Epidemics are slowly but surely remaking the world order


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The world might soon re-open for business.

A small group of countries are seemingly coming out on top in the worldwide battle to contain coronavirus, giving humanity hope that the pandemic will be vanquished.

China, where the virus first struck, has spectacularly recovered, reducing its new confirmed cases from thousands per day to a single digit by the end of April.

South Korea and New Zealand have also slashed their new cases to a single digit — from 1,062 on March 1 to four cases in April 29 and 89 on April 5 to two by April 30, respectively.

Australia is still on two digits, but it has successfully reduced its new cases from a daily high of 460 to 15 by April 29. These countries are now mapping out how to return to normal life.

This air of optimism notwithstanding, the pandemic is shrilly spreading to countries where response was cavalier and to conflict-ridden countries, where medical systems are weak or non-existent.


Unfortunately, the world’s major powers are dithering, embroiled in divisive geopolitics rather than uniting in a common front against the disease, which is unfolding as the most potent factor in the remaking of the world order since the Second World War.

The post-Covid-19 Order is poised to stridently replace two successive geopolitical orders before it. The first is the post-World War Order (1945-1989), which followed the defeat of Fascism and the rise of the East-West Cold War.

The second is the Post-Cold War Order (1989-2014), which followed the triple collapse of the bureaucratic Communism in Moscow, the Soviet Empire in Eastern Europe and the Berlin Wall, and the rise of America as the sole hegemon in a unipolar liberal international order.

It is this ‘liberal Nirvana’ that Samuel Huntington enchanted in The Third Wave: Democratisation in the Late Twentieth Century (1991) and Francis Fukuyama celebrated in End of History (1992).

But Anglo-Saxon liberalism has been unravelling. Britain’s vote to exit the European Union (Brexit) and the election of Donald Trump in America in 2016 thrust populism, isolationism and other anti-globalisation hues (protectionism and anti-migration policies) to the heart of power.

Meanwhile, China’s experiment with a unique blend of market and socialist principles, which started with Beijing’s ‘Reforms and Opening Up’ in 1978, was beginning to emerge as one of history’s most successful re-engineering of a nation which catapulted China to the superpower status and the World’s factory.

As coronavirus struck, the world was already hurtling towards a critical geopolitical moment where America’s virtual empire appears to be declining and China to be on the rise.

China’s response to Covid-19 has palpably tested the resilience and efficacy of its governing style. On January 25, President Xi Jinping put the world on notice that China was facing a “grave situation”.

But China’s response, which has reduced new cases from 19,457 at the apex of the crisis in mid February to four by April 29, has practically contained the disease.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) described the recovery as “perhaps the most ambitious, agile and aggressive disease containment in history”.

This is a triumph for President Xi Jinping and China’s experiment with ‘democratic centralism’, which brings together the best of the market principles of a functioning developmental state and oriental discipline while avoiding doctrinaire socialism, capitalism and the hubris of a super power.

Sadly, lessons from China’s dramatic recovery are being lost in the mire of fierce geopolitical rivalries and debates on the origins of the virus, who is to blame for its spread and the relative disease-fighting abilities of autocracies and democracies.

First, social media is awash with theories about the origins of the coronavirus. Trump’s America has labelled the disease “China Virus”.

From China’s cyberspace, the virus is depicted as an “American disease”. According to The Economist, there were conspiracy theories on China’s internet about Covid-19 being the CIA’s creation to keep China down, perhaps introduced in Wuhan by American military visitors.

Second, liberal-leaning analysts started off by showing how the crisis “revealed the underlying weaknesses” of the Chinese system.

After China’s recovery, they are fretting that ‘autocrats’ are exploiting the epidemic to upend rivals in global geopolitics.

Focus is on China’s growing humanitarian footprint to combat Covid-19 outside its borders.

Third is a high-pitched blame game that seeks to pour scorn on China’s containment of the disease.

Because of delays and weak responses by the Wuhan and Hubei authorities, it is argued, Beijing is responsible for allowing the coronavirus a critical head start.

China, the criticism goes, may have deliberately under-reported the extent of infections and deaths, thus undermining early response.

So, by the time the Government responded, the coronavirus had burst onto the world. This is despite tribute to China by world leaders for containing the pandemic.

In the same vain, a recent analysis by The Economist concluded that “democracies appear to experience lower mortality rates for epidemic diseases than their non-democratic counterparts”.

But this argument is running up against the headwinds of the reality that lackluster responses by democracies have turned Covid-19 into a deathtrap.

In contrast, in Africa, no-nonsense approaches by “strongmen” are paying off. President Yoweri Museveni has managed to push down Uganda’s cases from 19 new cases at the acme of the crisis to zero by the end of April and maintained death toll at zero.

America, China and other major powers need to help stem the alarming spread of coronavirus to populations affected by conflict, such as Somalia and South Sudan.

Obviously, in remaking a new world order, coronavirus is hastening the decline of powers and accelerating the rise of others. But humanity should forge a common front against this existential threat.

Professor Peter Kagwanja is the Chief Executive at the Africa Policy Institute and Former Government Adviser.

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