The Butterfly Effect | Photo Credit: Campaign

The Butterfly Effect of COVID-19

COVID-19 has exposed how interconnected our world has become. Even though the virus first appeared in China, it has eventually become a global pandemic. While leadership and cooperation are most needed during this time, the pandemic has further pushed them towards adopting protectionist policies. Though we have emerged out of many crises in the past, will we be able to do so again?

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

The repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic can be viewed through the lens of Edward Lorenz’s “Butterfly Effect”, an aspect of the Chaos Theory. Though the chaos in our complex international system seems to occur at random, if we look close enough, we might be able to see certain fundamental patterns, repetition and constant feedback loops. Just like this, COVID-19 has made it clearer than ever that we exist in an interconnected complex web of life that is continually changing. A disease that may have jumped from animals to humans in a food market in China has resulted in illness, death and mass change in every corner of the planet. Countries can no longer pretend to exist independently from the world around them. 

The seismic shock of the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed the fragility of an interconnected world — Its contagion rippling into a wave of deglobalisation, dividing the world into multiple fragments, disrupting millions of lives. Leadership and cooperation are sorely needed, but it is nowhere to be found. 

The reverse of globalisation

The idea of a reversal of globalisation is not a new concept. Time and time again, there have been predictions of globalisation’s terminal crisis. To cite significant examples, the emergence of a transnational anti-globalisation movement in the late 1990s signified widespread fears about the ever-deeper integration of the world. Another one would be the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, which further highlighted the profound dangers of ever-greater global integration. Nevertheless, the world has weathered any unprecedented crisis thrown at it. However, countries will face crucial challenges this century. 

According to the Harvard Business Review, the current COVID-19 pandemic has caused the biggest and quickest decline in the international flows in modern history, which has resulted in a new surge of obituaries for globalisation. Even well before the pandemic, there have been several indications that the rapid globalisation experienced in the past may have begun to stall. Perhaps like what Jonathan Michie mentioned in The Handbook of Globalisation, the world could be entering its “final years of one of those periodic explosions in internationalisation”, causing much confusion and therefore changing the way we work. A serious question of the ability of globalisation to sustain itself is beginning to emerge. As globalisation is starting to look more vulnerable than inexorable, maybe globalisation might not be as unstoppable as we thought it was. Could this be an indication that we could be close to the limits of globalisation? 

The interconnectedness of our world has been aided by globalisation — a process of global economic integration that can be traced back to at least the 19th century. However, the high frequency of the exchange of people, goods and services, unintentionally resulted in the spread of COVID-19. According to Tedros Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organisation (WHO), “Our world has changed. Our challenges are greater. Our fragilities have been exposed. Our systems need a reset. Everyone has a role to play.” 

As written in The Closing Circle by Barry Commoner, one of the laws of ecology is that everything is connected to everything else. COVID-19 has allowed us to see the phenomenon of the Butterfly Effect right before our very eyes. While it is still unknown whether the virus originated from an animal, what we do know is that it was first detected in Wuhan, China and that globalisation has been a catalyst for its spread. However, this is not the first time globalisation has worsened a pandemic. Similar to COVID-19, the 1918 Spanish Flu was also escalated by an increase in travel. Hence, those who were infected spread the virus from person to person, country to country. Slowly, the number of cases started to rise and pop up in different parts of the world. As the number of cases rose, the virus eventually became global and one by one, more countries had to undergo complete lockdown. The world suddenly seemed to be at a standstill. Just like that, the virus spread across the whole world, resulting in the pandemic we know of today. All it took was one carrier to result in a domino effect. This is a result of living in an interconnected complex web of life that has been fostered by globalisation. Unfortunately, since it is unlikely for globalisation to stop altogether, COVID-19 would probably not be the last pandemic that humankind will experience. 

The move towards protectionism 

Though some form of protectionist policies were seen even before COVID-19 hit, it seems like it has been worsened by the pandemic, especially in the US under the previous Trump Administration. Since COVID-19 has had an immediate and strong impact on global trade, there were already signs of an economic downturn last January, as seen in UNCTAD’s statistics. COVID-19 has resulted in governments turning to protectionist policies to safeguard their domestic economy and reduce their vulnerability, therefore reversing the effects of globalisation. When the pandemic started, several countries began limiting the medical supplies they export. However, it did not stop there as other sectors, especially the food industry, were affected because governments had to ensure their country had more than enough food to last. According to the executive director at consultancy Asian Trade Centre, countries might tend to favour protectionism because it made sense to them to keep their country afloat, even though the net result is that everyone else will be worse off. 

In April 2020, the US invoked the Korean War-era Defence Production Act (DPA). This move demanded major US mask manufacturing company, 3M, to prioritise N95 mask orders from the federal government instead of foreign buyers such as Canada and Latin America. The DPA dates back to 1950 and allows a president to force companies to make products for national defence. According to the Council of Foreign Relations, such export restrictions were last used during the Cold War. However, this act brought up a conflict of interest on the basis of legal and humanitarian grounds. 3M was reluctant to do so, as medical frontliners would be deprived of protection. The conflict eventually ended with a compromise of 3M importing 5.5 million N95 face masks per month, primarily from its manufacturing facilities in China, specifically for the US health workers. This deal reached with the Trump Administration will allow 3M to continue exporting masks to Latin America and Canada, where 3M is their primary source of supply. The US has been accused by European officials of “piracy” over mask confiscation as well. Despite Trump no longer being in office, the Biden Administration has also invoked the DPA in March this year to address any shortages of medical resources. Though several lawmakers have labelled the move as aggressive, President Biden’s aim was to administer one hundred million COVID-19 vaccine doses within his first hundred days in office. Hence, in order to reach the vaccination target, the DPA must be invoked to increase the number of medical supplies required. President Biden has since been able to vaccinate around 200 million people since he took office, which was double the goal he had set for himself.

Former US President Donald Trump announced about the Defence Production Act in the briefing room of the White House in Washington, D.C. | Photo Credit: Oliver Contreras, Bloomberg 

Despite receiving much backlash from the international community, the US is not the sole country that has veered into protectionism. Based on Switzerland’s University of St Gallen, the Global Trade Alert team reported that 75 countries have introduced export curbs on medical supplies, equipment and medicines. They include more European Union (EU) countries, India, China, Brazil and Russia. Apart from Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), competition on testing equipment and drugs found to be useful in treating COVID-19 have also started to emerge. Instead of cooperating, countries have turned to vaccine nationalism, prioritising themselves over the common interest. In doing so, developing countries will be at the mercy of the more well-to-do countries to provide them with medical supplies and vaccines that they do not have enough of. Unfortunately, Africa has been hit hard by the impact of vaccine nationalism, as less than four per cent of the population has been fully vaccinated. Here, the butterfly effect also applies. While it is important for countries to take care of their people first, they should ensure not to do so at the expense of others. However, it is more prominent as we can see how the selfish acts of these countries are negatively impacting developing ones. In turn, it will be the people that will suffer the most from all the politics being mixed into a global health crisis.  

Tackling COVID-19 requires global cooperation 

COVID-19 was an unintended consequence of our world being so interconnected, and such problems can only be weathered with collective action. In a world as interdependent as ours, no one can get through a major challenge on its own. No country can make itself great in isolation. The fight against COVID-19 has been an uphill battle, and the loss of countless lives makes it clear that the virus knows no borders nor race. In this time of darkness, what the world needs is to collaborate with one another. Linking back to the Butterfly Effect, as long as one country is unable to battle the pandemic, the world is not safe. Numerous countries opened up their borders after declaring to be “COVID-safe”, only to eventually close again due to transmission from another. COVID-19 has shown how fragmented our supposedly “harmonious” world is, especially when collective strength is what we desperately need in this time of crisis, or any other crisis. When will we understand that being safe on our own while the world is on fire, isn’t really safe at all? 

The year that COVID-19 was declared a pandemic also marked the 75th anniversary of the birth of the United Nations (UN) and the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has called for unity and solidarity as “international solidarity is no longer a choice, but an obligation.” Secretary Guterres acknowledged the international body’s achievements in peacekeeping in the past 75 years, but also acknowledged that the current global community lacks sufficient international cooperation.

“We face our own 1945 moment. We must meet that moment. We must show unity like never before to overcome today’s emergency, get the world moving and working and prospering again, and uphold the vision of the Charter.”

United Nations (UN) Secretary-General Antonio Guterres appealing for global solidarity at the 75th session of the UN General Assembly | Photo Credit: United Nations 

As much as our lives have been disrupted, simply retreating from globalisation to the insular and local is not the answer. Once we understand the new world we live in, it is important that we learn the correct lesson from this crisis. The future is unpredictable, and so are crises. Hence, a strong international cooperation network must be built to ensure a more reliable and robust safety net for the next global crisis. 

While it is elusive for countries to truly work together for the same cause, it does not mean we should be any less ambitious. Despite all the protectionism and selfish acts we have been experiencing, we must not forget how the world has managed to set aside its differences to cooperate on many things. Most evidently, the creation of the United Nations (UN). Before the birth of the UN, no one really believed that countries would work together, especially since history has been mired with wars and conflict. Additionally, the failure to establish the League of Nations further crushed the hope for global cooperation. Perhaps there is still hope that the world will work together once more.  

Quoting the UN 7th Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, globalisation is “an irreversible process, not an option. It could be a positive force, but it is also blind and therefore needs to be carefully harnessed.” Maybe even after this crisis, globalisation will not be reversed, but it could well be slowed down. We need to develop the technologies, organisational capacities and institutional framework to adapt to this new world. The concern of every government is its security and safety. The nature of security in our world has long changed. A country is no longer simply defined by its military might, but also how they deal with issues such as climate change, social issues, public health, whose impacts could be much more insidious and global. We must learn to detect, control and manage the risks, which is an essential part of globalisation. Like any other global crisis, the virus thrives on division. Therefore, cooperation and leadership are of the utmost importance to reduce the amount of destruction and devastation when, and not if, the next crisis hits.  

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Writer | + posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

About Us

The IAS Gazette is a news site run by undergraduates from the Singapore Institute of Management’s International Affairs Society (IAS). Founded in 2018, it traces its roots to The Capital, a now defunct bimonthly magazine previously under the IAS.

The Capital Magazine

%d bloggers like this: