In the post-pandemic world, countries will prioritise resilience over trade-off vulnerabilities
Among the group of countries to have handled the coronavirus pandemic well so far is Germany. Yet the height of the health crisis has exposed some painful lessons for Europe’s biggest country. Berlin has held the line against the spread of infections but coping with the complex challenge has not been foregone.
Last week the Health Minister Jens Spahn revealed that at the height of the crisis, his officials were travelling around the world with “suitcases full of cash” to buy personal protective equipment (PPE). For a German republic that prizes rectitude in public life, that kind of behaviour is considered a heresy.
The situation has since become less of a scramble to fill shortages. Indeed Mr Spahn is able to boast that he is now sitting on a stockpile of two billion face masks to protect Germans from the virus as the outbreak continues.
The minister, who has ambitions to succeed Angela Merkel as Chancellor, spoke at the London-based think tank Policy Exchange on Friday. As the discussion broadened to the future, several important markers were laid down.
While careful to make the point that he did not want to abandon globalisation – German factories continue to be big winners from the trend towards open trade – nonetheless the experience of scrambling for PPE was salutary.
There are a number of vulnerabilities exposed by the pandemic that leaders are now saying would not be tolerable in future.
The crisis has focused attention on the resilience of national healthcare networks, personal welfare, food security and supply chains. There is already a coming together in thinking about changes that need to be introduced to ensure that the shock to the system in recent months is not repeated.
The consequences of the global handbrake stop over the past few months are rapidly unfolding. In response, international policy makers are scrambling to keep up. From basic necessities, such as food and medicine, to framework issues, including international trade in goods and working practices, existing set-ups are rapidly being reconsidered.
One of the early pointers to how the future will look is due to emerge in the coming week.
More from Damien McElroy
On Tuesday the Food and Agriculture Organisation will publish its annual flagship report, the State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World (SOFI). The general outlook is bleaker than it has been for decades for global food output. Hunger levels are rising. With Covid-19, locust plagues and climate change, starvation hotspots are expanding around the world.
As the chief economist of the World Food Programme Arif Husain told me in an interview last week, the planet faces a supply-side and a demand-side crisis at the same time. Not even the Second World War saw this much stress on supply chains.
Alongside the shortages is a second, seemingly conflicting food crisis: too many food systems are producing overweight or obese populations. According to a series of medical reports, one of the greatest risk factors for people contracting Covid-19 is obesity.
The SOFI 2020 report will address the inequality of food within and between nations. It will set the outlines of a more sustainable system that seeks to ensure affordable and healthy diets. The summit of World Food Security in Rome in October is expected to examine how deliver a more resilient form of agriculture that does not trade off malnutrition here with unhealthy diets there.
Speaking at another think tank event last week, the US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer set out the highlights of his battle to radically shake up the world trade system. His ideas are centred around what he sees as decades of invidious trade-offs. In his view, shifting manufacturing to low-cost countries amounted to saving a penny here or a penny there but it went too far in moving the many jobs out of America.
Expect America’s genius for innovation and Germany’s pursuit of technical excellence to be prioritised by national leaderships
Like the German minister, the US representative has looked at his country’s own domestic interests and considerations with fresh eyes.
The pandemic has moved the security of national supply chains for PPE, medicines and equipment like ventilators to the centre stage. It has underpinned Mr Lighthizer’s fundamental critique that the decades-long drop in America’s manufacturing workforce – from a peak of 20 million in 1980 to around 11m last year – has imposed intolerable social costs.
The US, Germany and other countries are rapidly applying the lessons of this crisis across the policy spectrum. For example, the loss of capability in telecommunications was mentioned by both Mr Spahn and Mr Lighthizer unprompted.
The steady loss of productivity across the workforce as result of the changing nature of jobs also grates. The search for more robust and better designed systems demonstrates that strength in a crisis is no longer mere political rhetoric.
So expect America’s genius for innovation and Germany’s pursuit of technical excellence to be prioritised by national leaderships with renewed focus.
The pandemic also offers a chance to shift the crosshairs away from a straight trade war. Better health and overall well-being can still be a shared international endeavour.
Damien McElroy is the London bureau chief of The National
Updated: July 14, 2020 07:07 PM