Corona Virus, Globalization

The coronavirus crisis of 2019 and globalization

8 minutes to read
Jan Blommaert

The coronavirus reminds us of history. When the First World War ended in November 1918, people were hopeful that better times would come. It wasn't to be. The war was immediately followed by one of the deadliest pandemics in recorded history: the so-called Spanish flu spread across large parts of the world and killed between 50 and 100 million people. The fact that the war had displaced many millions of people and had led to mass migrations was a critical factor in the pandemic. Many thousands of troops returning from the Western front to countries as far apart as the US, New Zealand, China and South Africa were another factor. And the mass peace celebrations in many places across the world also proved to contribute to the pandemic. The World War was - the name speaks for itself - a globalized event, and the pandemic followed the paths and trajectories of this event.

The coronavirus (or COVID-19) crisis of early 2020 is, equally, a textbook example of globalization processes - globalization processes of another generation. Here is a quick run through some of its features.

Coronavirus becomes coronacrisis

The coronavirus rapidly spread from the area around Wuhan, China, to many other parts of the world. The speed and intensity of the viral spread took everyone by surprise and led to botched or inadequate response measures in several places. We will return to this in a moment. But let me first identify a crucial feature of contemporary globalization processes: the ways in which issues change when they become mobile and cross scale-levels during globalization processes. Concretely, what started (and remains) a public health crisis in Wuhan, China, has become an entirely different kind of issue elsewhere in the world: an economic one.

What started (and remains) a public health crisis in Wuhan, China, has become an entirely different kind of issue elsewhere in the world: an economic one.

We have seen the ups-and-downs of global stock markets recently, and have read the reports on the devastating impact of the crisis on airlines and shipping across the world. We also read that production facilities in Europe have had to slow down or halt their production cycle due to shortages of supplies from China. China’s exports took a sharp downturn in January and February 2020 as a direct effect of the epidemic. Its effects are felt across the world. Perhaps the most ironic example of this is the fact that labs in charge of COVID-19 testing around the world are running into supply problems, since much of the testing material is produced in China or by manufacturers whose supply chains involve Chinese partners. 

The lesson here is: when things go global, they don’t remain the same, they morph and acquire new features, dimensions, effects. The economic dimension of the global COVID-19 epidemic is many times greater than its public health dimension: far more people are affected by the economic downturn than by the virus. And the reason for this is the fundamentally interconnected nature of the contemporary world - something that evidently renders a 'national' strategy against the pandemic almost impossible and irrelevant. This fundamental interconnectedness now enables phenomena to acquire very different shapes and dimensions wherever they occur.

Mobility restrictions against the coronavirus

In line with the previous remark, we see how mobility is the key issue in addressing the crisis, in several ways.

  • Analyses of the epidemic focus on the mobility of people in and through high-risk zones. People who have been in Wuhan, or have had contact with people from that area, are defined as ‘at risk’. The same goes for people who visited other centers of the epidemic: Korea, Iran and Northern Italy. This is a constant methodological element in epidemiological studies, note: an epidemic needs to be traced back to contacts between contaminated people and others.
  • Consequently, contemporary modes of human mobility – intensive business or leisure traveling – are the focus of almost any measure taken in the fight against the epidemic. In Western Europe, the brief holiday period around carnival involved millions of people traveling to holiday venues, thus creating high-risk areas back home. A steep rise in detected infections upon their return is the effect of this. See also what happened to the cruise ships and their passengers quarantined in Asia: a globalized format of holiday making for the well-heeled is particularly badly hit by the epidemic. Governments across the world now issue guidelines for restricted traveling, including discouraging what is called ‘non-essential’ trips to high-risk areas. The same approach is followed by actors at all levels, including public institutions and enterprises, and even the military. The effect is a dramatic fall in airline passenger numbers, forcing airlines to cancel flights in order to cut losses. The cruise industry, likewise, records severe losses. Long-distance travel, both for business and for leisure, is definitely identified as a danger in relation to the epidemic.

Contemporary modes of human mobility – intensive business or leisure traveling – are the focus of almost any measure taken in the fight against the epidemic.

  • Measures to control the epidemic, consequently, all include restrictions on mobility and contact: from Trump's travel ban applied to people from dozens of countries, over lockdowns of entire regions affecting large populations (as in China and Italy) to individual or collective quarantine as soon as suspicion of infection is present. 
  • Those affected by such restrictions on mobility have a hard time. An amazing blog collects stories from Wuhan, and they are disturbing and sad. Such restrictions on mobility run against the systemics of everyday life.
  • The fact is that almost all efforts to contain the epidemic are measures that attempt to reduce or reverse patterns of mobility that characterize the contemporary stage of globalization. Rolling back globalization is the response to the pandemic.
  • But at a truly global scale, note the fact that the restrictions on mobility and their knock-on economic effects have led to a fall in pollution levels – the COVID-19 crisis appears to be a blessing for the climate.

A coronavirus culture

We see cultural effects too. Let me mention just these:

  • There is a stampede worldwide towards forms of adjusted behavior. Think of globally circulating guidelines for keeping 'social distance', washing hands, protecting others when you cough or sneeze, avoiding public places and transport when you’re unwell, and so forth. And the resulting shortages in the supply of handwash products and mouth masks. But think also on people avoiding to shake hands (let alone kissing), avoiding touching their faces, and suggesting alternative forms of greeting. Interestingly, such forms of adjusted behaviors are presented as forms of civic duty and solidarity (even 'patriotism'): they are presented as new collective norms for adjusted behavior.

Behavior is moralized: obviously ill people in public are quickly accused of being ‘irresponsible’.

  • In several places worldwide, anticipating possible restrictions of mobility has led to panic buying and stockpiling. In various places, hospitals have reported theft of handwash gel by visitors. People have started adjusting their behavioral patterns to the possible effects of an epidemic, and they apply existing formats of disaster management and crisis behavior in the process.
  • Across the world, we see moralized behavioral scripts emerge in which appropriate versus inappropriate behavior is identified. People who cough or sneeze on a crowded bus are instantly identified (and often called out) as ‘dangerous’ and treated with public suspicion or even aggression. Behavior is moralized: obviously ill people in public are quickly accused of being ‘irresponsible’., and the same is applied to people who may have come in contact with infected persons and don't take the required steps (testing, self-quarantine) afterwards. 
  • Attached to this, there is a wave of anti-Asian racism attached to the epidemic. There are many reports of people who have been insulted and/or molested simply because of their ‘Asian’ appearance. Being from Wuhan is heavily stigmatized as well as mocked in China and elsewhere. Given the connection between the epidemic and human mobility, this racism is also extended to cover that typical 21st century category of travelers: refugees and migrants.

These cultural effects are, unsurprisingly, spread and distributed with amazing intensity within the contemporary global and interconnected media system. The online media world is the place where such cultural effects acquire their shape and power.

  • The online world is a big engine behind this 'coronavirus culture', and the corona virus has led to tons of memes, shout-outs and conspiracy theories on social media, as well as a frantic search for reliable information and intense discussions on such information.
  • Evidently, the epidemic is a perfect candidate for mass media formatting as a crisis, a scare, a disaster, and is consequently consistently framed as such in familiar (and globalized) genres of the ‘live updates’ and ‘breaking news’ type. Just check the websites of literally any mass media outlet these days: the epidemic outshines all other news items. We get a mass supply of information in all forms and shades, and we get it on a global scale. 
  • Given the restrictions on mobility in the context of the crisis, such cultural effects may intensify. After all, perhaps the safest place in this pandemic might be behind your TV or computer screen at home. Online mobility remains unaffected by the crisis, while offline mobility is severely curtailed. This means that, as an effect of the coronavirus crisis, a huge online learning environment has been shaped in which the cultural and behavioral features connected to the crisis circulate, are explained and advocated and acquire a kind of endogenous rationalization - which can explain the quite irrational stockpiling of toilet paper reported in several countries.

The widespread use of online forms of distance teaching and working represents a huge experiment in alternative modes of work organization and patterns of mobility attached to them.

  • And this takes us to a final point. Measures restricting offline mobility across the world are accompanied by incentives towards more intensive use of online resources to keep social and economic life going. The instructions about social distancing actually apply to offline social distancing. Many universities and colleges have closed their lecture halls and have asked staff to shift to distance teaching by means of livestreaming, Skype or other teleconferencing tools. Many businesses and government departments, too, have moved to an 'empty offices' policy and ask employees to work from home and meet online. 

The coronavirus culture may survive

While the coronavirus pandemic will eventually fade out, some of these cultural effects may be more lasting. It is not unreasonable, for instance, to expect some of the social distancing rules to survive this crisis and become standard behavioral formats in social contexts where health-related insecurities can be spotted by participants. Similarly, the widespread use of online forms of distance teaching and working represents a huge experiment in alternative modes of work organization and patterns of mobility attached to them.

The current crisis can effectively lead to a range of new forms of social and cultural organization, spread globally and stretching into the future.

The thing is that this crisis, and more specifically the dimensions discussed here, are all rapidly becoming targets and objects of learning, of knowledge and awareness. To give an example: I'm sure that quite a few people may think twice before booking themselves on an enchanting cruiseship taking them through the paradises of this world. The same may apply to booking flights and attending large-scale conventions far from home. Now that lockdowns and quarantine measures have been installed as necessary and normative measures to cope with global crises of this kind, the risk of being caught up in such emergency measures will be part of the calculation made before deciding to engage into such forms of traveling. And more generally, the experience of a pandemic will make people far more sensitive to behavioral signs (one's own as well as others') pointing towards risks of contagion. And they will have had a thorough round of practice deploying protection and prevention measures related to such risks. The current crisis, thus, can effectively lead to a range of new forms of social and cultural organization, spread globally and stretching into the future.

This coronacrisis illustrates the systemics of contemporary globalization, and it will, at the same time, change some of its patterns. It looks as if we won’t have a shortage of topics for research on contemporary globalization processes in the years to come.