This pandemic will force nations to strengthen their powers, to shift towards a sensible form of globalization and to speed up mutual cooperation.
In The World of Yesterday, Stefan Zweig sums up the way the world changed in 1914 in these words: “When I attempt to find a simple formula for the period in which I grew up, prior to the First World War, I hope that I convey its fullness by calling it the Golden Age of Security.” In the same way, the coronavirus crisis marks the end of the illusion of a golden age of security cultivated since the fall of the USSR. The crisis is not just about public health; it is systemic, touching on globalized capitalism, the disintegration of societies, the inadequacy to deal with crises and the collapse of world governance.
The fact that the authorities delayed their action, that their actions have been confused and that fear has become contagious is nothing new. All of this was there during the 9/11 attacks, the 2008 crash and the wave of Islamist attacks in the 2010s. And this is because of one fundamental reason: the refusal to listen to the warning signs – SARS and the Ebola virus epidemics, of which the latter was miraculously confined to Africa. The USA reacted to the destruction of the World Trade Center by a series of wars, marked by just as many defeats. A global depression in 2008 was only avoided by relaunching a bubble economy. Combined pressure from Jihadists and the démocratures [démocrature = a combination of democracy and dictatorship] did not convince Europeans to strengthen their security. Each time, it was said that nothing would ever be the same again, but everything went on just as before. The coronavirus is a final warning: we have to put into effect the changes that were sidestepped during these previous crises.
The risks of a pandemic were brought to light in the white paper on defense and national security in 2008, in the 2009 CIA report and in the World Bank report in 2012. But these were only taken notice of by Asian countries that had been exposed to SARS, such as South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore. They have managed to limit the number of victims and avoid general confinement of the population by developing their capacity for epidemic risk management, by building up large stocks of medical equipment and protective material, and by investing massively in healthcare technology and data so as to be able to carry out targeted systematic tests. We must follow their example.
In 2020, the world economy will suffer a 3-5% recession. Priority must be given to avoiding a fall in potential growth by supporting businesses and thereby avoiding bankruptcies and layoffs. Apart from that, the model founded on shareholder-based capitalism, the fragmentation of value chains and dependence on China is obsolete. De-globalization, also supported by the fight against climate change, will see the world economy reconfigured into regional blocs. Re-industrialization is inevitable, meaning the protection of strategic sectors and higher prices for consumers. Ways of life based on urbanization, mobility and overconsumption will have to change.
Resilience, i.e. the ability to ensure that a nation continues to function under any circumstances, becomes a decisive factor. The coronavirus is a reminder of the state’s role as guarantor, and also shows how state management of this public health emergency has been disastrous. In order to safeguard the economy, more nationalization is necessary as well as a far-reaching restructuring of the administration so as to create a capacity for anticipation and for leadership during crises, to restore sovereign functions and develop digital services. The coronavirus reveals the extent to which, compared to Asia, the USA and Europe are lagging behind in terms of digital technology. It shows that priority must be given to investment in digitalization and research (5% of GDP in South Korea as against 2.1% in France), and also to education. As a final point, it is a reminder of the primordial importance of national cohesion and common values in crisis management.
From a geopolitical standpoint, the crisis is reinforcing tensions at a time when, above all, it is cooperation that is needed. It is worsening the war between China and the USA: China is using its emergence from the crisis to extol its authoritarian model; the USA is accusing Beijing of being responsible for the spread of the virus. At the same time, international institutions are at a standstill and nations are withdrawing into themselves under pressure from populist forces – with the salutary exception of medical research to find treatments and vaccines.
The coronavirus epidemic means that we cannot return to a world as it was before. People and nations much chose between two opposing models of political freedom. Either China manages to show that only an authoritarian model is the answer to the global issues of the 21st century, or democracies must pull themselves together and work out a new balance between State and market, freedom and security, national resilience and the building of a world order. They should take inspiration from Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, which have proved that it is possible to reconcile efficient crisis management and respect for the rule of law, to ensure that economic activity and good healthcare is maintained and to mobilize technology and public-spiritedness.
(Article published in Le Point, 26th March)