Covid-19: A new world order

MARCH 22 — For some time, normal life carried on around the virus. 

It was, for many people, something happening elsewhere or to other people but no longer. 

Covid-19 is happening to all of us as borders shut, markets collapse and things we have taken for granted like free movement, air travel, late-night shopping and bars are suddenly no longer available. 

For the first time since I can remember, the Causeway, Singapore’s umbilical link to Malaysia and mainland Asia beyond, has been effectively severed. 

The Malaysian government closed its borders last week, disrupting the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. 

Three hundred thousand people cross the border on an average day but now virtually no one is moving between the two nations.  

Malaysians who work in Singapore but live in Johor Baru were particularly badly affected but the impact of such a drastic action can be felt everywhere. 

With nowhere to stay, many of the 300,000-400,000 Malaysian workers in Singapore returned to Malaysia depriving Singaporean businesses of staff.   

Disrupted movement across the causeway also threatened Singapore’s food supplies. Normally, a large proportion of Singapore’s food comes from Malaysia and now the government is deploying contingency plans — bringing in supplies by boat and air from other Asean nations. 

It all underscores that these are very abnormal times. A globalised connected world, the only world many of us know, is shutting down for the first time in our lives. 

Even during WWII it was possible to sail from one part of Asia to another but now many countries are completely locked down. Some of the world’s most important cities like New York, London and Paris have also effectively shut themselves down which is again absolutely unprecedented. 

We are living through truly extraordinary times and as ordinary humans, it’s hard to process exactly what’s happening. No one has any reference points. 

This isn’t the 2008 financial crisis, this isn’t SARS and this isn’t like any war we’ve seen before... it’s something completely new.  

While only time will tell what direction this will all take — a rapid recovery, a long protracted depression or the beginning of some sort of fundamental shift — we’ve already learned a lot. 

The fragility of the world system — of the economics and the technology that makes the modern world — has been laid bare. 

A few threads of viral DNA can unravel so much of our civilisation so quickly. The economic growth that has been the single-minded goal of so many governments around the world for so long appears to have been something of an illusion. 

Billions have been wiped off the value of global markets and trade in weeks. As businesses struggle to cope with Covid-19 shutdowns, millions of people worldwide face unemployment.  

While the virus has proved deadly — killing more than 10,000 — the shutdowns and economic fallout from virus containment measures are causing as much fear as the virus itself.  

Businesses and people’s savings will suffer and people will lose their jobs. Billions and more likely trillions of dollars will have to be pumped back into the world economy so we can return to growth but what has all this growth achieved? What have the colossal amount of billions pumped into the world economy by major nations since the 2008 financial crisis really achieved?  

Basically we’ve lived in a world run by pure greed for a long time and many of us — this writer included — have been pretty wrapped up in it.  

Now that whole system seems threatened with collapse it’s easy to see this more clearly. I don’t actually think our current system will collapse at this moment in time. 

There is too much money and power behind the current world order to drive major change... yet. But this time we’ve seen just how fragile it all is. The bottomline is we’ve seen a greater power than greed and that is fear.   

And maybe when the dust settles, we (and I mean we the people in the broadest sense) will begin to contemplate real change. 

Perhaps it is time to move to a world beyond GDP growth? Sustainability, resilience and simply the number of ventilators per capita suddenly seem like important metrics. How long can your economy go without inbound flights?  

Sustainability doesn’t seem like such a joke when we see that our current lifestyles, systems and aspirations are clearly unsustainable. 

While lots about the virus and the future of the world’s economy are unknown, one thing is fairly clear: Covid-19 offers us an opportunity for real change on an individual, national and global  basis. 

Will we seize the moment? It isn’t the virus that’s stopping us. 

*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.