COVID19 and globalization

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Jan Blommaert

The COVID19 (or Corona virus) crisis is a textbook example of contemporary globalization processes. Here is a quick run through some of its features.

1. We see a crucial feature of globalization processes: the ways in which issues change when they become mobile. Concretely, what started (and remains) a public health crisis in Wuhan, China, has become an entirely different kind of issue elsewhere in the word: an economic one.

We have seen the ups-and-downs of global stock markets recently, and have read the reports on the devastating impact of the crisis on airlines and shipping across the world. We also read that production facilities in Europe have had to slow down or halt their production cycle due to shortages of supplies from China. China’s exports took a sharp downturn in January and February 2020 as a direct effect of the epidemic. Its effects are felt across the world. Perhaps the most ironic example of this is the fact that labs in charge of COVID19 testing around the world are running into supply problems, since much of the testing material is produced in China or by manufacturers whose supply chains involve Chinese partners.

The lesson here is: when things go global, they don’t stay the same things, they morph and acquire new features, dimensions, effects. The economic dimension of the global COVID19 epidemic is many times greater than its public health dimension: far more people are affected by the economic downturn than by the virus.

2. We also see how mobility is the key issue in addressing the crisis, in several ways:

  • Analyses of the epidemic focus on the mobility of people in and through high-risk zones. People who have been in Wuhan, or have had contact with people from that area, are defined as ‘at risk’. The same goes for people who visited other centers of the epidemic: Korea, Iran and Northern Italy.
  • Contemporary modes of human mobility – intensive business or leisure traveling – are in focus, therefore. In Western Europe, the brief holiday period around carnival involved millions of people traveling to holiday venues, thus creating high-risk areas back home. A steep rise in detected infections upon their return is the effect of this. See also what happened to the cruise ships and their passengers in Asia: a globalized format of holiday making for the well-heeled is particularly badly hit by the epidemic. Governments across the world now issue guidelines for restricted traveling, including discouraging what is called ‘non-essential’ trips to high-risk areas. The same approach is followed by actors at all levels, including public institutions and enterprises, and even the military. The effect is a dramatic fall in airline passenger numbers, forcing airlines to cancel flights in order to cut losses. The cruise industry, likewise, records severe losses. Long-distance travel, both for business and for leisure, is definitely identified as a danger in relation to the epidemic.
  • Measures to control the epidemic, consequently, all include restrictions on mobility and contact: from lockdowns of entire regions affecting large populations (as in China and Italy) to individual or collective quarantine as soon as suspicion of infection is present. Think of the professional cycling teams isolated and confined for over a week now to their hotel rooms in the United Arab Emirates, after a number of infected persons were identified among the teams’ staff. Preventing people from congregating has led, in Italy as well as in Greece, to the closure of all schools. And recall that one of the major concerns in the early stages of the crisis was the fact that the outbreak of the epidemic coincided with the Chinese New Year period – a time in which millions of people move around.
  • Mobility concerns have a tremendous impact on global events. Several high-profile sports competitions have already been cancelled or postponed, and there is talk about postponing the Tokyo 2020 Olympics as well. In a spectacular move, Saudi Arabia imposed restrictions on the Hajj to Mecca and Medina, affecting millions of pilgrims around the world. At a lower scale level, conferences, fairs and other large gatherings are likewise affected. The fabric of contemporary global activity networks is affected. Here is an example involving several friends of mine:

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  • Those affected by such restrictions on mobility have a hard time. An amazing blog collects stories from Wuhan, and they are disturbing and sad. I am writing this while being in individual quarantine myself, pending the results of a test – and it’s not great fun. Such restrictions on mobility run against the systemics of everyday life.
  • But at a truly global scale, note the fact that the restrictions on mobility and their knock-on economic effects have led to a fall in pollution levels – the COVID19 crisis is a blessing for the climate.

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3. We see cultural effects too. Let me mention just these:

  • There is a stampede worldwide towards adjusted behavior. Think of globally circulating guidelines for washing hands, protecting others when you cough or sneeze, avoiding public places and transport when you’re unwell, and so forth. And the resulting shortages in the supply of handwash products and mouth masks. But think also on people avoiding to shake hands (let alone kissing), avoiding touching their faces, and suggesting alternative forms of greeting.
  • In several places worldwide, anticipating possible restrictions of mobility has led to panic buying and stockpiling. In various places, hospitals have reported theft of handwash gel by visitors. People have started adjusting their behavioral patterns to the possible effects of an epidemic, and they apply existing templates of disaster management in the process.
  • Across the world, we see moralized behavioral scripts emerge in which appropriate versus inappropriate behavior is identified. People who cough or sneeze on a crowded bus are instantly identified (and often called out) as ‘dangerous’ and treated with public suspicion or even aggression. Behavior is moralized: obviously ill people in public are quickly accused of being ‘irresponsible’.
  • Attached to this, there is a wave of anti-Asian racism attached to the epidemic. There are many reports of people who have been insulted and/or molested simply because of their ‘Asian’ appearance. Being from Wuhan is heavily stigmatized as well as mocked in China and elsewhere. Given the connection between the epidemic and human mobility, this racism is also extended to cover that typical 21st century category of travelers: refugees and migrants.

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  • The online world is a big engine behind all of this, and the corona virus has led to tons of memes, shout-outs and conspiracy theories on social media, as well as a frantic search for reliable information and intense discussions on such information.

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Finally: the COVID19 epidemic is a perfect candidate for mass media formatting as a crisis, a scare, a disaster, and is consequently consistently framed as such in familiar (and globalized) genres of the ‘live updates’ and ‘breaking news’ type. Just check the websites of literally any mass media outlet these days: the epidemic outshines all other news items. We get a mass supply of information in all forms and shades, and we get it on a global scale. Here is the main page of the CNN website on 6 March 2020, 13.06 GMT:

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It looks as if we won’t have a shortage of topics for research on contemporary globalization processes in the years to come.

Author: jmeblommaert

Taalkundig antropoloog-sociolinguist, hoogleraar Taal, Cultuur en Globalisering aan Tilburg University. Politiek publicist.

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