The biology of the global economic crisis of 2020 is new. Almost none of the politics of the crisis is new, however. Within the developed world, a populist backlash—against globalization, European integration, China’s return to the center of the global system, political establishments, business elites, and immigrants—has been growing more powerful for the last decade, writes Rawi Abdelal, Herbert F. Johnson Professor of International Management, Harvard Business School and Director of Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, Harvard University.
The COVID-19 pandemic is being refracted through those already existing patterns of politics. It is also magnifying the societal fissures and accelerating the trends that created the backlash in the first place.
The Straightforward Economics of the Crisis
The global economic crisis of 2020 is a result of the combination of a natural disaster and a man-made response to it: a novel coronavirus and varieties of quarantine. This sudden stop of so much economic activity has led to a disruption of global supply chains, a collapse of demand for goods and services, the complete cessation of revenues for many firms, and resulting pressure on financial sector lenders.
China’s centrality to lean, fragile global supply chains will likely lead their being remade to become either more resilient or more insular. As China shut down, so, too, did production around the world.
In an era of unprecedented leverage for households, firms, and sovereigns, the global economic system already was prone to potential disruption. The most vulnerable sovereigns in the developed world are in southern and central Europe. Emerging-market sovereigns are in even more dire straits, as the crisis has deprived them of liquidity at, as usual, precisely the moment in which they need it most.
Although central banks in the developed world have scrambled remarkably quickly to bring interest rates to zero and resume both quantitative and qualitative easing, the crisis of 2020 is spreading from the real economy to the financial sector.