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Pandemics, Nationalism, and Globalisation: An Overview

ISSUE 2020
No 05
Release 07 May 2020
By GILBERG Trond*, PhD; CHHEM Rethy**, MD, PhD (Edu), PhD (His)

Executive Summary

  • This article examines the political and geopolitical dimension of the COVID-19 pandemic. Democracies have been facing considerable problems handling the major crisis. Their leaders have taken drastic measures of crowd control through strong centralised decision-making, that are more akin to those of authoritarian systems. Internationally, a global pandemic calls for greater multilateral cooperation, despite the current nationalistic response.
  • The pandemic has also altered the balance of power, with China emerging as a positive force in the control of COVID-19 and cooperation with other countries. The US, in contrast, has become an outlier with many criticised policies, as exemplified by the suspension of US funding from the WHO.
  • These combined effects raise the question of regime capabilities in addressing global crises like climate change and pandemics. It is hoped that this differential performance will lead to greater multilateral cooperation in the near future. It is further hoped that some Western critics of the Third World’s governance systems will be replaced by greater respect for sovereignty. Moreover, a willingness to understand policies that emanate from different circumstances and cultures – not solely on universal models.
  • Policy Options:

– Intensify regional (ASEAN or APT) dialogue for policy exchange to build mutual trust and understanding.

– Increase multilateral cooperation and consultation by sharing experience, health and medical data, and mitigation policies. o Foster strong and inspiring regional leadership to drive multilateral cooperation.

– Support science-based policy and strong collaboration between doctors, scientists, epidemiologists and top policy makers.

– Engage the private sector in R&D in vaccine and anti-viral drugs manufacturing and equitable distribution.


The COVID-19 pandemic has led to an unprecedented and significant change in the political order, both domestically and internationally. Many previous crises of this nature have also resulted in temporary changes, but only in the politics and economies of some nations. However, COVID-19 is global in its spread, which translates into corresponding global changes. In this sense, the virus not only has the potential of changing the political order in much of the world, but also may result in a crucial shift in international relations and the balance of power between the major states of the world. Such a change will, in turn, have important implications for policy makers everywhere, but particularly for leaders of small and medium-sized states, who must deal with the new world order in which they find themselves, and to which they must adjust and respond.


A study of history, or even a cursory glance at it, will reveal several important aspects of pandemics. The Black Death, which ravaged much of the world in the fourteenth century, resulted in the loss of nearly half the population of Europe, with a catastrophic decline of production, and with devastating effects on the economies in the region. But the plague also produced strong demand for labor, which in turn produced an improvement in the standard of living for the survivors, increased urbanisation, and the eventual development of an urban middle class that became the developmental driving force, for a long period of time that followed. 

Various pandemics of the first ten to fifteen years of the twentieth century slowed, but did not stop the growth of the economies of much of the world, exemplified by the strong economic growth that followed the outbreaks.2 The Spanish Flu pandemic killed millions of people, but the economic effects were overcome in relatively short order.3 The various epidemics and pandemics mentioned here triggered innovative initiatives, which had a beneficial effect on developments and improvements in public health and medical technology. Similarly, wars (the American civil war, World War I and World War II) and ongoing low-level conflicts are crises that unfortunately impact much of the world, at times in the historical legacy of humankind. These crises led to massive loss of life, while they also produce remarkable technological advancements.4 This short overview of the history of epidemics and pandemics and their influence on the socio-economic order of countries should show us that the COVID-19 pandemic, too, will have a massive impact on the socio-economic systems of much of the world, after the virus hopefully has been brought under control.

Crises and the Political Order

Immensely important as the crises discussed above are, they all have one thing in common: they produced a significant change in the political order of affected countries. In all cases, the response to these and other major challenges led to massive centralisation in decision-making and the political structures of systems, no matter their basic nature prior to the emergence of the crises, be they medical, strategic, or technological. The globalisation of the world economic order that dominated Europe at the outbreak of WWI led to massive centralisation, nationalism, protectionism, and beggar-thy-neighbor policies, which in turn produced the unstable international systems of the 1920’s and 1930’s, with the emergence of extremist ideologies like fascism, Nazism, and orthodox communism, and then war.

The same process is currently underway in response to the COVID-19 crisis. States have closed their borders to virtually all other states, there is fierce competition for scarce medical resources, and the presumably integrated European Union has become a hotbed of nationalism. Every country has taken steps to centralise decision-making and restrict the movement of people, their attempted control of their behaviour, even their dress (mandatory face masks). The required shutting down of the economy has resulted in mass unemployment, with the corresponding need for governments to massively subsidise income, provide loans to help weather the crisis, and limit basic democratic freedoms.6 Allegedly, these restrictions will gradually be lifted as the pandemic eases. But several questions remain: Will the political systems of the world, especially liberal democracies, return to the situation before the outbreak of the pandemic? Should they?

History has shown that decentralised, liberal democracies, and even the more centralised systems in this category, are ill-equipped to handle major crises, the latest one of which, and the most extensive, is the COVID-19. If a system based on individualism and civil society based on pluralism, with groups often in competition with each other and veto power in their mutual relations cannot handle major crises, should it be the preferred system for all? What is the basis for the automatic and conditioned argument, especially by Western scholars and leaders, that democracy is the best system, if that very system has to transform itself into something quite different and centralised when disaster strikes? There is agreement that environmental crises are already upon us. How will the system that had to resort to draconian, undemocratic methods in the COVID-19 crisis, handle increasing disasters such as floods, earthquakes, drought, and disease outbreaks? If the system cannot do this without morphing into something dramatically different in a crisis, where is the moral right to criticise others for their form of political and socio-economic system? Will post-COVID Western leaders show some more humility in their foreign policy towards the Third World?

COVID-19 and the Changing World Order

The domestic political order faces many questions as a result of this pandemic, as discussed above. The world order is also going to be different as a result of this challenge. Certain political systems have clearly weathered the crisis better than others. This, in turn, has had an effect, and will have a more lasting impact, on the post-COVID world order. More centralised governance systems, such as China and Singapore, have been at the forefront to forcefully control the pandemic, while liberal democracies like Italy, Spain, France and the US and UK have been much less successful. This is entirely predictable, given the history of disasters discussed above. Centralised systems with strict control over their citizens can handle a crisis better, at least initially, while liberal democracies, perhaps by the very nature of their system, will be slower to respond, and will have to change drastically, at least for a period, in order the handle the massive problems that arise as a result of the crisis at hand. Some cultures may also be better equipped to handle emergencies; those cultures that are more individualistic will be slower to respond and will experience resistance to the restrictions imposed on them in a crisis, while the more group-oriented cultures will be able to gain acceptance of the needs of society faster, superseding the needs and rights of the individual.7 This seems to be a lesson from history. We are not arguing here that one system is superior to another in all cases, but the evidence seems clear in terms of crisis response and management. It would therefore seem logical to suggest that increasing sanitary or environmental disasters will require a greater amount of centralisation in decision-making and response. Does this require abandoning basic human rights and privileges? That point is not argued here. Rather, it is suggested that political leaders will need to show more tolerance and understanding of other systems and cultures, and refrain from attempting to measure systemic performance by others, when history clearly shows the deficiencies of the allegedly preferred system in crisis situations. This should be reflected, for example, in policies produced by some Western scholars and leaders in their relations with other states, exemplified by Cambodia, China, and Singapore, among others. Cultures, systems, and policies differ based on local and regional conditions, and not on universal models.

Nowadays, there is much discussion of who is winning the international competition in terms of taming the COVID-19 pandemic. First of all, this is a global challenge, so we are all winners if the pandemic is brought under control, and we are equally losers – if it is not. That being said, it is clear that some states have increased their stature and influence, as a result of their policies on the fight against the virus, where others have not. China is widely admired for their handling of the virus and its efforts to prevent its spread, even though recently updated death statistics for Wuhan are questioned by Western leaders. For its soft power diplomacy, China has also been very helpful in providing medical supplies and personnel to other countries in Europe, Asia and Africa, irritating many of her rivals. China is furthermore a strong supporter of the World Health Organization (WHO), as is almost everyone else.

Cambodia has earned praise for its humanitarianism as exemplified by the docking of the Westerdam cruise ship in Sihanoukville and the humanitarian aid extended to its passengers, who had been rejected by several other countries. It is perhaps symptomatic that these cases differ markedly from the liberal democratic model of other crisis-responding countries. Then there is the outlier, the US which has abdicated from its global leadership, because of policies that value American exceptionalism, at the expense of others including allies. The contrast between China, on the one hand, and the US on the other, is stark in this crisis and will have a lasting effect on international relations for some time to come. We agree with a recent article by the Economist, that grudgingly acknowledged that China may indeed be winning the contest of the crisis response.

If one accepts that the world needs an involved and progressive US foreign policy, one has to hope that the future will bring different policies founded on multilateralism. Seemingly a paradox, every state is walling itself off from other states to prevent the spread of the virus and to survive the crisis at hand, while at the same time, the need for multilateralism is starkly apparent. This is a global crisis that requires close international cooperation. It is therefore imperative that, while barriers are set up to limit or prevent the spread of the contagion, after the crisis, meaningful international cooperation will be restored and indeed expanded. But this multilateralism must be based on mutual respect for sovereignty and national and regional conditions, not a resumption of attempts to impose a certain political and socio-economic order on all societies, cultures, and policies. The next big challenge for humankind is already a crisis of the global environment and nature. The handling of the present pandemic has shown that multilateralism, based on the principles discussed above, will be needed to deal with the former. Thus, despite the chaos, hardship, and sorrow that the virus had brought with it, hopefully humankind has learned some valuable lessons. We should say indispensable lessons, because the next global crisis will need all of us to work together, regardless of systems and ideological preferences.

Policy Options

The current number of cases and deaths in Southeast Asia (except for the particular case of Singapore) is relatively small (it may change unpredictably) compared to Europe and the US, reflecting that each individual state has taken appropriate measures to mitigate the pandemic. While it may be necessary to implement national policy at this stage, regional dialogue for a shared policy across physical borders is needed. The recent ASEAN, ASEAN+3 and ASEAN- US meetings on COVID-19 are good platforms for building mutual trust and policy exchange and should be repeated as needed.

In his speech delivered at the Special ASEAN+3 (APT) Summit on COVID-19 held through teleconference on April 14, 2020, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s call for actions included the following points. Firstly, share experiences on the prevention and containment the spread of COVID-19. Next, save lives by establishing mechanisms to share knowledge and techniques to protect, prevent, diagnose, treat, and monitor the infection especially among the most vulnerable population and frontline health care providers. Furthermore, reduce economic risks by taking measures to avoid impact on production chains, economic activities and trade across the region by maintaining all borders open to allow the flow of goods. In addition, diversify sources of growth with emphasis on shifting reliance of regional demand. Finally, in the context of social distancing, increase digital connectivity in e-government, e-commerce and e-learning through bilateral, regional and multilateral cooperation frameworks.

As a result of the regional dialogue, a joint statement was issued with recommendations for practical actions. Firstly, strengthen regional early warning system for emerging infectious diseases (epidemic/pandemics). Secondly, the transparent sharing of data, knowledge and experience for the prevention, containment and control of transmission of germs as well as clinical treatment of patients. In addition, enhance regional preparedness and response to pandemic with plan to protect health care professionals and all workers who at dispatched to the front line to fight the disease. Moreover, adequate medical supplies, diagnostic tools, personal protective equipment, medical equipment should be available for quick use when the germ strikes respecting basic principles of safety, efficacy, and accessibility. Lastly, mobilisation of APT resources such as the APT reserve of essential medical supplies or tapping into the APT Emergency Rice Reserve under the coordination of the ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on disaster management (AHA Center). This regional health cooperation shall be managed using the norms and standards of the International Health Regulations (IHR).

Mitigating a regional or global pandemic caused by an emerging virus that is not known requires knowledge that shall be built through aggressive scientific endeavors. Only the best laboratories led by the best and brightest scientists can crack the genome of this elusive new virus, which data will inform both non-pharmaceutical interventions (quarantine of contacts, isolation of patients, confinement, or borders control for example) to contain infection, delay spread, and reduce the impact of disease. The nature of the viral genome sequence data will show directions for pharmaceutical research to design both vaccines and antiviral drugs. Strategies for a national, regional and global fight against an emerging virus must be established by scientists and epidemiologists. The design and implementation of policies must be based on scientific evidence. We observe during this COVID-19 pandemic that coordinated evidence-based policy lead to effective mitigation of the spread of the virus, while policy driven by pseudoscience led to uncontrollable increase of infections and unnecessary death. This emphasizes the importance of the link between science and politics. In the time of a pandemic, one must listen to the scientists and doctors. In the APT region, the call for a scientific cooperation in epidemiological research through the APT Field Epidemiology Training Network (FETN) is timely. The private sector can contribute, through a public private partnership scheme, to accelerating Research and development and the manufacturing and equitable distribution of diagnostic tests, anti-viral medicines, and vaccines.

All items agreed and included in joint ASEAN statement are indeed well thought and remarkably relevant for the region to rise to the challenges brought by the current COVID-19 pandemic and also to enable proper battles against future emerging infectious diseases. However, such a comprehensive and grand scale call for actions require adequate funding, transnational coordination and cooperation that are driven by strong and inspiring political leadership across the region. Sharing experience, health and medical data, and mitigation policies would be ideal for a multilateral win-win approach. In sum, there is a dire need for stronger multilateral cooperation and consultation to mitigate or suppress such a dreadful pandemic.

The opinions expressed are the author’s own and do not reflect the views of the Asian Vision Institute.