Can We Blame Globalization For COVID-19?

24 03 2020


Many economic nationalists, right-wing populists, and other individuals who have long disliked globalization have jumped to the conclusion that globalization caused the crisis and/or is doomed by the crisis.  Some on the globalization-hostile part of the left have echoed this idea. (By globalization, everyone in this conversation appears to mean falling barriers to the movement of goods, capital, ideas, and crucially the movement of human beings). I’m very glad to see that there is now push back against this narrative (for valuable contributions to this debate see here, here, and here).


The University of Western Ontario economic historian Vincent Geloso has published an important blog post in which he draws on historical data about past pandemics (e.g., Spanish Flu in 1918, Asian Flu in 1957-8, Hong Kong flu in 1968) to argue persuasively that globalization (falling trade barriers, lots of people zooming around on long-haul flights) can’t be blamed for COVID-19.

Vincent identifies a number of causal mechanisms by which globalization reduces the likelihood and severity of epidemics. One of them is increasing living standards in the countries that have historically been the source of many zoonotic pathogens.


 In particularly poor countries, income gains brought by globalization translate as improvements in net nutrition which reduces vulnerability to a great range of diseases. Enrichment thanks to globalization can also enable investments in health products and services that were previously unavailable. As a result, the quality of care increases in a way that offsets some of the increased risks of contagion. 


I would take this argument further than Vincent has. Enrichment due to globalization has allowed people in developing countries such as China to distance themselves more from animals. Much more importantly, this enrichment means that brilliant young minds that previously would have been wasted on routine agricultural labour can be redirected into scientific research that can help all human beings to fight its common enemy, the COVID virus. As we speak, there are doctors and scientists in China working on COVID. I’m certain that if you looked at what their parents and grandparents were doing circa 1978, when China began to participate (once again) in globalization, few if any of them were doing any sort of creative work. Some of the best universities in China were founded in the Treaty Port period, when during the pre-1914 heyday of globalization.  Moreover, the technologies and social institutions associated with globalization (the internet, publishing scientific papers in English, and so forth) make it easier for scientists and medical professionals of different nationalities to exchange valuable knowledge.


Bottom line, we can’t blame globalization for this mess. I remain convinced that the world needs more globalization, not less.




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