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WAKE UP to the Post COVID-19 World

By Colonel ANIL A ATHALE (retd)
December 03, 2020 20:25 IST
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'The time to create a 'League of Democracies' as a functional alternative to failed superpowers may come sooner than later,' predicts Colonel Anil A Athale (retd).

IMAGE: A scene from Mumbai, November 2, 2020. Photograph: Francis Mascarenhas/Reuters

Most readers will agree that the pandemic was a 'Black Swan' event of epic proportions.

There is a consensus that the post COVID-19 world will certainly be a very different place with changed political alignments, anew economic balance and a new mindset, all over the world.

Just to take one example, but for the pandemic, Donald J Trump would certainly have won the 2020 presidential election and ushered the world in a very different political trajectory.

Though Trump lost the election, he won close to 70 million votes, more than any winner of previous elections.

With the possible exception of China (though a question mark as Chinese statistics are dodgy) all other major world economies have contracted and have gone into recession.

These and many other impacts of the pandemic induced economic and political problems are indeed important, but may pass over period of time.

However, the psychological damage it has done to humanity will continue to impact attitudes and policies for a far longer time to come.

IMAGE: A scene from Ahmedabad, November 27, 2020. Photograph: Amit Dave/Reuters

The first and foremost casualty is the very idea of great scientific progress by mankind.

A mere strand of an RNA virus has held the whole world to ransom.

Nearly a year has passed since the outbreak of the pandemic, but mankind is yet to know the exact nature of this virus, its symptoms, treatment and prevention.

Our progress in space exploration and the communication revolution had masked the glaring gap that exists in our knowledge of the living world.

COVID-19 has shown mankind how much we still do not know about the world around us.

Mankind thought that we had mastered nature, but COVID-19 has shown that there are many aspects of nature that we do not know much about, leave alone its control.

IMAGE: Another scene from Mumbai, Mumbai, November 27, 2020. Photograph: Francis Mascarenhas/Reuters

The second major victim of the pandemic is the notion that the world will unite when confronted by a common danger.

Globalisation of travel, creation of global institutes had masked the harsh reality that the world is divided politically into mutually suspicious nation States.

Hollywood movies like Independence Day et al had painted a picture of the nations of the world coming together when faced with threats from aliens or a virus!

In reality in 2020, the world witnessed an inactive United Nations and every nation for itself as seen from the initial grab for PPEs or ventilators, and now when nations are grabbing initial vaccine doses.

The American made disaster movies inevitably showed the US president leading the world against the common danger to humanity.

In reality, the world saw the spectacle of an uneducated and demagogue US president flouting scientific advice and acting selfishly.

The other claimant to SuperPowerdom, China, acted equally myopically.

China hid the initial outbreak and was less than transparent about how it all began in Wuhan.

To cap it all, as the world was still grappling with the pandemic, China flexed its military muscle, trying to take advantage of the situation to expand its territory.

IMAGE: A protest to boycott China-made products in Ahmedabad, November 6, 2020. Photograph: Amit Dave/Reuters

The third important notion that lies buried is the hope that China's rise will be peaceful.

In fact, Chinese behaviour during the initial and later stages of the pandemic have put a question mark over its rise.

To start with, China had very little 'soft power' to begin with and whatever little influence it had has evaporated due to its recent behaviour.

It is to be noted that despite being first off the block in vaccine development, China is nowhere on the world scene.

The reason for this mistrust goes back to the lack of faith in Chinese system and products.

The world has not forgotten the 2008 Chinese milk scandal.

The scandal involved milk and infant formula along with other food material and components being adulterated with melamine.

The panic created by that incident led to Chinese tourists buying up all the available baby milk in several European cities, so much so that some countries imposed restrictions on the quantity that Chinese could buy.

While China may tout its success of having controlled the outbreak, its lack of transparency has given rise to many conspiracy theories.

Once out of the woods, it is unlikely that the world will permit free travel links with China.

Possibility of the European countries, the worst sufferers due to COVID-19, uniting against China is greater than ever.

Even a country like Italy, the only European supporter of China's One Belt One Road initiative, is so badly bruised by the disease that it is sure to review its ties with China.

IMAGE: A medic administers COVAXIN, an Indian government-backed experimental COVID-19 vaccine, to a health worker during its trials at the Gujarat Medical Education & Research Society in Ahmedabad, November 26, 2020. Photograph: Amit Dave/Reuters

When we consider the shape of the post pandemic world order, we will have to consider the impact of these factors on the policies of most countries.

One certain impact of this change in perception is going to be felt in the way the world funds scientific research.

Life sciences, biology and virus and bacterial studies, poor cousins of physical sciences in terms of funding, will certainly receive a much needed boost.

Most countries will also invest more in public health.

But the fundamental reason due to which the virus are transitioning from wild animals to humans, destruction of natural habitat due to the pressure of growing human populations, is unlikely to receive the attention it deserves.

The US has elected a new President in Joe Biden, but while Trump may have lost, Trumpism is alive and well, will limit the chances of US reclaiming its leadership role in the world.

China has missed the bus as far as world leadership is concerned.

Its lack of soft power makes its attempt to rise to world leadership as problematic as it was for Nazi Germany.

While Nazi Germany used military power in its quest, China seems to have relies on its economic clout.

It is instructive to note that historically, world powers in the past like the UK, the US or the then Soviet Union, had ideological soft power to back up their claims to world leadership.

A component China lacks.

Both these facts together may give rise to a coalition of middle powers like India, France, Germany to band together to establish some sort of world order to co-operate to face threats to mankind.

The time to create a 'League of Democracies' as a functional alternative to failed superpowers may come sooner than later.

Colonel Anil A Athale (retd) is a former Chhatrapati Shivaji Chair Fellow at the United Services Institute of India.

Feature Presentation: Ashish Narsale/


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Colonel ANIL A ATHALE (retd)
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