As the COVID-19 pandemic tightened its grip on the world, the focus has remained on slowing the spread to save lives and reduce the burden on strained medical systems. Nearly half the population of the world is under some sort of lockdown as governments adopt social distancing as the primary defense against the disease. This has caused a sharp contraction in economic activity that threatens the livelihoods of many.
Amid the dire news, pundits have begun to turn their attention to a post-pandemic future. Research for a vaccine and therapeutic treatments has intensified, giving hope that science will banish the disease as it has other diseases in the past. Experts predict that a vaccine could be available in 12 to 18 months, and therapeutic treatments may be available earlier. To succeed, however, these breakthroughs will need to be available to billions of people, for the fear of the disease to recede.
As the COVID-19 pandemic winds down, the world will face questions about what the post-pandemic future will look like. The first question, naturally, will be how to prevent an outbreak of another pandemic that ravages the world. COVID-19 struck the world as the retreat from globalism was gathering steam in many advanced nations. The Brexit referendum and the election of Donald Trump as president of the US in 2016 accelerated the retreat from globalism that had already begun. Immigration and free trade, in particularly, suffered as nations turned their focus inward to appease angry voters.
In response to the threat of COVID-19, nations around the world have closed their borders. Governments have recommended that their citizens return home. Some nations have begun to control exports of food and medical supplies to ensure that their people have enough. Over the past few months, the nation state has asserted its authority over people to a degree unseen in years.
These my-country-first attitudes can be considered a natural response to the deadly pandemic, but they are detrimental to post-pandemic cooperation. Contagious diseases like COVID-19 don’t know national borders. To prevent the outbreak of future pandemics, nations need to cooperate to develop procedures and practices to limit the spread across nations. Early warning systems and guidelines on transparency and information sharing are critical to ensuring that public health experts around the world can make decisions early to limit the spread of a disease.
The same holds true for trade. The excesses of globalism left many nations dependent on other nations for medicine and other medical supplies. Likewise, many nations are dependent on food imports. The COVID-19 pandemic has raised concerns over the structure of trade, and pressure will grow on political leaders to bring production home. This will help address some of the excesses of globalism, but it also carries the danger of burgeoning into a widespread anti-trade movement. History has shown repeatedly that nations prosper when trade grows. World leaders need to renew their commitment to free trade to push back against calls for protectionism.
As the threat of COVID-19 fades, borders will open, and travel will increase again. COVID-19 unfortunately gave a boost to anti-immigrant feelings in the US and Europe that had been hardening in the 2010s. Many will welcome the return of free-spending tourists, but leaders will need to come to the defense of immigrants. They need to state the obvious clearly: Immigrants contribute greatly to society. This, like free trade, may seem like a dated holdover from the age of globalism, but it is even more important today as many nations feel the negative effects of aging populations on their economic and social vibrancy.
South Korea has much to contribute to helping the world find its way as attention turns to the post-COVID-19 world. After falling hard during the 1997 Asian Financial crisis, South Korea embraced openness and made a remarkable recovery. The country managed to avoid the worst of the Great Recession in 2008 by responding quickly to changing conditions while reaffirming its commitment to openness. During the current pandemic, South Korea has worked quickly to limit the spread of the disease while maintaining a commitment to openness under difficult conditions.
A new commitment to, not a retreat from, globalism will accelerate the economic recovery from the pandemic. Turning inward will only dampen the recovery and leave the world vulnerable to another deadly disease that explodes into a devastating pandemic. This is no time for the false sense of security offered up by my-country-first demagogues.
Robert J. Fouser
Robert J. Fouser, a former associate professor of Korean language education at Seoul National University, writes on Korea from Pawtucket, Rhode Island. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org -- Ed.