Coronavirus won’t stop globalization, but will greatly change it for the better

In 2008, the world successfully pulled together – with Britain playing a catalytic role – when faced with the threat of financial collapse. In 2020, confronted with the threat of a global pandemic, it is every country for itself. There has been no international health summit of national leaders supported by the World Health Organization – although the World Bank has announced a $12bn package of assistance. There are frantic national efforts to create a vaccine and no effort to ensure that, when found and produced in sufficient scale, it will go to the places of need – in all our interests. Britain, with no vaccine production capacity of its own, is especially vulnerable.

Instead there are national bans on exports of key products such as medical supplies, with countries falling back on their own analysis of the crisis amid localised shortages and haphazard, primitive approaches to containment. The standards on isolation, quarantine and contact tracing – medieval approaches to disease control in any case, according to Prof Peter Piot, director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine – vary hugely between countries.

The WHO, underfunded for decades, with the threat of further draconian loss of funds made only last month by Donald Trump, struggles to make itself relevant, undermined and ignored by its own members. China applies immense pressure so that its manipulated data or effectiveness are not challenged. Trump has airily dismissed the WHO’s warnings of an imminent pandemic because they do not conform to his “hunch” that the health risks have been wildly overstated. In short, if you want to create a pandemic with wholesale abdication of global leadership, do what is happening now.

The approach extends to the economy. Stock markets rightly worry about an approaching global recession – flagged by collapsing air passenger revenues and the parallel collapse of seaborne trade signalled by the lowest freight rates since 2008. However, government and central banks are not coordinating their economic response to the threat. When the US Federal Reserve cut interest rates by half a percentage point, no others followed suit. The chancellor, Rishi Sunak, is preparing his budget under the close direction of Boris Johnson’s malign amanuensis Dominic Cummings rather than as part of an international economic response.

It is the triumph of nationalism and anti-Enlightenment values across the world. So of course Johnson, leader of the supremely anti-Enlightenment and nationalist Brexit project, complete with its disdain for experts, gave a press conference last week in which he could not call for an internationally coordinated response and the rebuilding of European and international public health capacity. Gordon Brown, in parallel circumstances during the financial crisis, did call for such coordination. Britain would contain, delay, research and mitigate on its own, Johnson declared – fighting Covid-19 metaphorically on the beaches. There would be no surrender. Britain alone would beat this foreign incubus.

Yet Covid-19 spares neither Leave nor Remain, neither imam nor Chinese doctor, and respects no national border. So even as national leaders fall back on atavistic national responses, the dictates of science and reason have to surface – there is no other way forward.

The awfulness of Johnson’s sub-Churchillian press-conference rhetoric was mitigated by him being flanked by two representatives of the best of Enlightenment thinking – the government’s chief medical officer, Prof Chris Whitty, and chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance. They at least talk sense based on evidence and reason. That is cause for hope, for all the babble that Covid-19 has fatally killed globalisation and that the new era will be all about competing populist nationalisms. Whitty and Vallance were sobering at Tuesday’s press conference, counterbalancing Johnson’s breeziness with recognition of the policy trade-offs, the potential for economic dislocation, and the imminence of the disease becoming a pandemic.

But then they are part of a global scientific community – talking to each other even if national leaders are not. A reliable test was established within days as Covid-19’s gene sequence was fast decoded. Vaccine prototypes exist and will soon be trialled on humans. Antiviral treatments are already being clinically trialled. There is an emerging consensus about the risks of infection, the mortality rate and the effectiveness of varying containment strategies. This can and will be beaten.

The only questions are how long will it take and at what cumulative cost. The lack of global public health capacity, standards and enforcement are crippling. The US’s problem is not only that it is led by a fool and a knave, but that its hugely expensive private healthcare system does not invest in public health capacity – such as isolation beds for patients stricken with a contagious virus.

Yet America’s problem – just like China’s problem over unregulated markets for wild animal meat – is our problem, too. One of the foundations of the rise of the left in the 19th and early 20th centuries was the growing recognition that no individual, however wealthy, was insulated from disease epidemics. Sanitation, clean water and immunisation were public goods necessary for everyone to stay alive. The left was their champion.

Now, one form of unregulated, free-market globalisation with its propensity for crises and pandemics is certainly dying. But another form that recognises interdependence and the primacy of evidence-based collective action is being born. There will be more pandemics that will force governments to invest in public health institutions and respect the science they represent – with parallel moves on climate change, the oceans, finance and cybersecurity. Because we can’t do without globalisation, the imperative will be to find ways of managing and governing it.

Today’s Brexiters are of a mindset that is certain to wither. No more Britain alone. Faced with a deadly virus, working with others is a matter of life or death. This emergency will open the way for more, not less, international governance.