Few have written so vividly about the human condition in fevered times as did Albert Camus. The existential philosopher’s 1947 novel La Peste tells the story of how townspeople face up to a plague, both literal and allegorical, sweeping the French-Algerian city of Oran.
Camus’s explorations of human behaviour are no less apt today. As in the novel, only now on a world scale, a disease has burst forth from nature to mock our human pretences. The coronavirus holds up a mirror to our societies, exposing their competing structures, vulnerabilities and political priorities.
We do not know how the COVID-19 pandemic will end and we can only speculate about its long-term political and economic impact. Quite apart from an international public health emergency, COVID-19 has unleashed a man-made pandemic of fear, mistrust and chaos that is testing social cohesion and globalisation to its core. If we’re not careful, it may be the politics of the pandemic, rather than the virus itself, that may prove our undoing.
The West has struggled to come to terms with the challenge. If leaders in Europe and the United States were unprepared for what has hit them, it is because they watched the epidemic grow with extraordinary indifference. Not so long ago, COVID-19 was a China story, just as the SARS epidemic in 2003 had been an Asian story, and the 2014 Ebola outbreak was reassuringly confined to parts of Africa.
But as Italy's death toll to the coronavirus has overtaken China's, events have overtaken the false certainty that the West is immune to epidemics from the emerging world. The pendulum has swung quickly from indifference to pandemonium. An air of strategic fatalism is coalescing around the belief that authoritarian China is on the rise and the democratic West is in inexorable decline.
The panic plays into the agendas of politicians who have come to power since the financial crisis decrying globalisation. Countries are turning inwards as they close their borders. Disjointed travel bans have increased the sense of things coming apart, and the feeling that the problem is someone else’s creation.
But international borders matter little when the invisible threat is already within. If this pandemic is given the logic of war, then it has surely also cascaded into civil war. It is no longer a question of borders between countries but within them, and between individuals. There is an unsettling symmetry between the United States and China using the coronavirus as a geopolitical football, and shoppers engaged in a toilet paper brawl. Countries and people alike betray a zero-sum understanding of the crisis.
Under this approach to fighting the pandemic, beggar-thy-neighbour trade policies have mutated to sicken-thy-neighbour health policies. Berlin is seeking to block the Trump administration from luring a German biopharma company to the United States. Some 48 governments are now implicated in banning or curbing the export of critical medical supplies. Coordinated action to distribute global medical supplies to where they are most needed should be the pressing priority for G20 leaders. So far, the G20 has come up with little more than empty platitudes.
Yet, paradoxically, if the knee jerk reactions have come out of the anti-globalist playbook, the pandemic is also creating an opportunity to stem the tide of populism at home. In the United States, Donald Trump is finding it harder to palm off the coronavirus as a conspiracy. In Australia too, as indeed across the Western world, the general tone of politics has changed under the weight of this emergency. We have seen a gear change from Canberra in the response to the virus at an earlier point on the curve than many other countries, including China.
The stakes are high. Unlike Europe with its universal healthcare, the United States may be in the early stages of a medical Katrina as it braces for a surge in coronavirus cases. It has much to learn from its Asian partners. America has so far operated at only a fraction of the effort it can operate at. But in the last few days alone, its testing capacity for the coronavirus has grown from about 2,500 a day to 22,000 a day – levels comparable to those of South Korea.
The bigger question is: will we get this moment right at the global level? Pandemics are quintessentially global affairs. Yet the world today is more multipolar than at any time since the Cold War. Australia has embraced the Indo-Pacific concept as the primary means of pursuing our interests in a fractured world. But balance of power politics cannot be the answer to all our problems. This is a moment to re-imagine our foreign policy and above all how we invest in global institutions. Australia has scaled back its core financial contributions to multilateral organisations, including the United Nations and its specialised agencies, by 25 percent since 2014.
In a world where multilateral institutions struggle to find answers to the most complex and urgent global challenges, such as pandemics and climate change, there will be big questions about how governments are allocating resources to ensure security, broadly defined. An uncontrolled global health crisis followed by another deep global economic recession, with its attendant political dysfunction, may be a far more existential threat to our stability than any conventional security challenge.
It is critical we get our reaction right. Cooperation on shared challenges must coexist with competition and strategic rivalry in a multipolar world. Otherwise, like a contemporary Tower of Babel, globalisation stands to collapse under the weight of its achievements, unparalleled wealth and complication.