I write this while at home following my province’s social distancing rules and homeschooling my kids. The furthest I go is our local grocery store. If we ever need to spend any time outside, our backyard will be the main location. Although very unfamiliar, this situation is weirdly nostalgic. I am not that old but spending more time home reminds me a bit (just a bit!) of times when the world was less interconnected. The infectious disease of COVID-19 has interrupted my and several others’ modern fast-based interactions and changed our activities. It has limited our mobility, which had been greatly intensifying. It has hauled the same interactions that had enabled these microbes to spread and disseminate speedily.
This microorganism is very stubborn indeed. It lives on surfaces for hours if not for days. You need 20-second hand washing rituals or 70% alcoholic-based sanitizers to kill it off. The virus is no doubt the root of the disease. However, the flu would not have become a pandemic if not for the world’s transitional interconnections. While a biological phenomenon, COVID-19 cannot be separated from the social, economic, political and cultural conditions surrounding and facilitating its spread.
The virus is biologically stubborn, but it is very compliant with the rules governing our compressed world – or what Marshal McLuhan calls our Global Village. This living particle is all in for globalization. It loves our modern transnational trade, thrives on our fast communication networks, and crosses all types of boundaries, whether political or geographical. It loves airports and airplanes, which are notorious for spreading infectious diseases. It does not discriminate on grounds of ethnicity, religion, or nationality. But during the virus’ progress into an epidemic, the world becomes much less interconnected. Boarders, railways, and airways close. Public education systems pause and businesses shut down. The virus has a strange relationship with globalization. While acting as a globalist, it creates one of the biggest barriers for globalization to thrive.
There are two stories that we can tell about COVID-19. There is the biological story. It is the story of a disease that is caused by spiky viruses latching on human cells and spreading through droplets released into the air. It is an important story. But there is also another story of COVID-19: the story of communication, networks, and trade. COVID-19 is a metaphor (an unlikable one) for our global world with its tensions, frictions, and dialects. It is a story that 20 years from now should be narrated by sociologists, historians and media theorists, beside epidemiologists and virologists.
In this story, we can narrate how the disease has changed many family dynamics, created different communication channels, and reproduced some traditional ways of communication. In this story, we can tell how the virus has made us rethink our globalized ways of interactions and invent and reinvent some other ones. Telling the story, we can realize the tension between our dream for a global utopia and our deep-rooted convention of humans as fixed beings; a tension that has facilitated for systems to commodify things but disregard modern people’s inherent mobility even in the most multicultural settings. We have an economic system that emphasizes fluidity of space and time but social, political, educational and health infrastructures characterized by frigidity. These infrastructures remain embedded in practices that render a geographical space as a bounded territory with a specific and homogenous community.
So as much as globalization has been the optimum condition for the global outbreak of COVID-19, the pandemic is reciprocally affecting globalization. In the short run, COVID-19 is reversing globalization rules. In the long run, we do not know yet. However, we definitely need a global coordinated response to stop the disease. So, let us think not of giving up on globalization altogether. Rather, we can think of better ways to resolve its tensions. While a disease, globalization can be ,perhaps, the cure too.