Globalization is not the Problem, It’s the Solution!
In times of the corona crisis, we should call for more political, economic and scientific cooperation.
Like never before, the world stands still and is yet in turmoil. The corona virus has been spreading rapidly and led the economy to a global standstill. Some are calling for far-reaching economic restrictions, even for the time after the crisis. Others blame globalization for the spread of the virus. Globalization has become a pawn sacrifice in a heated debate on guilt and innocence in a worldwide health crisis.
The history of humankind is also a history of its diseases. The first records of an epidemic date back to 430 BC. Back then, the Plague of Athens killed about a quarter of the population of the state. In the 14th century, the Plague claimed 25 million lives in Europe and Asia. In 1519, up to eight million people in Central America died of smallpox. And no less than 25 million Europeans, Americans and Asians succumbed to the Spanish flu after the First World War. Epidemics and pandemics caused millions of deaths worldwide long before rapid globalization in the second half of the 20th century. Therefore, it was only a matter of time before a dangerous disease would spread in a highly connected world. Global aviation made it possible that people are infected with the same virus on three continents in only 24 hours.
Do we, therefore, need to restrict or wind back globalization? The answer is definitely no. A glance at the arguably most dangerous virus of our time illustrates the reason: Since the seventies, more than thirty million people died of HIV/Aids. For many years, an HIV infection meant a certain death sentence. The reason people with HIV live a more or less normal life today, is the success of global research. When doctors travel from all corners of the world to Western Africa to fight the Ebola fever, this is a success of international cooperation. And when respirators, ventilators and disinfectants are sent around the globe in only a few days during the corona crisis, we owe this to our global infrastructure.
In the Middle Ages – in a far less connected world – epidemics led to millions of deaths. The reason that we hardly know disasters of this magnitude today is not the result of nation-state solutions. On the contrary, it is the success of global cooperation of companies, universities and supranational organizations like the World Health Organization (WHO). Instead of getting trapped in medieval isolationist patterns, we should call for more political, economic and scientific cooperation during the corona crisis. This works astonishingly well for science and business. It took less than two weeks to isolate the corona virus. Right now, a lot of companies are changing their production to produce disinfectants and respirators.
The EU shows signs of disintegration.
Without doubt, even more flexibility and adaptability would be desirable, for example in the pharmaceutical industry. In emergencies, it is important to get testing devices and vaccines fast. To this end, a state emergency plan developed in cooperation with the relevant branches and companies partially subsidized by the state would be sufficient. The globalized production structure in most of the industries would remain unaffected by this plan.
Unfortunately, the handling of the corona virus at the political level shows how far we have moved away from the principles of solidarity and cooperation. It is no surprise that the erratic US President Donald Trump renounces all forms of international cooperation and would even prefer to build a wall against the corona virus. It is also worrying that the European Union, usually an advocate of multilateralism and political integration, is showing signs of disintegration during the Corona crisis. European nations are rushing to close their borders, disrupting supply chains and dispatching vital medicines. China is already sending doctors and medical equipment to Italy’s crisis regions, while Europe is still arguing about export bans. The European Commission is watching helplessly as each national government takes over competences and increasingly sidelines the European institutions.
We always need to think about globalization holistically. One of its key concepts is that companies, states, institutions and individuals take international responsibility, collaborate and use the global interconnectedness together for the benefit of all. During the corona crisis, many gave up on this principle. Still, understood in the right way, global cooperation is the only chance in the fight against plagues, currently the corona virus.
This op-ed was first published on March 31 at Zeit Online and is accessible here.