Earthquakes destroy much, but they also reveal valuable information about the deepest layers of the earth. Similarly, pandemics cause immense pain and suffering but also teach us a great deal. And not just about biology, epidemiology and medicine. They also reveal who we are, as individuals and as a society. For example, are we, as people, more altruistic or selfish? Is it better to have a country that is open to the world or one that has closed borders? Do we trust our politicians or the experts? And what should guide our behavior: emotions or data?
Those who advocate integration between countries clash with supporters of nationalism and protectionism. “We reject globalism and embrace the doctrine of patriotism,” President Trump told the United Nations in 2018. He also made clear his disdain of multilateralism, that is, initiatives based on agreements among many countries. Multilateralism led to the creation of agencies such as the United Nations and the World Bank, for example. It also encourages agreements in which participating countries commit to making joint efforts to deal with problems that no country can effectively tackle alone, regardless of how big, rich or powerful it may be. Climate change, immigration and terrorism are some examples. President Trump does not like these multilateral agreements. “The US will always choose independence and cooperation over global governance, control and domination,” the president said. As we know, Trump is not the only critic of globalization. Countless political leaders, as well as leading intellectuals, regularly denounce globalization.
It is in this context that Covid-19 has made its revolutionary appearance. If globalization is based on the international movement of products, ideas, people and technology, then this virus is a powerful example of the globalization of biological connectivity. It also confirms how shortsighted it is to think of globalization only as a commercial, financial or media phenomenon.
It turns out that some biological exports, for example, travel faster, farther, have more immediate effects, and have a greater impact than the other exchanges that characterize globalization. But the reaction to the coronavirus also reveals how tempting isolationism remains. An increasing number of governments are trying to seal their borders and isolate the most affected cities and regions, blocking the free movement of people. We’re experiencing a real time clash between globalism and isolationism. But at the same time that some governments are closing their borders, they are also discovering how much they need the support of other countries and the help of multilateral entities such as the World Health Organization or the World Bank.
The coronavirus is also placing scientists and other experts back in the limelight and giving them a leading role. One of the unfortunate surprises of the early 21st century has been a loss of credibility for experts and the corresponding rise of credibility for con artists and demagogues. This new trend had an iconic moment in 2016 when Michael Gove, then the UK’s Secretary of State for Justice, reacted to a study in which renowned experts criticized Brexit, a project he promoted. The secretary stated bluntly: “The people in this country have had enough of experts.” Another politician who despises experts is Donald Trump. He has said that climate change is a Chinese hoax, that he knows more about war than his generals, and that he understands “this stuff” – the coronavirus – better than scientists. “Maybe I have a natural ability,” he said. “Maybe I should have done [medicine] instead of running for president.”
Well, no. It turns out that in when dealing with “this stuff” the scientists must be – and fortunately are – the main protagonists. Moreover, many of them are public-sector employees, another category of professionals that is often scorned by populist leaders who have gained power by fanning the frustrations and anxieties of the people they claim to represent. Populists don’t coexist harmoniously with experts and with data that contradict their public claims and interests. They detest public institutions that house experts and produce irrefutable data. But the coronavirus crisis has shown that these public bureaucracies, whose budgets and capabilities are often eroded by leaders who despise them, are our main line of defense against phenomena like this unprecedented and threatening pandemic.
The pandemic not only obliges experts and multilateral organizations to play a central role, but it also gives new urgency to the old debate between altruism and individualism. The altruist is willing to help others – including strangers – even at the expense of his own interests. In contrast, the individualist tends to act without regard to the effects that their actions have on the well-being of others.
In the coming weeks and months we will discover which people – and which countries – are willing to act with others in mind, and which will only think of themselves. This will be easy for us to see because the coronavirus has made it clear that we are all neighbors. Even with those on the other side of the world.