Argument

The Coronavirus Is Killing Globalization as We Know It

The outbreak has been a gift to nativist nationalists and protectionists, and it is likely to have a long-term impact on the free movement of people and goods.

A medical worker measures body temperatures of motorists at the  Slovenian-Italian border crossing near Nova Gorica, Slovenia on March 11, after Slovenia's government announced it would close its border with Italy, hard hit by the outbreak of COVID-19.
A medical worker measures body temperatures of motorists at the Slovenian-Italian border crossing near Nova Gorica, Slovenia on March 11, after Slovenia's government announced it would close its border with Italy, hard hit by the outbreak of COVID-19. JURE MAKOVEC/AFP via Getty Images

Until recently, most policymakers and investors remained complacent about the potential economic impact of the coronavirus crisis. As late as the end of February, most wrongly assumed that it would have only a brief, limited, China-specific impact. Now they realize that it is generating a global shock, which may be sharp—but which most still expect to be short. But what if the economic disruption has an enduring impact? Could the coronavirus pandemic even be the nail in the coffin for the current era of globalization?

The coronavirus crisis has highlighted the downsides of extensive international integration while fanning fears of foreigners and providing legitimacy for national restrictions on global trade and flows of people.

All sorts of businesses have suddenly realized the risks of relying on complex global supply chains that are specific not just to China—but to particular places such as Wuhan, the epicenter of the pandemic. Chinese people—and now Italians, Iranians, Koreans, and others—have become widely seen as vectors of disease; senior Republican politicians in the United States have even labeled the disease the “Chinese coronavirus.”

Meanwhile, governments of all stripes have rushed to impose travel bans, additional visa requirements, and export restrictions. The travel ban on most arrivals from Europe that U.S. President Donald Trump announced on March 11 is particularly broad, but far from unique. All of this is making economies more national and politics more nationalistic.

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Much of this disruption may be temporary. But the coronavirus crisis is likely to have a lasting impact, especially when it reinforces other trends that are already undermining globalization. It may deal a blow to fragmented international supply chains, reduce the hypermobility of global business travelers, and provide political fodder for nationalists who favor greater protectionism and immigration controls.

The complex China-centered global supply chains on which so many Western companies have come to rely are particularly at risk. The cost advantage of producing in China has eroded in recent years as the country has become richer and wages have soared. The risks of doing so were highlighted by President Trump’s imposition of punitive tariffs on imports from China in 2018 and 2019, leading businesses to scramble for alternatives.

While the January deal marked a fragile truce in the U.S.-China trade war, the perils of producing in China remain; both Democrats and Republicans increasingly view China as a long-term strategic rival that needs to be contained. And no sooner had the trade war abated than the coronavirus intervened. The extended shutdown of many Chinese factories has pushed exports down 17 percent in the first two months of the year compared with a year earlier, and it has disrupted the production of European cars, iPhones, and other consumer goods.

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Inertia is a powerful thing. And there are still many advantages to producing in China, such as scale and efficient logistics. But the coronavirus crisis could mark a tipping point that prompts many businesses to remodel their supply chains and invest in more resilient and often more local patterns of production.

One option is to shift and diversify operations across other Asian economies, such as Vietnam or Indonesia. Another is to shorten supply chains, with U.S. companies moving production to Mexico and European ones to Eastern Europe or Turkey. A third is to invest in robots and 3D printing within advanced economies, producing locally closer to consumers.

A second enduring consequence of the coronavirus crisis may be reduced business travel. Technology gurus have long argued that videoconferencing and chat apps would eliminate the need for most business travel and allow many people to work from home more. Yet until the coronavirus crisis, business travel had continued growing, seemingly inexorably.

Now, whether because of government bans, business decisions, or individual caution, all but the most essential international travel has been canceled, and those who can work from home are increasingly staying put.

Thanks to this forced grounding, businesses may discover that while face-to-face meetings are sometimes necessary, technological alternatives are often just fine—and also much less costly, time-consuming, and detrimental to family life. And at a time of increasing concern about the impact of airplane emissions on the climate, and with many businesses keen to highlight their commitment to environmental awareness and sustainability, there is both an environmental reason and an economic one why business travel may decline.

Perhaps most significantly, the coronavirus crisis plays into the hands of nationalists who favor greater immigration controls and protectionism.

The speed and scope of the virus’s spread across the globe have spotlighted people’s vulnerability to seemingly distant foreign threats. The coronavirus has not just spread to global hubs such as London and New York. It has also leaped directly to provincial cities such as Daegu, South Korea’s fourth-largest city; nursing homes in the suburbs of Seattle; and even small towns such as Castiglione d’Adda (population: 4,600)—one of the 10 towns in Lombardy first quarantined by the Italian government in February.

While internationally minded leaders have mouthed fine words about the need for cross-border cooperation in the face of an unprecedented common threat, their actions have often belied this. Many ostensibly liberal governments have slapped restrictions on travel and trade more draconian than even Trump dared impose at the height of his conflict with China last year.

Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s leftist prime minister, was quick to bar travelers from China who are not New Zealand citizens from entering the country. While such blanket bans may or may not be warranted on public health grounds, they provide greater legitimacy for those who view closing the border as the solution to every ill.

Even within the European Union’s ostensibly barrier-free single market, France and Germany have banned the export of face masks; so much for the liberal internationalism and commitment to the EU of President Emmanuel Macron and Chancellor Angela Merkel. More shocking still is that none of the 26 other EU governments has responded to Italy’s urgent appeal for medical assistance—though China has.

Granted, the coronavirus crisis has also exposed the hollowness of nativists’ assertions that their anti-immigration and protectionist policies make people safer. Even though the nationalist coalition that runs Lombardy’s provincial government is led by Matteo Salvini’s far-right League party, it has not been successful in protecting the region from the coronavirus. Nor, for all his desire to decouple from China, has Trump been able to prevent the coronavirus from reaching the United States.

Trump himself may yet pay a price in November’s presidential election for his insouciance and inept mismanagement of a public health crisis. But in general, the coronavirus crisis is a political gift for nativist nationalists and protectionists.

Even within the European Union’s ostensibly barrier-free single market, France and Germany have banned the export of face masks; so much for the liberal internationalism.

It has heightened perceptions that foreigners are a threat. It underscores that countries in crisis can’t always count on their neighbors and close allies for help. And with India limiting exports of life-saving drugs from its vast pharmaceutical sector, it provides ammunition to those who wish to localize production of all sorts of products on national security grounds. More broadly, it may strengthen those who believe in strong government, prioritizing societal needs over individual freedom, and national action over international cooperation.

As a result, the coronavirus crisis threatens to usher in a less globalized world. Once the pandemic and panic abate, those who believe that openness to people and products from around the world is generally a good thing will need to make the case for it in fresh and persuasive ways.

Philippe Legrain is the founder of OPEN, an international think tank on openness issues, and a senior visiting fellow at the London School of Economics' European Institute. Previously economic advisor to the president of the European Commission from 2011 to 2014, he is the author of four critically acclaimed books, including Immigrants: Your Country Needs Them and European Spring: Why Our Economies and Politics Are in a Mess—and How to Put Them Right. Twitter: @plegrain

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