AsianScientist (Jul. 6, 2020) – There is no doubt that COVID-19 is reshaping the world order, but in many ways it is doing so by accelerating trends that have been underway for much of the past decade and particularly since the US-China trade war that began in 2017.
Other effects have been more lateral, such as the weaknesses exposed in many healthcare systems and food supply chains, which will result in significant economic policy shifts. The net result, visible perhaps several years from now, will be a new global system rather than the return to the pre-pandemic one.
A new regionalism
It is perhaps not surprising, though nonetheless disappointing, that multilateral institutions ranging from the United Nations system in general to the World Health Organization in particular, have faltered in their ability to deal with the crisis. In place of aspirational global bodies will come a strong new regionalism.
In a time of restricted global flows, regional organizations seem better equipped to lead states on a path to recovery. The European Union might finally be able to create a fiscal union and deepen integration on the continent. Asian countries have signed a Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), decreasing their dependence on trade outside the continent with Europe or the United States. According to a McKinsey report, 60 percent of trade across all Asia is already internal to the continent. Multi-regional divergence is now at full speed and likely will not be reversed in the post-COVID future.
At the same time, within each region, some leaders have seized upon the need for greater self-sufficiency in food and medical supplies. Countries such as Russia and Vietnam have limited their food exports, protecting themselves from grain and rice shortages. Supply chains and stockpile policies are set to localize to ensure preparedness for any future pandemic—or the next wave of this one. Once domestic self-sufficiency is assured, countries will strengthen complementarities with their neighbors on a regional basis.
Green versus red zones
The pandemic has also revealed which systems of governance are more effective in dealing with such a global threat. Democracies in Asia, such as Japan, Taiwan and South Korea, have emerged as “green zones,” successfully curbing the spread of the virus through large-scale testing and contact tracing. At the other end of the spectrum are the “red zones,” places that have failed to test, contain and treat patients effectively, resulting in overwhelmed healthcare systems and high death rates.
Since a vaccine is unlikely to be developed and widely available for at least another year, biotech solutions will have to remain in place as countries ease their lockdown measures and open their borders. Health checks, temperature screenings, wearable health monitors, immunity passports, health checks in public facilities and other measures are likely to stay. So-called “travel bubbles” or “green corridors” between countries such as Australia and New Zealand, Singapore and China, and other pairs of countries will emerge.
Globally, Asia is the only region in the world that is projected to experience economic growth in 2020 despite the coronavirus, accelerating the trend of Asian global leadership that has been under way for the past decade. Since the world’s manufacturing is already concentrated to a large degree in Asia, the continent’s economic stability while the rest of the world is experiencing a recession creates opportunities for innovation and sustained leadership in the manufacturing industry.
The disruption of supply chains caused by the pandemic, primarily forcing China out, will likely benefit Southeast Asian countries such as Vietnam. Despite the economic shocks of the pandemic, Vietnam and the Philippines are still expected to have a GDP growth of four to five percent in 2020. In their case, COVID-19 forcing supply chains out of China and the RCEP agreement are catalyzing a long-term trend of growth in manufacturing, specifically in electronics.
Other ASEAN countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand might experience short-term decline in growth, but ASEAN markets will rise back without severe long-term negative consequences.
Education in transition
Times of crises reveal how technology and innovation drive progress. Location data helps government officials perform contact tracing and isolate individuals at risk, while the pharmaceutical industry is working hard to find a vaccine and possibly a cure. Students of the post-pandemic future might increasingly lean towards STEM degrees so they can be part of the solution.
Moreover, university education itself is being transformed by technology: an unprecedented health crisis forced virtually all of the world’s universities to switch to distance learning. Virtual conferencing platforms, like Zoom, have skyrocketed in popularity as classrooms and lecture halls have moved online. With many universities canceling campus attendance for the 2020 fall semester, universities are concentrating their capabilities to improve the teaching and learning experience while protecting faculty and students from risks—again, through technology. In the post-pandemic world, entirely online degrees might not be so out-of-the-ordinary anymore.
In Asia, the number of university students has been on the rise: both due to the demographics of the region and due to the influx of international students. The number of international students enrolled in universities in Southeast Asia has increased from 240,000 to over 300,000 in just four years between 2013 and 2017, and the trend is likely to continue. While COVID-19 has temporarily halted international travel, the factors that attract students in the first place—affordable cost, good quality education, widespread instruction in English and good quality of life—are unlikely to disappear in the near future.
Though most international students come from within the region, Asia has positioned itself as a global higher education hub and is attracting more and more bright minds from around the world to a region of rapid growth and innovation. Perhaps, then, the biggest change in the post-pandemic era will be that ever more of the world’s next generation of talent comes to Asia to learn how to govern healthy societies rather than Asians going abroad.
This article was made possible by a grant from Splice Media’s Lights On Fund, which is in turn supported by the Facebook Journalism Project.
Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photo: Victor He/Unsplash.
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