By Kaushani Chakrabarti
To say “life as we know it has changed” is not just the understatement of the year but of the decade. It’s a struggle to think of things in our lives that haven’t been impacted by the pandemic because there probably aren’t any. On an individual level, careers have been interrupted, entirely ended and even become completely redundant in a matter of days. Salaries have been cut, bonuses that people worked for all year, have been halted. Unemployment is still at an all-time high and everyone is scrambling, to ensure they can survive the biggest global economic downturn, since the recession of 2008. At the beginning of the pandemic, companies were laying off hundreds of employees every day. Many unsuspecting people had already spent part or all of their savings over Christmas celebrations and New Year (2019-2020) vacations. I can’t remember how many times I was told by working friends, family members and even strangers, how lucky they were to still have a job, with the added bonus of being able to work from home for a while.
For some, there were even moments of unexpected rejoicing: being able to sleep in a little extra every day, save on the cost of fuel for an office commute. All this extra time was now available to indulge in things that had become luxuries off late, like cooking from scratch, that home workout challenge, spending more time with kids and pets, connecting with old friends and catching up on the latest tv shows and movies. Finally, here was an opportunity to hack that elusive work-life balance. Compared to the essential workers at the time, whose lives had been turned upside down due to the additional work, physical danger and being separated from their families, people felt a deep sense of empathy, and gratitude for the opportunity to provide for their families from the safety of their homes.
Cut to exactly one year later and that coveted work-life balance not only remains elusive still, but the lines between work and home life have been completely blurred.
Work from home has turned into doing everything from home, and always. Work is a 24-hour cycle, and for many, the daily grind now includes home-schooling children. There is an omnipresent need to be available, to everyone, at all times, be it your colleagues, your family or friends. Everyone is struggling and relying on each other for all kinds of help, be it emotional, financial, mental or physical. The myth of Sisyphus is a myth no more but the veritable and daily struggle of millions across the globe as every morning finds us pushing that boulder once more. Often following the exact tracks it fell down the night before.
People are overworked and overwhelmed without much access to ways of releasing that pent-up exhaustion, ageing and waning them well before time. So the luxury of considering abstract concepts like “geopolitics'' has been lost. Dinner table conversations are mainly about the vaccine and case rates, or about Harry and Meghan. But the undercurrent to both of these questions actually deserves some consideration: Is the USA really the only hegemon now? Does the USA enjoy its supremacy like she used to contemporarily? Are we witnessing the beginning of yet another Cold War where the USA is against China? How does current power equations affect other states and how are other states, more specifically, the middle powers such as Japan, Germany and India influence the world order? Because these questions are playing a part in literally everything we see.
When We Weren’t Looking: The Post-Post Colonial Order
In this time, when no one is looking away from their plethora of device screens long enough, things on the ground are shifting at a surprisingly quick pace. A new colonial order is being perpetuated and it’s all happening without us realizing it. The colonial empire was built on the pretext of endowing the world with the offerings of industrialization and “civilization”. The new order, however, is more subliminal than geographical and far more inexorable. The pretext this time is to endow the world with the benefits of capitalism and globalization and make the world accessible to everyone’s fingertips. It has infiltrated every aspect of our lives through the mechanisms of plastic money and technological advancement creating an inescapable web of devices, apps and virtual reality. While we are still marvelling this new era of the world being at our feet, without so much as putting a foot out of our homes, alas, history repeats itself - geopolitics continues to play it's quiet and unassuming role in our life, deciding whether we have access to vaccines or not, deciding where our next vacation will be (spoiler alert: it will be to your living room), which imports get in and which exports get out, and whether or not we or our children get to have access to education or not.
The shifts in global power have inevitably shaped the pandemic responses, some things have stayed the same. In a lot of ways, the world order still appears to be the West vs the Rest, just like in the colonial era. One of the clearest examples of this is the access to COVID-19 vaccines. In what I like to call “COVID colonialism”, the wealthy states of the Global North have hoarded vaccine supplies, leaving little for the 90% of the population that live in the Global South. Sounds familiar right? And of course, a certain Electoral Autocract’s effort at Vaccine Diplomacy are examples of charitable benevolence right? These aren’t (remarkably successful) efforts at buying alliance and international political immunity?
It seems that despite everything having changed in 2020, some things remained the same - the exploitation of resources for the benefit of those in the West has been the same story for hundreds of years, and even Covid couldn’t seem to make it budge. And so the shifts in who the key players are seems to be less about states of the Global South rising to equal footing with those of the Global North, but more about amassing enough power to detach from old colonial reliances.
Geopolitics: The Original Queen’s Gambit
Let’s have a little lesson in International Relations. Central to politics is the concept of power. It is power which determines the shape of the world order and how one endeavours not only to acquire power but also to maintain it.
It’s easy to argue that since the USA has been in self destruct mode for the last five years, it’s no longer the world’s hegemon. One the one hand, it’s had the world’s highest number of COVID-19 cases and deaths for one, and on the other hand it’s also recently bandied about the word “insurrection” like it’s 1840.. And with a degrading economy coupled with internal chaos and decreasing influence due to Trump’s aggressive “America First” stance, the USA now finds itself in need of a rearrangement of its domestic politics and foreign affairs to rectify this. Recent assertions by President Biden suggest that the USA is willing to get back in the game and be more cooperative on the world stage, for example rejoining the WHO and the Paris Climate Agreement. But whilst it tries to claw its way back to the top spot, it’s competitors to the East, namely China, aren’t making it easy.
China has effectively curbed its spread and has already begun recovering its economy. Its influence has only grown in its immediate neighbourhood and beyond through its debt- trap policy, vaccine diplomacy, and so on. The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) is set to bolster its position further. Despite these significant leaps however, many political analysts that while China can overtake the USA in terms economy and military by 2028, it can never be a hegemon in the truest sense of the term due to the considerable presence of India and Russia in the same geopolitical arena. Russia has revived and now plays an influential role in Asia.
To some extent, the pandemic has actually helped middle powers assert themselves in their region and beyond, extending their help to neighbouring countries and also tackling national issues arising from the pandemic at home effectively. States such as Japan and Australia have even signed the RCEP to foster economic growth. New Zealand, on the other hand, demonstrated excellent governance at the domestic level and extended cooperation and support to other states in various sectors. In doing so, middle powers are attempting to present themselves as capable alternatives to major powers, freeing the world from the USA- China prism.
The EU is, on the other hand, busy going through a transitional period which is engendered by Brexit. The exit of the UK has, besides, given a serious jolt to the powers of the EU. It stood clueless as the virus spread in Europe. Whilst the UK has one of the highest COVID-19 death tolls in the world, it has been central to developing vaccinations and has had a steady vaccination rate for the past two months, whereas the EU has scrambled and hasn’t quite yet seen the same success. And then there was that whole Harry Meghan Interview as well. Needless to say, our old arian friends have a bit of soul searching to do.
What does this have to do with COVID vaccinations?
The outbreak of the pandemic has changed the world order more than ever before and it has brought in front of us the respective weaknesses and strengths of states and have, in fact, changed power and governance patterns. And make no mistake about it, when it comes to the global need for vaccinations, the states which already occupy leading positions in the international community are the ones who will be vaccinated, and will be vaccinated first. They’ll also be the ones setting the agenda for what comes next. Wondering what they might have in mind? Here, to our mind, are the top three take-aways of the Post-Covid Geopolitical Scene.
1. Return of nationalism
COVID- 19 has helped states all over the globe realize the importance of their sovereign rights. The pandemic has yet again proved that boundaries have always and will continue to be vital and that states should make every effort in upholding national security. This marks the return of nationalism.
The ban on international flights with spikes in COVID-19 cases, an expression of sealing of national borders and national lockdowns aided the notion of nationalism re- surface in a world which has largely turned into a ‘global village’. National interests defined in terms of national security, therefore, again gained center stage.
2. Revising Merits and Demerits of Globalization
The pandemic revealed the demerits of globalization. The surge in COVID-19 cases across the globe in few months’ time and death rates over- shadowed opportunities earlier presented by migration. Greater and better connectivity proved to be rather harmful in 2020. Moreover, imposition of lockdowns by states caused the world economy to crumble. As markets today are connected across the world, the downfall of one economy ought to affect others too. COVID-19 has vindicated this principle once again.
Migration too, and it’s increasingly heightened regulation, has been brought to the table with a vehemence never before seen. And now that there is a viral reason to be more selective with who can enter a country and why, rest assured, migration restrictions will be on everyone’s playbill for years to come.
The IT Revolution which actually heralded the process of globalization turned out to be the surprising white knight in the middle of all of this. Technology, during this time, brought the entire world closer and also helped us continue and even recover from a COVID hit world.
3. Renewed Significance of International Organizations
In its first battle with a character of a real global nature, Covid revealed the significance of the United Nations and its organs. Though we were left pondering over their impartiality when the WHO was alleged to have been influenced by China, it can’t be ignored how responsibly and effectively all organs of the UN coordinated with each other and helped the world tide over the most difficult phase of the pandemic. After 2020, it is urged that the UN must shoulder more and bigger responsibilities in dealing with problems carrying a global character, demanding greater obligation on the part of its member states. Being able to visualize an event through impartial lenses as a supra- national organization can help vocalize small countries and keep major powers under check.
What does this phase in world politics mean for South Asia?
South Asian states too received big blows due to the pandemic, however, COVID-19 presented greater economic challenges than medical ones. In spite of having low fatality rates, with rather poor medical infrastructure and facilities, as compared to western and more developed countries, South Asian states experienced major economic downfall due to the pandemic. Furthermore, many countries witnessed curtailment of human rights and media which meant politically too they faced hardships. Nonetheless, this phase presented a new set of opportunities for the region. If all the South Asian states were to set aside their bilateral issues and cooperate on major political and economic decisions, South Asia could emerge as a powerful bloc with a considerable amount of say in world affairs. It could present an opportunity to India, which is already playing adroitly in world politics, to rise as a major power by shedding off the label of that of a middle power. For this reason, as noted by many, India should increasingly be a friend and not a big brother to its neighbours. 2020 has, in fact, helped India regain its friendships with neighbours like Nepal which started drifting away to China since the blockade of 2015. Though there remains many questions pertaining to the relevance of SAARC, greater coordination, dialogue, unity and support can actually help SAARC get back its lost glory and deliver better and equitable results. Plus, organizations such as BBIN and BIMSTEC can aid in ushering a new era of South Asian dominance.
Overall, despite its obvious medical and economic debacles, the pandemic presents newer conditions to South Asia whereby it can emerge to hold a pivotal position in the international community, provided it reaches a consensus to cooperate and stand as a united force.