İpek Cem Taha

Director, Columbia Global Centers, İstanbul

One of first measures against the COVID-19 pandemic was to measure body temperature at the borders and public buildings. (Photo: Turkish Ministry of Health)

In Turkey and elsewhere we hear it often these days ‘native and national’. (*) In primary school, I remember we had ‘national products week.’ We still do. There is always a tendency to think we can resolve global issues by local means. Turkey has become a more integral part of global markets, especially since the 1980s. Ironically some of those supporting a very nationalistic local approach politically can be seen in many foreign brands. Over the past decades, the country has grown not just with local, but also international investments. When there was more confidence in the Turkish economy, the country was more of a magnet for local and international investments. While China morphed into the production center of the world, it was not uncommon for the occupants of its capital Beijing to wear facemasks, even before COVID-19 and mostly because of air pollution. In the meantime, Brazil’s government has been unapologetic about continuing to expand into the Amazon rainforest. It then fell on the very young generation to try to instill in the ‘grown-ups’ a certain sense of responsibility when Friday school strikes turned global, started by Swedish activist Greta Thunberg. I wonder how history will remember the 21st century. There is, of course, a big assumption here- that humanity will survive into that century and more. Or would the historians of the future then be living in colonies on Mars? If that scenario works out…

The first measure: closing the borders

The corona crisis is a global one. Due to our globalized world and the backdrop of international trade, a pandemic can now expand even faster than say twenty years ago. Optimizing by using global supply chains and low-cost access to air travel have also speeded up the contagion of COVID-19. When the World Health Organization defined COVID-19 as a global pandemic on March 11th, many nations’ first line of defense was closing borders. Each country then went on to try and resolve its needs within its home base. In many countries, as well as in Turkey, governments, municipalities, companies, and civil society rushed in to fill in the gaps. In Turkey, for example, a local bred brand, the global white goods company Arçelik started producing ventilators locally to meet the staggering needs of hospitals at the height of the pandemic. It also opened up its technology to other local producers. While who delivers the help is a highly politicized topic in Turkey, still all actors are trying to do their part here as well. A certain level of local production ability, including for food, but also for other parts of the economy, can be a competitive advantage for this century of global crises. I am calling this century ‘the century of global crises’ as we are already facing the global climate crisis, among others. We also know that it is now more likely to have animal-to-human virus transmissions, like COVID-19, in an age of deforestation and habitat loss. To put in perspective the specific possibilities, we know of 3,200 coronaviruses that exist in bats.

Climate crisis is a timebomb

The transmission of viruses from animals to humans is not a new phenomenon. What is new is that factors such as mining and increasing deforestation are at such a level that they cause a risk to our very own existence. We now live in more proximity even to wildlife in some areas due to these reductions in barriers between our habitats. Global warming also seems to be increasing in contagions by insects as temperatures rise. Understandably, all countries and governments prioritize the health and well-being of their citizens. On the other hand, ‘being enough for oneself’ will not be sufficient to tackle global crises over the medium and long term. The climate crisis is already a global timebomb, which seems to have taken a backseat as a public agenda during this phase of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, we also know that the inability of the world to collectively respond to the climate crisis is one of the accelerators of the COVID-19 pandemic. Climate change is also a global health crisis in and of itself.

National solutions necessary, but not enough

Instances of lightweight COVID diplomacy, whereby limited medical supplies such as masks, and a handful of doctors have been reaching out to countries in need does not prove our readiness for a collaborative approach. Even though select global leaders are constantly thinking of collaboration, the reality is that each country is in its corner. The only collaboration we have had globally is through the internet, whereby we at least share each other’s stories of loss and despair as well as our instances of hope and healing. Perhaps this is the biggest global success story of this period. Starting the week of May 11th, Turkey is also embarking on a step by step opening-up strategy. While most of us are desperate to ‘normalize,’ it is also of concern that countries like Germany and South Korea have seen an upward movement in their case numbers after the easing of isolation rules. We all know that slowing the rate of the contagion is helping health systems to have enough capacity to serve the needs of those who seek medical care. We are told that we cannot be fully safe without a vaccine or some level of herd immunity, so these are delay tactics. Still, caution and a phased opening seem more risk free than abrupt moves for governments. While economic power and infrastructure are critical factors for a nation’s success, these attributes are no longer enough to overcome a globally driven crisis. In the short run, national policies and actions are critical. The lessons learned will have implications also for national problem solving and restructuring in areas ranging from healthcare to education, from companies to the public sector.

Questioning wild capitalism via pandemic

As of today, there are 4 million 235 thousand reported cases and 285 thousand related deaths worldwide. Moreover, after COVID-19, we will likely continue to be challenged by other global crises in health, economy, migration, and climate. If we want to overcome these crises strategically and sustainably, we will require a new level of international cooperation. The challenge as always would be that the decision-making processes would need to focus on the optimal for many countries, as opposed to just a few. Organizations such as the United Nations or the European Union could deteriorate further and leave their way to other new structures. Alternately, they could find ways to be regenerate so they can provide much needed regional and global solutions. The consequences of COVID-19 may go beyond global loss of lives, loss of jobs and economic contraction. The very concept of capitalism and indeed savage capitalism will be challenged further as it is already under scrutiny today. Human beings will not overnight get rid of their selfish ways. At the same time, the very possibility of sustainable human existence on the planet may hinge upon our ability to think of the collective good. We might be forced into cooperation as a means of collective survival. They say that “the teacher arrives when the student is ready”. If COVID-19 is that teacher, are we indeed ready for such profound change?

(*) “Native and national” is an expression started to be used frequently in recent years by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, as can be read here as one of many examples.