How COVID-19 further polarised the world

Anti-vaxxers are taking populism to a new, deadly level
COVID-19: Many parts of the world have become more divided, more parochial, more conflictual, and even more self-delusional Image Credit: ©Gulf News

In the initial months of 2020, when the COVID-19 crisis was taking the shape of becoming a pandemic, the UN Secretary-General called for a ‘global ceasefire’ to give a push for peace and reconciliation to wage a focused fight against the coronavirus. Taking the cue, many commentators then hoped for the world to be more peaceful, more united, and more climate-conscious.

I had written then in my Gulf News column  that how these well-meaning optimisms are misplaced. I had also argued how the world was more likely to plunge deeper into conflicts and violence, and it would be more divided and prone to severe economic and climate crises.

Though I was sincerely hoping to be proved wrong, unfortunately, after more than a year, the overall global health and well-being have become much more precarious than what I had even reluctantly envisioned in April 2020. Old conflicts have not disappeared; instead, they have become more violent.

Authoritarianism gaining strength

New conflicts are emerging, and authoritarianism is gaining strength at the cost of democracies. The economic recession has become a depression, and multilateralism has taken a Cold-War avatar, further endangering the planet’s struggle to survive against climate change.

Last year, we have seen dangerous, violent conflicts with global ramifications erupting in different parts of the world. Chinese and Indian soldiers, for the first time in many decades, got engaged in fierce duels on their Line of Actual Control resulting in scores of deaths and injuries.

Armenia and Azerbaijan fought a full-scale war, and the Russian brokered ceasefire is still very fragile. Ethiopian and Eritrean armed forces have joined hands and suppressed the opposition in the Tigray region.

Israel and Hamas tensions have erupted in air strikes and rocket attacks for nearly two weeks that killed hundreds of civilians, including more than 70 children. Russia’s flexing of muscles has made Ukraine’s security situation more precarious, and an escalation can happen anytime.

On the other hand, the Biden administration’s decision to withdraw the US troops from Afghanistan by September 11, 2021, has given an upper hand to the Taliban and has increased its attacks with the fear of civil war in the country becoming more devastating.

The war in Yemen is complicating the serious humanitarian crisis the country is facing. Conflicts in Mali and South Sudan continue as before, resulting in deaths, misery, and displacements.

After overthrowing an elected government, Myanmar Army’s capture of power has led to months-long street protests, and the armed opposition has become active again in different parts of the country.

Besides deteriorating security situation, Columbia is also presently experiencing massive popular protests and violent oppression. The continuing political crisis in Venezuela has resulted in an unprecedented economic and humanitarian crisis in the country.

As we can see, the COVID pandemic has not convinced the leaders yet to opt for peace and cooperation instead of engaging in violence and warmongering. While the pandemic has almost destroyed the economies worldwide, that has not resulted in countries buying fewer weapons.

As the SIPRI study finds, in 2020, while the global GDP shrank by 4.3%, the global military expenditure increased 2.6% compared to 2019. More worryingly, the five biggest military spenders in the last year, the US, China, India, Russia, and the UK, are also at the forefront of facing the wrath of the pandemic.

Further erosion of multilateral institutions

Considering the global nature of the pandemic, the expectation of a revival of multilateralism has also come to naught. Five veto carrying permanent members of the Security Council are divided as ever, and the debates in the Council have become Cold War-like again.

The failure of the permanent members to take a united position on serious humanitarian crises like Tigray, Myanmar and Palestine exposes the further erosion of multilateral institutions. In the absence of an effective multilateral framework, it will be much more difficult for the countries and societies to face the economic and climate crises the world is facing now.

In 2020, the pandemic had seriously affected economic activities worldwide, creating massive unemployment and has already pushed additional 131 million people into poverty.

The hope of global economic recovery in 2021 is very uncertain as the pandemic is still raging in many parts. Pandemic forced lockdowns in 2020 had brought a dramatic reduction in carbon emissions, but that was temporary.

However, the countries in their post-lockdown periods are returning to their usual carbon emission habit. The attempts towards faster economic recovery have pushed the climate consideration aside, and the economic difficulties have reduced green investments by the countries.

The ever-growing distance between the US and China provides very little hope of the world forming a common strategy and a joint battle against climate change.

Forget the spin-off cooperation for economy and climate; even the world has miserably failed to adopt a cooperative approach to face the pandemic itself. The blame game continues, and ‘vaccine nationalism’ has become common.

No doubt, the COVID-19 pandemic, despite its devastating impact, has not been able to push the world to be more inclusive and cooperative.

It has failed to infuse global values and universalism; instead, the world is more divided than before, and narrow ethno-nationalism is gaining strength. Populist leaders have hijacked the public discourse, and authoritarianism is gaining strength.

The world has witnessed unimaginable human suffering and unprecedented economic downturn in the last year; it has also become more divided, more parochial, more conflictual, and even more self-delusional.

Ashok Swain


Ashok Swain is a Professor of Peace and Conflict Research, at Uppsala University, Sweden.