Binyam Afewerk Demena is one of the authors of several chapters of the recently published book ‘COVID-19 and International Development’. In this blog, he and his colleagues elaborate on their contributions to this book. We welcome you to join us for the book launch on March 17 (3:30-5:00 CET) at Pakhuis de Zwijger. Registration is now open.
The COVID-19 outbreak has posed a threat to both lives and livelihood. Because of the strong and interdependent global production value and linkages, coupled with the closure of international borders, businesses, and factories, the economic expectations and forecasts in the early months of the pandemic were generally pessimistic.
The prospect of the world plunging into another major and long-term economic recession comparable to the Great Depression in 1930s and the Great Recession of 2008/9 was on the minds of many economists, governments, international organizations, and citizens worldwide. The attacks on supranational governance and international cooperation were a symptom of an underlying disease – inequality – that has been illuminated by the pandemic. The de-globalization process was driven by increasing inequality, and a dreary lack of trickle-down of the benefits of internationalization.
COVID-19 and globalization
Globalization is a multifaceted concept that describes the process of creating networks of connections among actors at intra- or multi-continental distances. This emphasizes that globalization captures the increased interdependence of national economies, and the trend towards greater integration of different varieties of flows such as information, goods, labour, and capital.
More recently, however, there has been growing discontent and increase in negative sentiments about the impact of globalization. These negative sentiments have manifested in different ways, including through the election of the former U.S. President Donald Trump in 2016, Brexit, and criticism of the World Trade Organization. For instance, Afesorgbor and Beaulieu (2021) argue that the Trump presidency strained diplomatic relationships with close allies, and undermined the rule-based global system, creating uncertainty for the global economic system.
These occurrences constitute a major setback to the pace of globalization, and have set the stage for growing protectionism and nationalism around the world. As van Bergeijk (2019) highlighted, these actors were political. More recently, the principal actor was a virus. The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic introduced new health threats to globalization (see van Bergeijk, 2021 for details), emanating from the health risk posed by the contagious nature of COVID-19. In a sense, the pandemic clearly reflects globalization — the virus went global in a few weeks’ time due to the high level of globalization and interconnectedness. COVID-19, however, also relates to de-globalization — the breakdown of international co-operation, and the re-emergence of zero-sum thinking and raw beggar-thy-neighbour polices on the markets for medical productive gear, medical machinery, and vaccines.
We* set out to explore the impact of COVID-19 on the global economic system by looking at three components of globalization: economic, social, and political globalization. The pandemic and the economic policy response to the crisis have impacted these three aspects to different degrees.
1. Economic globalization
Economic globalization has been conceptualized by means of flows of goods, services, capital, and information in connection to long distance market transactions. Although the pandemic is global, regions and countries have experienced differential effects on various indicators of the economic dimension of globalization. For instance, merchandise trade contracted for the global economy, but the rate of decline was more pronounced in advanced economies compared to in developing and emerging economies. Moreover, not only were trade flows hit, but the impact of COVID-19 on foreign direct investment (FDI) was also immediate, as global FDI flows declined by nearly half in 2020.
2. Social globalization
COVID-19 was also impactful, in particular, on social globalization, an aspect which involves interaction with foreign nationals through events such as migration, or actions such as international phone calls and international remittances paid or received by citizens.
Linking COVID-19 to social globalization is important since the former reduced interpersonal globalization, as many countries imposed travel restriction on both residents and foreign travellers. Border closures hindered temporary migration, especially tourists’ and foreign students’ movements in and out of countries. Migrant remittances were also affected, not because of any formal restrictions on remittances, but mainly because of a negative labour market shock on immigrant employment. Demena et al. (2022) found that the pandemic, overall, negatively affected various labour market outcomes. The impact has been most pronounced, in particular, in developed countries, reducing the number of remittances that could be repatriated to developing countries.
3. Political globalization
Political globalization captures the ability of countries to engage in international political co-operation, as well as the diffusion or implementation of government policies.
The initial outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic negatively affected international co-operation, mainly because of the blame game between the two largest economies in the world, the US and China. Although global co-operation to fight the virus did not begin immediately with the outbreak of COVID-19, there were many efforts later by different countries to co-operate in fighting the pandemic. China, for example, supported countries like Italy, which became the epicentre of the COVID-19 pandemic in Europe in April 2020. Politically, the outbreak of the coronavirus could, therefore, be used as a building block in the future to reinforce international co-operation and strengthen the pillars of political globalization.
Optimistic outlook for the global economy
There are, in fact, reasons to be optimistic about the COVID-19 economic recovery, as well as about the future of globalization. The main reason for optimism is the noteworthy resilience of world merchandise trade and investment during previous global crises. Multinational enterprises have already had their stress test during the 2008 - 2009 collapse of world trade. That collapse kick-started the process of de-globalization. However, global merchandise trade and industrial production recovered to previous peaks quickly, and this recovery has occurred even quicker during the COVID-19 crisis.
This is the big and fundamental difference with the Great Depression of the 1930s, and it may be related to the fact that world trade is governed and supported by the multilateral trading system. The shock of the pandemic was sharp and immediate, but so has been the recovery. The so-called invisible flows (FDI, remittances, tourism, official development cooperation) have been hit harder compared to the two major historical economic crises during the Great Recession and the Great Depression, and a full recovery of these invisible flows is not to be expected before vaccination is ‘sufficiently global’ in scope. Yet, the expectation of a speedy recovery is realistic at the time of writing. For instance, global FDI has shown full recovery in the last quarter of 2021, although recovery has been highly uneven regionally, and was concentrated in developed economies. Recovery efforts, therefore, took hold early, compared to the two major historical episodes of economic crises. This suggests stronger resilience of the global economic system than anticipated.
The disease of inequality
The prediction and reports of the expected “death” of globalization, however, were, with hindsight, grossly exaggerated. Yet, the pandemic has taught us that inequalities are the breeding ground for the spread of disease and the suffering that follows. Reducing epidemic vulnerabilities, therefore, requires tackling those inequalities. The fight against next potential pandemics, however, implies that we cannot limit ourselves to domestic developments only. Inequalities around the world – within and between countries – provide the breeding grounds and disease pools from which new variants, viruses, and other contagious diseases emerge. Adhering to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is a high-return investment project, in particular SDG 10 (reduced inequalities). A recent study by Fantu et al. (2022) pointed out that the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbates the inequalities between migrants (in particular Eritrean and Ethiopian migrants) and ordinary citizens in the Netherlands. Likewise, Murshed (2022) highlighted that the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to accelerate the various forms of inequality.
And last but not least, the outlook for openness of the world economy is still much better than in the 1930s. Yes, de-globalization exists. Yes, overall globalization will probably be lower for the foreseeable future. Our societies will, however, remain much more open than at the start of the globalization wave in 1990. We are now connected via the internet with an intensity that has never been observed before in history. Even though the push towards de-globalization certainly still exists, economies are now digitally connected in ways they have never been before.
Conclusions and recommendations
In conclusion, the eradication of the spread of the virus will require international co-operation, and a global effort to make sure that no single country is left behind. A pool will be forged to prevent new variants and potential future outbreaks. Vaccines must be made available to all countries and must be affordable, something that has been reiterated by the promise of the leaders of the G7 nations as a ‘big step towards vaccinating the world’ - to supply one billion doses of vaccine to poorer nations. A global initiative recently called for urgent further funding to supply a minimum of 600 million additional doses. Just as globalization has ramifications for all countries, the health of different nations is intertwined. The health of one nation affects the health of the other, as the pandemic has demonstrated. The implication, therefore, is that fighting a pandemic requires us to tackle inequalities, as the latter determine pandemic vulnerability to a large extent. Moreover, it requires a global approach to ensure equality for all the world’s citizens.