Contours of coronavirus

Given near-certain shocks awaiting our world, it's time to rethink globalisation

By Sunita Narain
Published: Friday 14 February 2020
Coronavirus impression. Artist: Matt why do you need my last name / Pixabay

Call it the revenge of the bug. The new coronavirus, named 2019-nCoV, has done to the Chinese economy what US President Donald Trump could not do. It has wreaked havoc in the world’s second-largest economy; grinding it to a halt; shutting down its cities; and, isolating its people.

Today, we are seeing perhaps the largest effort ever to contain the spread of this infection — Chinese President Xi Jinping called it a people’s war on the virus. But the worrying question is this: With more than 1,600 deaths and nearly 70,000 people infected in just about a month, how long will it last? The virus stays dormant over two weeks — that is even if people are infected, the symptoms do not show.

The good news is that the mortality rate is low; but on the other hand, the fear of contagion is high as the virus moves through the air from people to people. So, the answer is to ensure that anyone possibly exposed is isolated and quarantined.

But what does this mean for an inter-connected world, which has broken every record in terms of trans-boundary movement of people and trade? Consider this. In 2003, when the world witnessed the first such global health crisis, the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), China accounted for only 4 per cent of the world’s gross domestic product (GDP). Today it is 16 per cent. Business begins and ends in China. It is the world’s ultimate supply chain.

So, this health crisis will disrupt business all across the world. Also, now, the movement of people is massive and this is why the movement of the virus is also so fast. There is no doubt that governments are stepping in; closing doors. But it shows our common vulnerability; how quickly a common cold can become a global contagion.

There is also more that we must discuss — more seriously than when we were confronted with SARS in 2003, and then with the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in 2012. The fact is that in these cases, including the COVID-19, the virus found in bats has jumped from animals to humans. In the case of SARS, the World Health Organization (WHO) found that the civet cat, raccoon dog and badger were the most likely intermediate hosts. In the case of MERS, the camel was the intermediate host.

The route of COVID-19 is not yet clear — the local market, which is seen to be the source of the outbreak, does not sell bats, it is said. But even as scientists work out the details, the fact is that we are beginning to see more zoonotic diseases — from swine flu to avian influenza. These are diseases that are getting transferred from animals to humans, triggering a pandemic.

The fact is that so much of this virus transference is happening because of our dystopian relationship with the natural world. On the one hand, we are pushing every kind of chemical and toxin into our food. This is making food a source of disease, not just nutrition. Antibiotics are being shoved into animals and even crops — not for disease control but to make them grow more; put on weight, so that business profits. As a result, resistance to drugs needed for human survival is on the rise.

On the other, we are growing our food in ways that favour disease growth — industrial farms, which are vertically integrated, are fast becoming the source of contagion. Remember the origin of swine flu from industrial hog factories in Mexico that contaminated water! This breaking of the boundaries between animal and human habitats will lead to more such outbreaks. And this, in a world that is even more inter-connected and globalised, will make the infection wildly contagious.

There is also the question of the manner in which trade works in the world. The fact is global vulnerability will increase — from disease to climate change. In the past three decades, the world has invested in building a monolith trade system, which has no local or regional control.

The risk management systems of the poor should teach us that diversification is the key to survival. The farmers of our world always minimised risk through a system of crop and livestock management. They grew a variety of crops — scientists have counted over 50 crops growing in single homesteads. They reduced dependence on the factors that they could not control, but worked on ways to build more resilient local economies.

Now, I know that we cannot turn back the clock of globalisation; we cannot wish away this monster world trade system. It is profitable and it is aspirational — everybody wants to be integrated to the world supply chain. But surely, given the almost certain shocks that await us in our world, it is time we re-thought the very idea of globalisation. Let’s start by working on localisation first.

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