That began as “several cases of unusual pneumonia” in Wuhan, China towards the end of last year, to shortly thereafter become a public health emergency there, has within a few months turned into a growing global pandemic.
As declared by the World Health Organisation (WHO), it has emerged that what the world is dealing with is a new coronavirus responsible for an illness now officially known as COVID-19, which has spread to over 100 countries and territories, with 150,000 infections and almost 6,000 deaths, till date.
Sad and frightening as this is, it is a reminder, even if a grim one, of what the world was predicted to become – a global village.
With the world less than 36 hours apart by air travel, nothing better demonstrates the inherent danger that comes with the world as we now have it than the threats that come with the rapid transportation of viruses and their vectors from one part of the world to another through air travel.
The world has never been this inter-connected. While the aeroplane gave us wings to fly from one end of the world to the other, international television, with the live broadcast of news and events from every and anywhere, is further reducing the world, and bringing us together, even while also pulling us apart, in its own way.
But it is the internet that has radically shrunk the world to the point that by virtue of convergence, we now carry the world around in our palms, bags and pockets.
An event in one part of the world resonates in another, such that the world suddenly becomes one in pain, grief, joy, anxiety or panic, as these have presently gripped the globe, in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
It should be apparent now, to those who had been in doubt that we are all one, after all. By now, those who think otherwise should have realised that we are all holed up in one cave, even if in different parts of it. We are all in one cave and we all have to tread with caution for the sake of our survival.
Terrorism, migration and disease sit on one of the multi-dimensional boards around which the mighty and the not-so-mighty, of necessity, must engage and cooperate.
The world has moved from the bifurcation of forced bi-polarity on account of East-West rivalry and the pseudo unipolarity of a single dominant super-power.
The world has changed, in terms of configuration, and the nature of power had become evident with the unfortunate incident of 9-11. It signalled there and then that the era in which raw military strength or economic power was all that mattered was coming to an end.
It was no longer simply about power transition but also power diffusion, with non-state actors wielding as much influence and even power as state actors. The world has become a multi-dimensional board with multiple dimensions to it and overlapping interconnections.
One might be the master on one board with military hardware or economic might but vulnerable to a minuscule power or even a non-state actor on another board. It is a different world now.
While the United Nations system was yearning for some bolstering from the principal party behind its formation, the new Sheriff was rather trumpeting it, right at the UN General Assembly that “the future does not belong to globalists; it belongs to patriots,” urging world leaders to put nationalism ahead of multilateralism.
It should be no surprise that many of the international institutions set up as specialised agencies under the United Nations have not been able to optimally play the roles they were designed for. One of such agencies is the World Health Organisation (WHO) which was set up in 1948 with the mandate for the public health of the people of the world.
In its own way, it has taken that charge seriously but it has also been criticised for its handling of a number of health emergencies including the COVID-19 outbreak.
Estimates from the World Bank in the GPMB report have it that “a global influenza pandemic akin to the scale and virulence of the one in 1918 would cost the modern economy $ 3trillion, or up to 4.8% of gross domestic product (GDP); the cost would be 2.2% of GDP for even a moderately virulent influenza pandemic (9).
Models predict the annual cost of a global influenza pandemic would mean that South Asia’s GDP would drop by 2% ($ 53 billion), and Sub-Saharan Africa’s GDP by 1.7% ($ 28 billion), the latter equivalent to erasing a full year’s economic growth.”
One can only hope that the coronavirus does not trigger such a devastating effect on the global economy, but we must take on-board that the world is no longer a village, it is now a cave and we are all in it. Joseph Nye cautions us that “in a world where borders are becoming more porous than ever to everything from drugs to infectious diseases to terrorism, nations must mobilize international coalitions and build institutions to address shared threats and challenges.
In this sense, power becomes a positive-sum game. It is not enough to think in terms of power over others. We must also think in terms of power to accomplish goals that involves power with others.
On many transnational issues, empowering others can help us to accomplish our own goals. In this world, networks and connectedness become an important source of relevant power.
We must embrace the world for what it is or has become, to be able to think our way out of where we have found ourselves. We must pray that the world learns and embraces the right lessons.
This time calls for a change of mindset, strategy and tools for engagement for even the most powerful. It is futile to be fixated on hard power when many of the problems do not call for the hammer. This age calls more for a clever mix of hard and soft, in the name of smart power.
As Nye reminds us, the child who dominates on the playground may become a laggard when the recess bell rings and the context changes to a well-ordered classroom.
Oladeji writes from Lagos, Nigeria.