COVID-19 is now the topic du jour across the planet. Perhaps nothing exemplifies the interconnectivity of our world than a novel virus that appears in China, then spreads to every continent but Antarctica. As such, it’s causing humanity to rethink a number of trends. We may look back on this time as a pivotal one.
The reaction to the excesses of globalism had already begun with the election of Donald Trump, who appealed in 2016 to those most left behind by the paradigm. For the first time since Ross Perot warned in 1992 of the “giant sucking sound” of industry that would be pulled out of America through the North American Free Trade Agreement and similar arrangements, a president openly questioned whether the status quo was truly beneficial to America. Long-ignored trade deficits with potential rivals such as China came under scrutiny, as did the practice of obtaining essential goods through such sources.
Today’s coronavirus scare will accelerate that trend, regardless how mild or deadly the virus is in the end, because for the first time, the vulnerabilities inherent in globalism are easy to understand:
While many are rightfully concerned about stopping the virus, few are focused on the fact that the more it spreads, the more the U.S. ability to treat any Americans who are stricken is vulnerable to the tender mercies of the Chinese Communist Party because of a strategic shift in health care that occurred without debate or decision in Washington.
Everything from antibiotics to chemotherapy drugs, from antidepressants to Alzheimer’s medications to treatments for HIV/AIDS, are frequently produced by Chinese manufacturers. What’s more, the most effective breathing masks and the bulk of other personal protective equipment — key to containing the spread of coronavirus and protecting health care workers — and even the basic syringe are largely made in China. The basic building blocks of U.S. health care are now under Xi’s control.
The list doesn’t stop at medical commodities, either. The Trump administration has recognized how dependent the U.S. had become on China as a source of rare earth minerals, a strategic category of raw materials upon which many modern devices depend. The U.S. has deposits of such minerals, but largely lacks the capacity to mine and process them — after all, everything is done more cheaply in China, right?
We are beginning to realize the multifaceted hidden costs of offshoring — costs that were never publicly factored into the promotion of globalism. Over time, the public has come to appreciate how many manufacturing jobs were lost — jobs that provided useful work and a “living wage.” Most criticism of the emerging global economy has been predicated on that aspect. But what was good for the corporate bottom line devastated families both in the U.S. (unemployment and despair as skills became irrelevant) and in China (sweatshop hours, bad working conditions and little pay). In fact, one of the revelations of the current crisis is just how bad China’s industrial and urban pollution has become. In short, it’s cheaper to make things in China because labor can be underpaid or even conscripted, there are no Occupational Safety and Health Administration-type standards to worry about, and none of the manufacturers there have to worry about mitigating pollution (at least, until it embarrasses the government). Those tacky inflatable holiday lawn figures (sorry, personal pet peeve) and other assorted non-essential trinkets cost far more than what WalMart charged the consumer who purchased them.
Globalism isn’t the only paradigm that will be questioned in the weeks ahead. Ever since the dawn of the Industrial Age, work increasingly has been performed outside the home, concentrated first in factories and then offices. This drove a reorganization of society. Families spent more time apart, as fathers, then mothers, increasingly found their sustenance by working for others. This led to children learning more from schools and other institutions than from growing and learning within a family economy. People left the countryside for the cities to find work. The rise of suburbia cemented the necessity of automobiles and led to the invention of the traffic jam as infrastructure failed to keep pace. Only since the creation of the internet has there been a serious attempt to change this equation by finding ways to work from home.
While it isn’t practical for every type of work, telecommuting may be about to get a huge turbocharge:
In the past week, companies across the U.S. have started canceling major conferences, halting most business travel and urging employees to work from home in response to the growing viral outbreak in the country. Few will require telecom operations as vast and complicated as ICANN’s, but as companies such as Twitter and Microsoft start shifting to virtual work en masse, the vision of a decentralized work world long promised by telecommuting evangelists is starting to materialize.
Even if businesses intend for their policies to be a temporary response to COVID-19, once it’s discovered that desk-based workers can be productive — possibly more so — without being corralled into cubicles, the public may seriously question a return to the old ways, with its long commutes, office squabbles and occasional control freaks.
Higher education has been gravitating toward more online learning for some time now. As a result, many universities and colleges are somewhat prepared to continue their activity remotely by scaling up what they’re already doing in some areas. The same cannot be said of most public elementary and secondary schools.
What if this pandemic led to decentralization, more time with family instead of traffic, increasing interest in homeschooling options, a desire for national self-sufficiency and security, and a return of well-paying industrial jobs to the U.S.? There is a possibility the blight of COVID-19 may contain the seeds of long-term benefits. The city of Enterprise, Alabama, has a monument to the boll weevil, an insect that devastated the cotton economy of the southern U.S. in the early 1900s. Despite the infestation, farmers were reluctant to abandon cotton, due to its profit and ability to grow on land few other cash crops could tolerate.
Enter the lowly peanut. An Enterprise (and enterprising) man convinced some farmers to switch to peanuts, and those who did found their fortunes rising. By 1919, as the boll weevil continued its destruction, the county around Enterprise, Alabama, was the largest producer of peanuts in the country, and shortly began to produce peanut oil. Local farmers continued to diversify their crops, adding sugar cane, potatoes and others, and the area found renewed prosperity. All because of necessity brought on by a bug.
What lasting changes will today’s “bug” bring?