The SARS-CoV-2 Pandemic: Lessons for International Development

The SARS-CoV-2 Pandemic: Lessons for International Development

The SARS-CoV-2 epidemic has gone global, transcending the traditional categories of North and South, “developed” and “developing” countries. While most international media coverage focuses on China, Europe and North America, the implications of the pandemic for the developing countries and the future of globalization are only now becoming apparent. We need to ask what the pandemic means for both the theory and the practice of international development.



International development is a paradoxical phenomenon. On one level, it has been massively successful in recent decades in reducing poverty. While the results have been unevenly distributed between nations and classes of people, humans generally now live longer, are better nourished, and more literate than at any time in human history. But this development has been at the cost of environmental degradation, social dislocation and increased socio-economic inequality.


The recent spate of emerging infectious diseases like SARS-CoV-2 is a direct result of current forms of international development and globalization. It is likely that SARS-CoV-2, like other zoonotic infections, jumped the species barrier from animals to humans because humans have put ever-larger swathes of rural areas under cultivation and other forms of human management (e.g. hunting, logging, herding, mining). Those In so doing, humans come into contact with micro-organisms we have never encountered before, and to which we have no immunity. Bats, rodents and our fellow primates are prime vectors for transmitting zoonoses to humans.


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Poor sanitary practices in places like the now famous wet market in Wuhan provide the ideal setting for zoonotic infections to move over to humans. As Adam Tooze of Columbia University points out, the “mix of modern urban life with traditional food customs… creates viral incubators”; globalized trade and travel then accelerate the viruses around the world.

This increased pressure of human activity on nature is driven by development: population growth, rising incomes, urbanization, international investment in plantation farming and resource extraction, supported by an admixture of shortsightedness, self-interest, imperfect regulation and, sometimes, corruption and violence. Human health and the health of the environment are closely intertwined.

The pandemic has also erased the distinction between “developed” and “developing” countries. Both sets of countries are affected, and the quality and speed of national responses have more to do with the regime’s ideology than the country’s level of development. Neo-nationalist populist regimes such as those in the United States, Brazil and India have great had trouble mounting a credible response.

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In terms of development theory, the pandemic raises an interesting set of challenges to various orthodoxies. First of all, and on the political right, the USA’s national culture of individualism, private initiative and exceptionalism, once touted as the key to its success, appears to have hobbled its response to SARS-CoV-2. The communitarian values that modernization theory condemns as backward and pre-modern seem to have helped other countries take effective early action against the pandemic such as Singapore and South Korea.

Furthermore, the solution to this crisis is not the standard prescription of deregulation, fiscal and monetary conservatism and private sector-led development that the right has peddled for 40 years. It is precisely the blind pursuit of profit regardless of its social and environmental cost that pushes the periodic eruptions of these novel viruses in human populations; think Ebola, SARS, H1N1. The appropriate response to this crisis involves the opposite, namely better-funded health services, more environmental and social protection, more business regulation, and better crime prevention. The heroes of this effort will be the low-paid civil servants, nurses, cleaners, garbage collectors and grocery store clerks who have been denigrated and ignored by the right since the Reagan-Thatcher revolution.

On the left, the fashionable analyses of development and globalization rooted in postmodernism, poststructuralism and (to a lesser extent) postcolonialism have proven themselves incapable of either interpreting the pandemic or suggesting a way out of this crisis. These ‘pomo‘ critiques portray modern science and technology, even modern health interventions, as discourses weaving webs of power and domination, rather than as attempts to get at the truth. By undermining the very idea of truth, postmodernists of all stripes end up aligning themselves with the climate change deniers, anti-vaxxers, new agers, and purveyors of post-truth like Trump and Bolsinaro in their efforts to undermine public confidence in science, evidence and expertise.

The pomos sometimes have interesting things to say as critique: yes, not all scientific discoveries and innovations promote human welfare; science can be used to immoral ends. But, as Radhika Desai has said, the pomos have nothing to propose as a project, and no practical guidance to give to any actor. At least modern science has self-correcting mechanisms: peer review, replication studies, open data, systematic reviews, practical experience. Rooted in skepticism of the very idea of evidence, postmodernism has none of these. Postmodernism in development studies is an intellectual dead end in terms of guiding policy and practice in the face of this pandemic.


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Finally, today’s pandemic should put to rest the notion that development, once reached, can never be undone. It has been fashionable, for instance, to talk about the health transition; simply put, as poorer countries develop, the burden of ill health shifts from communicable diseases like diarrhea, malaria and measles, to chronic, non-infectious conditions like obesity, cancer and heart disease. The fact that an infectious disease whose emergence is almost certainly the result of perverse forms of globalized development has put the economies of the most “developed” countries into a policy-induced coma should make us rethink our assumptions. There is no end to history.

Folly, Barbara Tuchman once warned us, is pursuing a policy against one’s self-interest, when the perversity of such action is known, and viable alternatives are available. In international development, the current pandemic has exposed the folly of many of our current approaches, both in policy and practice and in the academy. Better regulated, less greedy and more environmentally friendly forms of development are possible, informed by science and evidence, guided and constrained by ethics and participatory governance, and freed from old ideologies and current intellectual fads.

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