Tim Marshall

Covid may have changed everything — but for how long?

The assumption that covid-19 has changed the world forever ignores trends that are far deeper - and runs counter to the impact of previous pandemics

December 22, 2020 09:55

If you looked at news through the lens of Covid-19, everything in 2020 appeared virus related. It wasn’t.

It’s true that the virus hugely impacted our lives but, in the long run, those who predict it will change the world will be proved wrong. There are much bigger forces at play. Some have been magnified and accelerated by Covid-19, but, if we escape from this awful period by 2022, the world will continue along roads already laid.

We’ve seen this before. The ‘Spanish flu’ pandemic of 1918-1920 is estimated to have killed 50 million people – a catastrophic loss of life – but until recently we had almost forgotten it. With or without it the Ottoman Empire would have collapsed and communism and fascism would have spread their own political viruses. Similarly most of the major events of this year are part of underlying trends.

The US election showed several examples. The first is the partial collapse of trust in the system. This was already apparent after the 2016 election when millions of people were convinced that Russian meddling delivered the Trump victory, despite a lack of evidence to prove it. This year more than a quarter of the US electorate believes systematic fraud is behind Trump’s loss. In both cases we see the belief that the institutions of government are corrupt. Concurrent with this is hostility to anti-Covid measures. About 40% of Americans say they will not take the vaccine against it. This is not about Covid – it’s part of a wider movement, crossing political divides, which sees institutions as at best incompetent and at worst corrupt.

The election also saw the trend of the coarsening of political debate continuing with vitriol and false claims becoming routine on social media and some mainstream media outlets. This is unlikely to get better and the manner in which America conducts its culture wars has spilled over into much of the rest of the western world.

The election of Joe Biden signals a return to a more respectful manner in international relations and a respect for allies but the American pivot to Asia continues and the requirement for the Europeans to pay their own way on defence will not change. As for China – its relationship with the USA was already deteriorating and the blame game over the virus has only exacerbated it. President Biden may not be so crude in his language as Mr Trump but Washington will still take a tough line on trade, intellectual property theft, cyber warfare, and keeping the sea lanes in the South China Sea open to all.

2020 saw an acceleration of the USA and China decoupling their economies. Both want to reduce their reliance on each other and create domestic jobs. For the Americans, and many others, Covid only magnified that an over-reliance on one supplier can bring serious problems if the supply route falters. It also laid bare how aggressive China will be with countries it feels it can dominate economically. This year Australia joined the USA in blaming China for Covid. The result was an avalanche of tariffs suddenly hitting Australian barley, wine, beef and other products. We may have reached the high-water mark of globalisation.

International organisations continued to atrophy. The UN was unable to play a significant role in the Covid crisis and within it the World Health Organization played second fiddle to the policies of the nation state. It also undermined its credibility by giving the impression it was beholden to China after taking at face value the information Beijing offered up in the early weeks of the pandemic and then heaping effusive praise for its leadership.

In the EU, ‘ever closer union’ was already faltering and Covid underlined this. At a time of great crisis, most member states responded at a national level, some even pulling up the drawbridge. In the first few weeks Italy pleaded for help via the EU institutions and got none. France ignored calls from the EU to lift a ban on its drug supplies leaving the country, even though this caused shortages elsewhere in the Single Market. By the time the EU endorsed a roadmap out of lockdown, each member state had already announced its own unilateral plan. At year’s end, the deep splits in the Union over the Brexit deal were another sign that eventually Germany and France will have to push some of the EU states into becoming something at least close to a single entity if the Union is to survive.

The momentous change in the Middle East had nothing to do with Covid and everything to do with geopolitical reality catching up with dogma. For years most of the Gulf state governments had paid only lip service to the idea of hostility towards Israel. Most were tired of the Palestinian leadership and alarmed at the links between Hamas and Iran and over the past decade, as concern grew about Iran’s expansion in the region, security and trade links were forged. This progressed to the normalisation of relations between Israel, and the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco. Others may follow suit.

Turkey began the year with combat troops in Iran and Syria then added Libya to the list as its push into territories formerly controlled by the Ottoman Empire continued. It also fell out badly with France. Ankara and Paris support different sides in the Libyan civil war and a Turkish warship took exception to a French navy vessel attempting to stop a cargo ship suspected of smuggling arms to Libya. Both are NATO members but that didn’t stop the Turks donning bullet proof vests, manning their light weapons and locking their radar targeting system on to the French frigate. A few weeks later Paris deployed warships and fighter jets to the eastern Mediterranean to support Greece in its confrontation with the Turkish navy over oil and gas exploration in Cypriot waters. This is a story we will hear more of next year.

Positives? The slow move towards distance learning, home working and video conferencing was accelerated by the pandemic. Post mass-vaccination most of us will carry on as we did previously but home working no longer carries the stigma it had in the minds of some managers, and the knock-on effect will help to slightly reduce our carbon footprints. Perhaps the biggest plus was most of the global scientific community working at an exhausting pace to deliver the Covid vaccines. In a year of division and irrationality it was a triumph of cooperation and rational thinking.


December 22, 2020 09:55

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