07 May 2020

globalisationshuttestock_756983191.jpgSocial scientists around the world are taking stock, as the impact of COVID-19 has brought international travel to a standstill, stymied global supply chains, created tsunamis of unemployment, brought key industries to a grinding halt, and isolated individuals and communities in the midst of a rapidly rising death toll.

And while some would say the pandemic will catalyse the end of globalisation, acclaimed sociologist Professor Anthony Elliott - Dean of External Engagement and Executive Director of the Jean Monnet Centre of Excellence at the University of South Australia – argues that COVID-19 has in fact highlighted the power and potential of our increasingly globalized world.

“Global supply chains have undoubtedly been profoundly disrupted by coronavirus, but globalization is not only about moving manufactured goods around the world, but moving people, information and ideas too”, Prof Elliott says.

“Amid today’s terrifying human devastation, we have also witnessed a surge of digital information which has turbocharged virtual networks and the flow of ideas in everything from healthcare to business.  Even more fundamentally, widespread digital interdependence has accelerated innovative responses to the pandemic - whether among individuals, institutions or nations – and such reactions have relied on our global connectivity.  Such interconnections can’t be quarantined.”

“The world we return to post COVID-19 will be very different to the past, but globalisation - our interconnectivity - may be the mainstay of our recovery.”

Prof Elliott says that COVID-19 is a prime expression of our super-global world, spreading everywhere due to the forces of globalisation.  The coronavirus has been unrelenting, rampaging beyond China and East Asia, including Japan, South Korea, and Southeast Asia, to engulf Italy and Europe, North America, and Central and South America.

But, crucially, that same global reach has been driving closer scientific collaboration across borders to find advanced treatments and ultimately a vaccine.

“We have seen unparalleled international research cooperation in recent months," Prof Elliott says. 

39_Anthony.jpg"The COVID-19 High Performance Computing Consortium, which has seen Google, IBM, Amazon, Microsoft and NASA sharing some 30 supercomputer systems with the world’s scientific community, is a signal example.  Research scientists have run millions of simulations on these supercomputers, training machine learning systems to identify factors that might make a targeted molecule a good candidate in the race against time to defeat the deadly coronavirus.

“Globalisation is thus both a condition and consequence of the virus - the very global forces that unleashed this worldwide pandemic are also deeply implicated in its possible eradication.

“And when we look at the two key dimensions the situation is impacting, both how we work and how we live, the virus has acted to accelerate both the digital revolution and our virtual connectivity.”

Faced with government directives concerning social distancing, Prof Elliott says the central response from industry and enterprise has been to shift many core activities into cyberspace.

“Offices, schools, universities and other work centres have moved from face-to-face to digital interaction and now that the genie is out of the bottle, the very definition of work and employment is likely to change permanently,” he says.

“Working from home, or remote working, is now unlikely to be considered a ‘second-best’ option, as home based virtual workstations are supporting thousands of workers around the world to work efficiently, away from their physical offices – at the same time saving many more workers from the unemployment cues.

“These innovations are also evident in healthcare, with telemedicine ramping up to provide remote medical treatments by general practitioners during Covid-19. This has been a vital proof of potential and is unlikely to be dumped when the world eventually recovers, instead finding an important place in the healthcare mix.”

Prof Elliott says even the hardest hit sectors, such as hospitality and restaurants have been quick to start planning for a different future – one where digital ordering and contactless payment are the norm and where social distancing becomes a rule of thumb for good restaurant design.

Facing the enormous personal challenges of social distancing and isolation has also fuelled a surge in creativity Prof Elliott says, with people experimenting with internet-mediated co-creation of performance, dance or music, families and friends setting up virtual dinner parties and those formerly resistant to social internet platforms dipping into a new social realm online.

“We are, as if by magic, attending virtual concerts, birthday parties and even funerals; we are connecting in real time to friends and family around the world to make sure they are safe and well and, crucially, to provide support,” he says.

“This level of engagement is unprecedented - we are trying out novel social experiments in defining our communities and what it is to be a part of them. Coronavirus quarantine has persuaded people to develop different lifestyle choices, many of which will continue to impact on our social relationships long after we come out of lockdown.”

Prof Elliott says while we can not rush to predict the post COVID-19 future, it is clear globalisation in its fullest sense is not a casualty.

“What the virus has shown us is that nations, institutions and individuals have imaginatively respondedto immense challenges to reshape social activities and, as a result, to reinvent their lives in the shadow of Coronavirus,” he says.

“How this plays out in the future, what insights we will gain about our adaptability, our capacity to collaborate, our sense of self and our place in wider social and global groupings is yet to be adequately grasped.  But it will set the research agenda in the coming decade, if not longer.” 

Media contact: Michèle Nardelli phone: +61 418 823 673 or +61 8 8302 0966 email: michele.nardelli@unisa.edu.au

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