist governments were worse crisis managers when compared to others. The majority of populist leaders, most of all Donald Trump, have so far demonstrated an astonishing inability to respond to the most pressing concerns of their citizens and to show at least some degree of empathy.

But there is one danger to all this: If we do not succeed in achieving an economic recovery after the crisis, the populists will gain new support. The return of hyperinflation, for example, could lead to social unrest.

The nation state, on the other hand, is likely to be one of the big winners of the crisis. Like the health sector, our food supply will benefit from re-localization. Nation states will tend to withdraw into themselves and demand increased protection against external threats. This could come at the expense of Europe's Schengen system of open borders. Here, too, the question arises: Will this new sovereignty be national or European?

Will we also enter an era of digital authoritarianism and sacrifice certain freedoms? I'm a pessimist. In any case, it is likely that most of the population will be prepared to accept major restrictions on their freedoms, as they were after Sept. 11. We will accept more control.

Will some major powers emerge victorious from this pandemic? I don't think so, at least not for the next two years. Even if the U.S. no longer has a leading role, no other power will take over this role either. No country will emerge stronger from this crisis. In five years' time, of course, things may look different, but the U.S. will have repositioned itself by then. We're always too quick to bury Europe. After all, Europe has demonstrated a certain ability to adapt to crises.

Bruno Tertrais is deputy director of the foreign policy think tank Fondation pour la Recherche Stratégique in Paris.

"China No Longer Seems to Be in This Defensive Position"

My opinion is that this pandemic -- provided it lasts only one year or so -- will not fundamentally change the geo-economic balance of power between the United States and China. In both countries, we will probably see a robust economic recovery, eventually. What the pandemic might very well contribute to, though, is a downward spiral in relations between China and Western democracies. There will be exacerbated misperceptions and an increased lack of trust. It could even lead to a new Cold War in U.S.-China relations. That is certainly not good news for China’s aim to assert global leadership.

In the beginning of the outbreak, the common perception was that the epidemic revealed the pathologies of the Chinese political system, and that the legitimacy of the Chinese leaders was at stake. But in a strange turn of events, China no longer seems to be in this defensive position. While the U.S. is following an "America First" approach -- snatching up medical supplies, failing to launch an initiative to help the developing world -- China appears more like a benevolent partner, if not a leader in the international system.

This narrative certainly resonates with the Chinese public: Domestically, President Xi Jinping has emerged stronger and more forceful and there has been a shift of public opinion toward the political system and the leadership. Citizens who were once critical of the government have become supporters. Even among the global public, the impression is that Western democracies like Germany or the U.S. have not done a better job than China in dealing with the outbreak. This perception potentially can make the so-called China model -- defined by one-party rule and a state-dominated economy -- more appealing in the developing world.

In the West, however, there is a continuing crescendo of allegations against China -- of an initial cover-up, of underreporting case numbers, of disinformation. There were even calls in the U.S. to hold China financially accountable for unleashing this pandemic. If you look at the responses from Western societies, "mixed" would be too polite a term.

The outcome of the battle for global leadership will also depend on how the pandemic unfolds. In China particularly, the concern about a second wave of the virus is real. The government is already planning for a resurge of cases in the summer. In other countries, a majority of the population might become infected and then recover, and thus achieve what we call herd immunity. In China, most of the people have not been exposed to the virus, which creates what we call an immunity gap.

That is dangerous to China, unless a vaccine becomes widely available. When other countries will be able to reopen their economies, China might still have to continue its draconian containment measures. But if China wants to engage in international society, they will have to reopen their borders. As an aspiring global leader, China cannot remain a fortress forever.

Yanzhong Huang, a Chinese-American, is a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, a New York-based think tank.


Contributions collected by Georg FahrionJens GlüsingLaura Höflinger, Britta Sandberg, Fritz Schaap and Christoph Scheuermann

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