What Might COVID-19’s Legacy be?

COVID-19 could trigger a global shift and therefore alter our ‘normal’ in the following ways. It potentially presents a new cultural hegemony that could threaten the current world order and economy. It also challenges current social aspects such as lifestyle, values and perceptions. The management of the pandemic has also shifted the narrative on leadership and crisis management acumen.

A shift in the global political economy
The world economy is organised politically around a neoliberal world order that is enabled by globalisation. A key indicator of globalisation is the interconnectedness of countries, beyond borders, on economic undertakings (Storey, 1999). The aspect of free trade and related transboundary economic transactions are fundamental characteristics of the world economy. However, the underlying features that propel the world economy are the shared liberal values and the dominance hegemons hold on the world order. These shared values are the intangible aspects that sustain the liberal world order and further its globalisation. COVID-19 could potentially disrupt globalisation and its premise of shared liberal values, which, in the long term, can affect the political consensus on the world order.

China, in the lead: The pre-COVID nature of the partnership African countries had with China, including Ethiopia, has been framed within the concept of South-South solidarity. The narrative on solidarity is part of China’s effort to utilise its soft power to gain the trust of potential allies. According to Friedrichs (2019), China is anchoring its narrative as a friendly partner that sympathises and identifies with countries affected by colonial legacies. This narrative is intentional as it positions China as a better fit, more beneficial and more of an equal partner than a partnership with the West. This alternative narrative could now permanently displace the neoliberal ‘Washington consensus’ in favour of the ‘Beijing Consensus’. African states could favour the Beijing alternative because it promotes modernisation, it is not politically intrusive or pushing for a one size fits all solution and provides room for trial and error which is empowering (Huang and Ding, 2006). The other factor linked to the growing appeal of China amongst African states is that it can serve as bargaining power with Western partners like the United States (Friedrichs, 2019). While the partnership with China can serve as good leverage and support for African states, China’s active interest in Africa is one that centres on mutual benefits to advance its national interests and needs. Although at face value, it may seem African states needed China, China also needs African states which makes the relationship interdependent and symbiotic rather than a dependent one. The most critical impact of COVID-19 is its equalising nature, whereby pre-existing hegemony is being displaced by uncertainty, shared humanity and global empathy. This element will continue to shape any emerging world order.

A more polarised and interdependent world (pun intended)
The rise of ‘PopSovism’ has been an emerging phenomenon for the past decade. It is essentially a hybrid of Populism and sovereignty that promotes the importance of protection of a nation’s borders and its people from the influence of outsiders. This premise has inadvertently resulted in the gradual resurgence of the prominence of national interest over and above international consensus and cooperation. This sentiment of protectionism and exclusivity is contrary to the borderless and fluid features of the liberal world order. The global economy, as well as diplomacy, is based on a broad operating canvas where the West looks for resources in the South and the South also gains from the West with the implicit acknowledgement of shared values that sustain capital accumulation and production. The resurgence of Populism challenges the free flow of resources and other movements unless it is to advance the national interest. Therefore, it is indicative of an inward and insular ideology that emphasises on the state rather than the external environment.

A potential impact and legacy of a post-COVID world could be a further rise in Populism whereby state interest will override multilateralism. The COVID response lockdown efforts, control over one’s borders, restricted movements could result in long-lasting structured changes. These measures could challenge the role and mandate of international institutions that convene political and economic cooperation but will now be seen distrustfully by populists as undermining national interest and the power of the people. The reduced faith in international institutions and values could invalidate liberal democratic values by marginalising the universality of human rights, for example, the rights of immigrants and minorities. However, a resulting aspect could be reduced international military efforts by the likes of the United States as it will be perceived as a wasteful investment that needs to be redirected towards national priorities and needs.

While the possibility of a more polarised world could come about post-COVID, it could also implicitly trigger a rise in the consciousness of global unity and interdependence. The pandemic has served as the ultimate global equaliser where human-made borders and perceived differences have taken a back seat to humanity coming together to overcome a common challenge. This consensus can result in a renewed narrative from art and culture about resilience in humanity, solidarity and empathy. Some of the powerful images from Italy and NYC, where people are in shared worship and gratitude through songs from balconies bring to light our innate selves which are closer to God. This grace places turf wars and geopolitics in the back burner and brings the fundamentals to the front. Humanity first, politics last!

Back to Basics;
Socially this could mean a reorientation of values which could further discredit the ‘imperial mode of living’ which is symbolic of acquiring material gain and accumulation of capital and is culturally celebrated as the ultimate living standard. Perhaps the new post-COVID-19 lifestyle that will gain acclaim is the redefinition of the concept of ‘value’ and ‘time’—mostly going back to basics and our authentic Ethiopia ways, valuing health over riches, time with family and community rather than long hours in the office. Moreover, hopefully, for our Ethiopia, this could mean more unity and less polarity. The virus does not discriminate, and that could serve as a spiritual trigger for solidarity, inclusiveness, tolerance and empathy.

Key learning which should be underlined as imperative is the political prioritisation of essential service provisions such as universal access to health, water and sanitation above any other political or economic priority. The lack of investment in the basics provides opportunistic vulnerability to external shocks such as COVID-19. The absence of the basics makes essentials such as hand washing and access to running water a privilege rather than a basic need. Although we have come a long way in the provision of essential services, we can gain from making it of the highest priority going forward.

Authentic leadership: Embracing vulnerability
After having listened to various speeches made by world leaders, in reaction to the pandemic, it is sensible to observe leadership matters at a time of crisis. The leaders who presented their most authentic selves seem to have the highest possibility of reach and impact. Again, back to basics! Watching politicians engage people without political rhetoric and on a direct and straightforward human level is quite powerful. This quality is also magnified in women leaders as they can now just be themselves, perhaps the patriarchy has been muted. It is also the case that male leaders have embraced what is traditionally stereotyped as female traits. This shift in narrative has given us insight into what an authentic leader is, one that embraces vulnerability. During panic and uncertainty, the ability to ‘focus on what can be controlled’ presents the highest chance for normalcy, especially with the backdrop being fear of what is still unknown.

It is fair to expect that COVID-19 will permanently shift the world. However, it is also important to realise that this phenomenon has provided a mute button on current norms. Amongst which includes the normalised destructive interaction between nature and society which has positioned nature at the disposal of humans while ignoring the symbiotic and intrinsic value of the ecosystem for human existence. This extractive relationship is closely aligned and reinforced by a globally accepted consumer-oriented lifestyle which is reinforced by a capitalist world order. Perhaps the future presents an opportunity whereby nature and society interact spiritually and respectfully, allowing the current generation hand over a more abundant, harmonised, resource-rich earth to future generations.


9th Year • Apr.16 – May.15 2020 • No. 85

Bethlehem Mengistu

is a development expert with 15 years’ experience.. She can be reached at bettymengistu22@yahoo.com.


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