Covid-19 – and After

In all the millions of deaths and economic havoc caused around the globe by the Covid-19 pandemic, there is also an opportunity for developing countries.

By Shahid Javed Burki | June 2020


Note: This article draws on the material Shahid Javed Burki has included in his forthcoming short book on the coronavirus crisis and how it could affect the world. The book focuses on Pakistan and several other countries.

Experts continued to revise their estimates of the human cost of Covid-19, the disease caused by the exceptionally potent coronavirus. A million and quarter people have already died and before the pandemic is brought under control it may well kill hundreds of thousands, even millions more. The pandemic's impact will go beyond the deaths it causes. It is likely to change the global economic and political systems.

Looking back at world history, it would be right to conclude that whenever the globe was shaken badly, it left indelible marks on the landscape. It also brought about structural changes of great import. That was the case with the two World Wars fought in the 20th century. It happened with the collapse of the Soviet Union that, in turn, was the result of Moscow's attempt to disturb the status quo by invading Afghanistan. The American way of looking at history describes the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington on September 11, 2001 as game-changing events. What was really game-changing was the way Washington reacted -- by first invading Afghanistan that year and then Iraq a couple of years later. Neither of these forays into foreign territory yielded the objectives Washington was looking for.

The United States is refusing to give the lead this time around as a deadly virus is spreading quickly. Behind this approach is Donald J. Trump with his "America first" outlook. The United States has the leadership of the Group 7 industrialized countries in 2020 but it was Emmanuel Macron, the activist French president, who called Trump twice in ten days to suggest they hold the group's meeting by teleconference. Trump agreed but left it to Macron to organize it. The groups had a "virtual meeting" but the United States managed to sow discord rather than unity. Washington stayed away from the pledging session to raise resources for developing vaccines and drugs to counter Covid-19.

Peter Westmacott, a British diplomat who had served his country as ambassador in Washington, summed up well how Europeans feel about Donald Trump and the country he leads. "Most of us see the crisis in terms of what it means for our families, our livelihoods and the future of our own country. But obviously we are also looking at how others are dealing with the situation. Seen from a distance, Trump's performance has pretty much confirmed the views of people over here have already had of him -- that it's all about 'me,' with no acceptance of responsibility for earlier failures."

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The writer is a professional economist who has served as a Vice President of the World Bank and as caretaker Finance Minister of Pakistan. He can be reached at sjburki@gmail.com

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