Mohamed Chtatou

The World after Coronavirus

By its amplitude and its multiform effect, the COVID-19 health crisis heralds, more than ever, systemic upheavals. Most countries around the world are affected by the pandemic, and it is clear that it represents the greatest threat that humanity has had to face for centuries.

Morocco was not left behind and was also bearing the brunt of the crisis. Yet, despite its fragile infrastructure, the country has demonstrated its responsiveness and adaptability to deal with the situation.

The question that arises is this: What will the day after be made of and how can we prepare for it?

  • On the educational front: What education system should we develop? With what values and for what citizens?
  • On the health and ethical level: What ethical and human rights challenges must the health system face?
  • On the economic level: What economic model should we put in place to generate more wealth, a better distribution of this wealth in a globalized environment?
  • On the political level: What system of governance and what institutions need to be reinvented? On what foundations?

The unpredictable crisis of COVID-19 raises fundamental questions at several levels. It questions the current form of globalization and the neo-liberal ideology that has accompanied it to date. It questions broken global governance, overwhelmed by national egoism and the temptations of closure. It calls for the mobilization of the instruments of the resilience of democracies, and of a European Union that is playing its future, particularly in the confidence of the people.

Reviewing globalization

This pandemic will not mark the end of globalization. But it will call into question a certain number of its modalities and ideological presuppositions, in particular the famous neo-liberal triptych: open markets, the retreat of the State, and privatizations. This questioning was already underway before the crisis began. It will become more pronounced afterward.

Initially a health shock, COVID-19 very quickly became a totally new economic and social shock. No economist could have imagined that this stop, which confined several billion people to their homes, would have been unimaginable. Its consequences will therefore go far beyond what was experienced in 2008.

In the last decade, globalization has been amplified by the development of more and more extensive value chains. These chains make it possible to break down the manufacture of a good in different locations to minimize production costs. All this has been achieved without great difficulty, given the collapse of transport costs and the development of telecommunications. The digitalization of the economy has amplified this movement, which has benefited many emerging countries, particularly China, which has thus captured a large part of textile production and consumer electronics, but also India in other industries such as pharmaceuticals.

In Wuhan, the birthplace of the pandemic, more than 300 of the world’s 500 largest firms had set up shop. This extension of value chains, and the extreme ease with which they could be set up, naturally fueled the idea that there was no longer a problem of supply, given the abundance of supply worldwide. As a result, just-in-time flows replaced stocks. The use of stockpiling has almost become an uneconomic practice. Even those states that had best prepared for the risk of a pandemic ended up, over the years, lowering their guard. After the crisis, value chains will of course not disappear, as their economic value remains considerable.

Globalization will therefore change its face. The face of the state will also change, as its retreat has been at the heart of neoliberal ideology. It is clear from this crisis that spontaneous demand for the State is increasing, and that countries with strong social protection are better equipped to face the crisis than those that leave their citizens to face the market alone. The fact that Europe is forced to produce is indicative of the specificity of the European model. But the state cannot be an obese state, which deals with everything, including the production of masks. Its strategic capacity to anticipate and prepare society to face challenges of this kind must be rehabilitated. The States that have best managed the health crisis over the past three months are those where public power is best organized. It is the quality of the State that counts, not just its size.

Rehabilitating the strategic role of the State will be a post-crisis priority. But this effort will not be easy to carry out in Europe, which is based on a mix between nation-states and a single market. The imperatives of setting up the Single Market have led to equating all protection with obstacles to the construction of this market. So, while the European states have progressively deprotected themselves to allow the Single Market to be built, Europe has forgotten to protect itself collectively. Hence the interest – albeit belatedly – in the issues relating to reciprocity in market access in particular. Fortunately, things have begun to change and this crisis can accelerate the process of change and this crisis can accelerate the process of change of course. There is now talk in Europe of better control of foreign investment and distortions of competition from non-European states.

The coronavirus crisis will highlight the fact that globalization increases the vulnerability of nations that do not take the necessary precautions to ensure their security in the broadest sense. All this must therefore lead Europe to give substance and strength to the idea of strategic autonomy, which clearly cannot be confined to the military sphere. This strategic autonomy must be built around six main principles which are as follows:

Reducing dependency not only in the health field but also in the field of tomorrow’s technologies, such as batteries or artificial intelligence.

Prevent a takeover of strategic activities by players outside Europe, which presupposes that these activities are clearly identified upstream.

Protect sensitive infrastructures against cyber-attacks.

Avoid that the relocation of certain economic activities, and the resulting dependency, could one day undermine our decision-making autonomy.

To extend Europe’s normative power to the technologies of the future, to prevent others from exercising it at its expense.

Take leadership in all areas where the global governance deficit leads to the destruction of the multilateral system.

Rehabilitating global governance

The World Health Organization (WHO) is now in the line of fire, at a time when it is needed most. The Security Council could not agree on a resolution on COVID-19 due to the lack of agreement between the United States and China. This is an unprecedented reality since even during the cold war the United States and the USSR were able to reach an agreement to promote the search for a polio vaccine.

The G7 was also unable to agree on a text, with one state wanting to call COVID-19 a “Chinese virus“… The world is witnessing veritable game blame between the United States and China, which in fact sheds light on a lack of global leadership. This situation is in stark contrast to what was seen in the 2000s with the implementation of the Global AIDS Plan, or the mobilization against the Ebola virus, or at the time of the 2008 financial crisis.

It could certainly be argued that an epidemic does not per se fall within the prerogatives of the Security Council, but the argument would not be convincing. In the two cases mentioned above (AIDS, Ebola), the vote was unanimous in the Security Council. And this unanimity favored mobilization. A recent draft text proposed by Estonia could not be voted on, as some states did not accept that the text insisted on the need for transparency in the reporting of the crisis, a principle deemed to be an attack on their sovereignty.

The fact that, for the first time since the creation of the United Nations, a pandemic is not leading to consensus is a very bad omen. This is the result both of disagreements between states and of the disinterest of some states in any international leadership. All this is extremely worrying because it is known that strong international coordination can make a difference. It can make it possible to publicize good practices, to propose international standards for passenger screening at airports, for example, to pool resources for testing and vaccine research – rather than seeking to capture the product of promising research for the benefit of a single country -, to create partnerships for the production of all the products and equipment essential to the fight against the pandemic.

What international relations?

It will of course be necessary later on to assess what was done well, or badly, at the beginning of the pandemic. But this is a time for mobilization, not controversy. From this point of view, President Trump’s announcement of a provisional suspension of American funding to the WHO, on the pretext that it was intended to mask Chinese failures, is regrettable.

This crisis has unquestionably exacerbated the Sino-American relationship and revealed the dangers that a multidimensional conflict between the two states posed to international security. As UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres pointed out, the way out of the crisis requires close coordination between the United States, China, and the EU. But if this crisis were to exacerbate, rather than intensify, Sino-American tension, Europe’s role would become even more crucial. In particular, it should avoid the effects of this rivalry having a negative impact on a number of regions of the world, notably in Africa, which will need real financial support to cope with the looming pandemic.

The announcement by the G20 and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) of a moratorium on the debt of the poorest countries will certainly relieve many States. But it is clearly not enough.

This crisis will also be a political test for Europe’s democratic systems. As always, it is crises that reveal to societies their strengths and weaknesses. Political narratives are already being put in place to prepare for the future. There are three competing narratives: the populist, the authoritarian, which in many respects is in line with it, and the democratic.

The populist narrative should, in principle, be strongly affected by this crisis, which highlights the importance of rationality, expertise, and knowledge. These are all principles that have been tampered with and rejected by populists, who identify all this with the “elites”. It is indeed difficult to continue to talk about post-truth when we know how we are infected, which groups are at risk, and what preventive measures should be taken to fight the epidemic. But populists can invoke foreign responsibility for the spread of the virus. They can also attack globalization, the traditional scapegoat for all problems. Similarly, they can advocate greater border controls and use this opportunity to increase their hostility to immigration. Populism is highly plastic. It adapts to all contexts and can easily change course since it does not bother to distinguish between right and wrong. Moreover, in an anxiety-provoking context where fears dominate, populists will always be at ease. The temptation is great to take advantage of this exceptional situation to limit rights and freedoms.

The world could drift towards digital authoritarianism, to which some States are already clearly committed. This is the same as after 11 September 2001, when the fight against terrorism led to a decline in individual freedoms. Orwell is already outdated, the authoritarian narrative is close to the populist narrative in that it too seeks to simplify problems and reduce them to a central explanation. It considers that only authoritarian and centralized regimes can defeat the epidemic by mobilizing all the country’s resources. But everybody knows that this is not true and that the countries that have been most successful so far in containing the crisis are well-organized democratic States.

That leaves the democratic narrative. That is the most difficult thing to build because democratic societies are based on doubt, questioning, deliberation, and questioning. All these factors hinder rapid and effective action based on a clear and indisputable narrative. For Europe, however, it is the peoples of Europe themselves who, at the end of the crisis, will deliver their verdict on the conduct of each State and of Europe as a whole. In this respect, it is fundamental that the European Union should clearly appear as an actor that can make a difference. Not that it should take the place of the States; but it can amplify their action, to give meaning to what is at stake here: the protection of the European model. This model will only have value in the eyes of the world if we succeed in promoting a model of solidarity between our Member States.

COVID-19, a pretext for autocracy

Still, states whose leaders already had authoritarian tendencies are using the health crisis to strengthen their hands. As German political scientist Jan-Werner Mueller writes :

“emergencies have two effects: in democratic states, they concentrate power in the hands of the executive. (…) The other effect is obviously more pernicious: in countries already threatened by what sociologists call “democracy”, leaders use the COVID-19 crisis to remove the last remaining obstacles to their continued hold on power.”

In the United States, some 15 states have postponed the presidential primaries to a later date, a real campaign, with televised meetings and debates, proving impractical. Part of the public was concerned about a possible postponement of the general elections (presidential and congressional renewal).

But the American Constitution is clear: neither the President nor the Vice-President can have their term of office extended beyond the four constitutional years, without having been confirmed by a new popular vote. If a catastrophe of such magnitude that the election must be abandoned, the constitutional “line of succession” designates the Senate speaker to succeed him, on a provisional basis: in this case the president, Democrat Nancy Pelosi.

Nothing will ever be the same again?

Everybody has his or her own ideas about “the world after“: no one can imagine that the breakdown of the world economy due to the confinement of half of the human population could have no effect on the rest of our history.

And yet there is no certainty about the agenda for ending the crisis. At this time, there is neither effective treatment nor a vaccine. And it is not known the extent of the health, economic and social damage that this new coronavirus may inflict on the world in the coming months or even years.

A first split can quickly be seen between those who believe that this pandemic will create a decisive break with the past and those who believe, on the contrary, that the crisis will accelerate changes that were already underway, amplifying pre-existing phenomena. The proponents of “Nothing will be the same as before…” oppose those who see the crisis as accelerating “developments that were in the making“. This is an opposition that was already perceived during the 2008 financial crisis.

The world will be different from what we imagined in normal times,” writes British philosopher John Gray in The New Statesman. “This is not a temporary break creating a temporary imbalance: the crisis we are going through is a _historic tipping point.” John Gray can be considered one of the most radical proponents of the rupture thesis.

In the face of a crisis of this magnitude, the desire for security far outweighs the desire for freedom. According to John Gray, the coronavirus crisis will shake the very foundations of our democracies.

A liberal intellectual like Peruvian Nobel Prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa is worried, on the contrary, about the risks that the current crisis poses to freedoms. But he remains hopeful that, in world democracies, these restrictions will be temporary and will disappear with the end of the epidemic:

“The coronavirus does indeed ravish all the enemies of freedom! It is the ideal pretext to reduce it and to allow the State to intervene in the field of our private lives. I observe the situation with concern, not only because of the appalling economic crisis that will follow but by seeing these states boasting about indexing these restrictions of freedom to the effectiveness against the virus. This still needs to be demonstrated! (…) In our free world, if state control is accepted, it is only because the situation is extraordinary and is known to be temporary.“

About the Author
Dr. Mohamed Chtatou is a Professor of “MENA region area studies” at Université Internationale de Rabat -UIR- and of “Education” at Université Mohammed V in Rabat, as well. Besides, he is currently a political analyst with Moroccan, American, Gulf, French, Italian and British media on politics and culture in the Middle East, Islamism and religious terrorism. He is, also, a specialist on political Islam in the MENA region with interest in the roots of terrorism and religious extremism. During 2015 he worked as Program Director with the USAID/CHEMONICS educational project entitled: “Reading for Success: A Small Scale Experimentation” in cooperation with the Moroccan Ministry of National Education and Vocational Training (MENFP). He recently taught cultural studies to Semester abroad students with AMIDEAST, IES and CIEE study abroad programs in Morocco insuring such courses as: “Introduction to Moroccan Culture,” “Contemporary North African History,” “Arab Spring,” “Amazigh Culture,” “Moroccan Jewish Legacy,” “Community-Based Learning” (internship with civil society organizations). He is, also, currently teaching “Communication Skills” and “Translation and Interpreting” to master students at The Institute for Leadership and Communication Studies –ILCS- in Rabat, Morocco and supervising several Fulbright students in areas of religion and culture in Morocco. He has taught in the past some courses in universities in the USA, Spain, France, Italy, England and Greece.
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