The 21st century has certainly experienced a lot: the collapse of financial systems time and again, the re-consideration of national borders, the resurgence of military conflicts, the election of extreme ideological personalities. And now, it has come face to face with a pandemic that overstepped the borders of the health sector, and has expanded towards the field of economy, society and governance.
It is like the time of the Spanish flu in the 20th century or the plague of the 14th century. But now, it is not only the virus that circulates while citizens stay indoors; it is fear that sweeps across the land and paints the ground crimson. In the face of this new unpredictable, unmanageable and limitless crisis, the majority of the governmental reactions, are inconsistent, ineffective and late. Ordinary commerce has halted, political factionalism has grown even more intense and many businesses, regardless of their size, are on the brink of collapse: everything is falling apart.
Historians of the future will distinguish between two major time periods: one before the severity and seriousness of the pandemic set in, and one after individual leaders desperately managed to control the uncontainable situation. Some countries will be praised for their early action, such as Greece and Taiwan; others will be painfully remembered for their inability to assess the situation in time, such as the Netherlands and the United Kingdom.
And in the midst of it all, the US will be seen as Goliath who was shortly defeated by the smaller and more cunning David. Despite the electoral fervour that was running extremely high and the national security concerns that were, as usual, a central concern, President Trump is now called to deal with another challenge: an invisible enemy, a mighty opponent, that knows no borders and bears no ideological or racial colours. The COVID-19 pandemic has caught the US unprepared, in the face of one of the most life-changing events of the 21st century. As the case numbers surge, re-election prospects plummet even further.
Such a situation of global instability, of massive uncertainty and uncountable stress is bound to alter the world order. Historians draw many parallels between the current situation and the French and American Revolutions of the 18th century: both are periods of economic and ideological growth, the expansion of political ideas and underlying tensions threatening to erupt towards any direction. Can we refer to this period, though, as the Coronavirus Revolution?
For certain, we are on the verge of a major transformation across all sectors. And the crises that are looming in the horizon, what with the onset of the next Great Depression that will have a profound international impact, are all evidence of the gradually increasing unrest in which we are called to survive. People crave normalcy, a sense of stability and their long-lost personal life and work balance. Despite these unfortunate realizations and even though we might not be experiencing a revolution organized by dissatisfied groups of people, we are living in revolutionary times.
Optimistic geopolitical analysts and journalists assume that this crisis will surely evaporate in the next three to four months. And this is just one of the greatest errors that can be made in the field of decision-making nowadays. The tensions may be resolved, and a fake sense of normalcy may be instilled, but the political, financial and social implications the pandemic will have run much deeper than the easily detectable changes that we are going to notice.
Being one of the four major geopolitical shocks in many decades that altered international stability, after the Cold War, the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the financial collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008, the COVID-19 pandemic has been falsely underestimated and largely miscalculated by world leaders. The sever public health, economic and political ramifications will produce a pervasive crisis, out of which countries will emerge profoundly changed.
A cascade of domestic crises originating from dissatisfaction with the political handling of the situation along with a large-scale economic collapse with double-digit unemployment figures are only two of the easily detected effects of the COVID-19 crisis. Analysts stretch their assumptions even further, implying that there may also arise revolutions, domestic uprisings and demands for political change due to the mismanagement of the severe situation.
And in the epicentre of it all, the countries that were to hold elections in the near future will be affected by this turbulence the most. The political future of candidates will be dictated by their response to the pandemic and their proposed policies. A long crisis, which can last for more than a few months, exposes which countries are well-prepared and which political figures are capable leaders.
The pandemic has already forced travel and mobility restrictions, accusations between governments and a series of xenophobic, nationalist and racial attacks in several countries. Leaders are scrambling to protect their people, sustain their economies and balance out the leakages that are bound to affect them in the future. Depending on the level of human and economic damage that has started blooming in each country, leaders have been called to question both their orientation and their approach towards effective policies that can salvage their nations.
And though we might not refer to this as some Coronavirus revolution, we certainly will remember it as the turning point of globalization.
In the coming years, the pandemic may be remembered as an intense period of global insecurity that irreversibly altered international stability. Or it may be recalled as a milestone moment on the bumpy road towards the completion of this wave of globalization. Over the course of the past century, markets have bloomed, economic systems have been built and then disintegrated, political ideologies have been redefined, social classes have been delineated and overruled and technology has evolved in a light-speed pace. The challenge after the end of the pandemic will not be about helping globalization survive, but rather it will be about how best to understand and reshape it in the newly defined time frame.
Technological tools, such as artificial intelligence, big data, data analysis and surveillance technologies have now become integral tools of decision makers. Much has changed over the course of the past years, with this sector being continuously on the rise, but now it has become as dominant as ever. Though unarguably the human aspect of politics will remain central and of unquestionable importance, the technocratic sector is now the one to keep an eye out for.
The real risk of the pandemic refers to the evisceration of international stability and security, which will leave a more anarchic and ungoverned world behind. The geopolitical and financial shock reinforces power politics, leading to the emergence of spheres of influence once more in the two ends of the world, Asia and America.
But the pandemic also underlines the necessity for cooperation, mutual trust and openness in information and communication among states. A collective response and a joint effort to respond to the rapidly evolving international upheaval would have been desirable and might have produced fruitful results; but individualism and the need to protect national security overruled any hope for a collaborative plan of immediate action.
At these trying times, no historical event is our guide in the fight against an invisible enemy. Our highly integrated and massively complex systems are under attack and we are called to defend them at all costs. Never before in international history has a single event upended everyone’s lives at the same time and so abruptly, and this time the effects are bound to be felt.
It can be taken for granted, that the longer the pandemic goes on, the more our perception of the world will change and the more our societies will be called to question their foundations.