“One world” no more
THE WEEK|September 19, 2021
The pandemic might give way to an era of deglobalisation
SHASHI THAROOR

A post-Covid world? The thought seems to belong in the realm of fantasy. Most of us can barely recall life before Covid, let alone contemplate an existence without it. As the country braces for a “third wave” and vaccine manufacturers talk about the need for “booster shots”, can we truly contemplate a post-Covid world?

Yet though it is too early to assert anything with certitude, I will stick my neck out and say that it seems increasingly likely that Covid-19 will inaugurate an era of deglobalization. The signs are mounting that the world may embrace isolationism and protectionism in a far more enthusiastic way than prior to the outbreak, including in India.

The indications are evident. The pandemic has confirmed, for many, that in times of crisis, people rely on their governments to shield them; that global supply chains are vulnerable to disruption and are therefore unsustainable, and that dependence on foreign countries for essential goods (such as pharmaceuticals, or even the ingredients that go into making them) could be fatal. Nations tried aggressively to acquire medicines and supplies for their own people at the expense of each other. There is a rush to reset global supply chains and raise trade barriers: the demand for more protectionism and “self-reliance” (echoed in Prime Minister Modi’s call for “atmanirbharta”), for bringing manufacturing and production value chains back home or at least closer to home, is mounting.

Along with these developments, there are collateral threats to the global flow of capital and investments, as well as multi-border pipelines and energy grids. The pandemic and the resultant lockdowns have already ended regular international travel across free and open borders; restrictions and quarantine requirements abound, some vaccines are not recognized by some countries, and traveling in masks and shields has taken much of the pleasure away from the jet-set lifestyle.

Much of what we took for granted till recently—and which seemed to be knitting the world ever-closer together—seems vulnerable in the post-Covid era. It is difficult to imagine that international travel will ever be the same again; that we will be able to move around without masks or taking recourse to sanitizers; that student life, with easy mingling on crowded campuses, will simply resume. Already, new patterns of work, involving following strict social distancing norms (and often with working from home at least a few days a week) have become the new normal. Many companies—most famously Twitter— have decreed that their employees may work from home indefinitely. Teeming office buildings and crowded workspaces may soon be a thing of the past. Fear of a virus, a deadly unseen enemy, may mark our lives for a long time to come, even after this particular pandemic ends.

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