In the Shadow of COVID-19: New Risks and Vulnerabilities Revealed by the Global Pandemic

By Trevor Jones and Michael Moran

 

More than a month into a global lock down, most people not yet afflicted by COVID-19 have adjusted to a new routine, ordained from above with strict restrictions on movement and work outside the home and with no certain end date. Such massive disruption carries many uncertainties, but it has also exposed some previously hidden risks that bear examination.  The outbreak that shifted our personal routines will also permanently alter the way we understand the complexities of peace, security, economic development and sustainability.

The shifts in these categories will be both strategic and operational. They will be drastic. And rapid. The changes will occur on a community level and have international implications. Systems will grow more complex, more regional, and, hopefully, more forward looking. But the unfortunate risk is that we tend toward the worst elements of our nature, allowing the system of largely peaceful international globalization to crack and shatter.

Coronavirus has disrupted trade and commerce, international engagement and exposed new gaps in global leadership where none were previously known. Our global disconnectedness, rightly celebrated, is now blamed and halted for its effectiveness in moving people, now the vectors of threat, around so very efficiently.

COVID-19 has not only uncovered, but will greatly accelerate, the exposure of weaknesses in supply chains and perhaps most concerning, the ability of aspiring powers to exploit global crises. Disparate damage will be done to vulnerable populations, an unfortunate byproduct of both the pathology and the ontology of the virus.

 

  • A Federalist Caper: The suppression of information about COVID-19 by China and the lackluster testing response by the US expose a vacuum where leaders of great nations should step up. Given its history of obfuscation during the 2003 SARS outbreak, China’s behavior surprised few. But in the United States, the most well-resourced nation in history, the outbreak exposed not only the tactical myopia of the current government but a deeper, more systemic flaw inherent in the country’s federalist architecture. While the White House “declared war” on the virus, it also gave the 50 states wide leeway to decide for themselves whether to join the fight, and left them to their own devices when it came to arming themselves for the struggle. The failure to move early with a track and trace strategy left political leaders with few options outside mass quarantine, a move that shut down the economy and caused enormous ancillary damage. A surgical track and trace policy, locating and isolating those who have associated with known COVID19 cases, has proven effective in South Korea, where no quarantine was necessary (the country did shut schools). Delays in decisive action from the top-down during crisis are particularly harmful.
  • Supply Chain Risk Exposed: Global trade was already under strain from protectionist measures and new tariffs, but COVID19 may have helped China locate strategic supply chain pinch points which could be used to squeeze the US during future crisis. These vulnerable sectors include pharmaceutical and medical supplies and the rare earth minerals crucial for technology. As a press release from the FDA on Feb. 27 of this year reported, “the FDA has identified about 20 other drugs, which solely source their active pharmaceutical ingredients or finished drug products from China”. China also controls the vast majority of the rare earth mineral supply chain. Rare earths are crucial for everything from cell phones to solar panels and batteries for electric cars. US production ranks third, just above Myanmar and Russia, producing just over 10% of China’s rare earth mineral take . Those in favor of reducing fossil fuel use should rapidly embrace the geopolitical need to control rare earth mineral supply chains. China’s suppression of good data will extend to its supply chains in these areas, as well. The One Belt, One Road initiative brings aggressive debt terms and human rights abuses to host countries. The Coronavirus is an invisible enemy, but t he negative effect China has on human security will not be.
  • Sustainability Setback: For the last several years there has been a push to measure dangers in the supply chain and the effects of these Environmental, Social and corporate Governance risks (ESG). A global recession caused by the loss of firms and jobs may strain this push to analyze more than shareholder ROI, reducing the scope of analysis to what is feasible given reduced staff, budgets, and investor capacity for creativity. Alternatively, and perhaps more likely, the opaque nature of China’s investment activity around the world will arouse the need for better data and more quality ESG metrics from markets inside the One Belt, One Road geography.
  • Selective Repression: Nations will exploit more than markets. Curfews, lock downs, closed borders and other means of population control read like a checklist from textbook from authoritarianism 101. These measures undoubtedly save lives, but what happens when the major threat from COVID-19 passes, through herd immunity or a vaccine? Leaders in China, Russia, North Korea, Iran and a host of other nations may feel no rush to repeal or could choose to selectively repeal these measures and thereby control minority groups or immigration policy.
  • The EM Crisis to Come: Perhaps the most difficult post-COVID-19 dynamic to think about is the effect on still-developing nations and those most vulnerable countries that could become failed states. Large-scale humanitarian operations may still lay ahead. It has proven straightforward (and optically beneficial) for China to send masks to developed nations along proven supply routes. As the virus moves into Africa and Latin America during the winter months, it remains to be seen how economies that were already highly strained can respond. Outside humanitarian infrastructure may still be reeling from the outbreaks Europe and the US, and so response could be too little, too late.

The leadership that comes from Western-led institutions that make up the international community is in the spotlight, and in question. The US and UK were late, internationally, in reacting to COVID-19, and neither has implemented the robust track and trace technology needed to truly mitigate a crisis like this in the future.

We often romanticize leadership after-the-fact. In reality, protection against our global demise from pandemic, war or famine is just as much structural as it “led” by an individual. The symbolism of leadership, a Kennedy or Churchill, for example, is crucial for our national psyche during crisis, no doubt. At writing, the current Prime Minister of the United Kingdom is in hospital with the virus, unable to publicly lead. It is not just government, but society, working in harmony that produces the texture of national leadership. These norms and values (accepting science as important, for example) produce the fabric of leadership as a nation. To wit, it is not clear whether authoritarian or democratic regimes handle outbreaks better. What is clear, is that trust in either system and the attendant cooperation by citizens as a society is far more indicative of success during pandemic than regime type.

The systems that constitute globalization are under threat. They are becoming more regional. The associated benefits in peace, security, law, trade and development have become less apparent and COVID-19 has reinforced those doubts. Diligence and vigilance will be required to ensure that the global disruption caused by COVID19 does not result in domestic human security abuses, geopolitical disruptions caused by squeezing established supply chains, or a collapse of the systems supporting the developing world. COVID-19 is nature testing us; anything less would be succumbing to the worst elements of our human nature itself.

One final thought on international security: the slow response and national paralysis in the US that resulted from the outbreak of the virus may serve as learning moment for nations wishing to gain offensive leverage. Why go to the trouble of mounting secret nuclear weapons efforts, when a modified virus could bring the world’s greatest power to its knees?

 

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Trevor C. Jones founded Lynx Global Intelligence in 2016. Mr. Jones’ background includes research focusing on geopolitical risk, intelligence studies and complex decision making during humanitarian crisis. He served as a Fellow at both the Denver Council on Foreign Relations and Secretary of State for Colorado and has presented his research on Complex Adaptive Systems to the United States Department of State and the International Association of Genocide Scholars. He is a member of US Global Leadership Coalition and serves on the Board of the Denver Global Chamber where he assists in facilitating international trade and promoting Denver as a global city. Trevor holds a BA Psychology from Tulane University in New Orleans and an MA in International Security from the University of Denver.

 

Michael Moran, Lynx’s Senior Advisor, is an internationally respected geostrategist, author and political analyst whose work has transformed the public-facing brands, media strategies and organizational structures of some of the world’s leading financial, media and policy institutions.As CEO and Chief Strategy Officer at Tranformative.io, Moran leads a world-class team of sectoral and subject matter experts whose work focuses on the nexus of thought leadership and business environment forecasting – a skill set perfectly suited to the volatile and dynamic environment of the 21st century. Moran began his career as a journalist, and in the course of a 20-year career as NBC News, the BBC World Service, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and other outlets, he won awards for innovation, excellence and public service. In 1996, he was part of the launch team of MSNBC.com, the joint venture between Microsoft and NBC News. Today, Moran’s commentary regularly appears in prominent newspapers and broadcast outlets including Foreign Affairs, the Los Angeles Times, CNBC, Foreign Policy and Slate. Moran and the Transfomative team have lectured at dozens of universities, government agencies and think tanks around the world. They represent the cutting edge of a new and badly needed amalgam of digital savvy, corporate strategy, thought leadership and crisis communications.