Vacuum, China and a Whatsapp Forward

A world without a leader

Being a sincere kid who needed extra-curricular validation, I used to attend essay writing competitions at school. A whole bunch of losers like me would sit down and write on a given topic. ‘Unity in Diversity’ was a favourite. ‘We live in a global village’ was another. This one made no sense to me. The villages I had seen were a miasma of prejudices and there wasn’t anything global about pre-lib India. But a lack of conviction never stopped me from feigning passion, and I’d write long, turgid prose on the fanciful global village.

Later in life, as work and pleasure took me across the world and I found comfort and familiarity of global signs and symbols in the remotest parts of the world, I did often wonder if I lived in a global village. It didn’t take a genius to figure out (therefore, I could) this whole thing hinged on the leadership of the U.S. or more generally, the Washington consensus. U.S. led the way on the economic, science and technology fronts but, more importantly, there was a widely held belief it would pick up the gauntlet for humanity when things went bad. It had its share of colossal missteps but on the balance the rule-based global order hinged on its leadership.

As the U.S. makes a tragi-comic mess of its response to Covid-19 with no coherent plan to coordinate a global response, we are staring into a global leadership vacuum. U.K. has retreated into its small-island pettiness and the EU member nations have closed borders and refused help on medical supplies to one another. There is no centre. Everyone is on their own.

The longer this crisis draws on the more likely this present will crystallise into the future. Self-reliance and insularity will make a comeback. Companies and countries alike will stress test the resilience of their value chains and their continuity plans. Comparative advantage will be weighed against the fragility of specialisation. The worship of lean and agile methodologies will cease as the benefits of buffer and safety stock in times of disruption will dawn on leaders. Free movement of people will be restricted without a certified clean bill of health. It will be a different world.

It is difficult to imagine this world when only a decade back we were being told the world is flat. The closest historical parallel to this kind of order (or disorder) is the years preceding World War I. There were great powers in decline (Ottoman, Russian, Austria-Hungary), recently formed nation states (Germany, Italy) and the traditional European powers (Great Britain, France) all driven by their self-interests and jostling for dominance.

That didn’t end well.          

Chori, upar se seena-zori

Chutzpah is often described as killing both your parents and then pleading for mercy since you are an orphan. China has over the last week manoeuvred itself into this leadership vacuum in a breath-taking display of seena-zori. Far from being coy about its missteps in handling the virus in the initial days, it has moved to questioning the origin of the virus itself, peddling the propaganda  of its lightening fast response and sending medical aid, supplies and know-how on how it contained the virus. It is not being shy to step up to the plate. The world needs China’s help now and it behoves a future superpower to be generous in these times.

However, Chinese medical staff rushing to Italy with supplies isn’t exactly the Normandy landing of 2020. The U.S. didn’t start WW II; it only ended it. Big difference. Besides the U.S. leadership post-war was built not merely on its economic and military might. The American dream was a real construct and its adherents traced their origins from all over the world. Plus, there was Hollywood, Coca Cola, Playboy and Harvard.

China has a long way to go.

21 days and 21 nights

Rs. 12.5 lac crores. That’s value of 21 days in our economy.

We discussed yesterday about the twin problem and the likelihood of the cure being worse than the disease. The challenge being how do you address the pandemic (slowing the economy down) while solving for the economy (bringing the demand up). The key point we had made was not to do any of them in isolation.  

We seem to have exactly done that. We announced a 21-day shutdown without even a lip service to solving the economy problem. We have now the distinction of being the only country with a national shutdown without a defined fiscal rescue plan.

Maybe there’s a grand plan. Maybe some scientist in NASA will explain this.

I’m waiting for that Whatsapp forward to make sense of this.

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