No one will regret the end of 2021, but will the new year be better? Omicron, the latest Covid-19 mutant is here and spreading even as the Delta variety continues to shake.
The global economy, which has shown signs of survival, will be hit again as another episode of the pandemic hits Europe and the United States and is poised to strike Asian countries. The only silver lining is the belief that the virus is gradually losing its potency, as Omicron has so far resulted in fewer hospitalizations and deaths. But no one is sure where the virus will go.
The past two years have shown that the pandemic is a great leveler. It struck all countries with equal ferocity. The advanced world with its much better health infrastructure has been brought to its knees, as have the developing and poorest nations with minimal health facilities. It ultimately turned out to be a great equalizer as healthcare facilities across the world collapsed: whether it was Italy, the United States, Japan, the United Kingdom, Russia, China or India, Nepal, Myanmar and Bangladesh.
Liberal values soared when rich countries collected more than their share of vaccines and left developing countries in Africa and Asia to fend for themselves. Israel, the UK, and parts of America not only gave both injections, but also provided booster doses. Yet many on the African continent had not received a single one.
But the complacency was shattered with the arrival of Omicron, first detected in southern African countries. The advanced world has responded with travel bans to eight African countries from which the virus has been detected. Protectionist barriers have been erected by governments around the world, through travel bans, with little overall effect. It is impossible in today’s interconnected world to isolate the virus with travel bans.
The pandemic should have taught world leaders life lessons, with everyone coming together to fight the virus and its deadly economic consequences. The disruption of supply chains, so far largely dependent on China, has resulted in shortages in the manufacturing world. Alternative supply chains are not yet in place and their construction will take time.
Despite the health crisis and the economic slowdown that accompanies it in the world, the rivalry between the great powers continues unabated.
The United States, the world’s only superpower, is challenged by a confident China ready to assert China’s way in the world. Although China is nowhere close to the United States in military terms, the next decade could see it quickly close the gap. The Sino-American rivalry will continue. Unlike the past when the Soviet Union and the United States shared superpower status, Russia may have had both nuclear and military clout, but was never a major economic power unlike China.
Decoupling the US and Chinese economies can take time and create problems for the rest of the world as well. The disruption of the supply chain is already changing the way countries think about business.
Globalization, with manufacturers looking for the cheapest and most efficient way to produce goods, will take a hit. Gradually, the production processes will return to the original soil or seek places closer to invest. The pandemic has challenged the ideals that have ruled the world since the end of World War II. And this is reflected not only in the economic sphere, but also in the retreat against liberal policy.
Another Western insect is the Russian Vladimir Putin. American liberals with deep memory of the Cold War hate Putin and see him as a major threat to Europe. Putin is hated by the liberal establishment far more than by China’s Xi Jinping. The annexation of Crimea in 2014 put Russia in the niche of the United States and its allies. The fact that NATO is pushing towards Poland, Ukraine and other former Soviet bloc countries is of major concern to Russia, as these encroach on Russian security.
The accumulation of Russian troops on the border with Ukraine raises fears that Moscow will seize this country. Since then, tension has been mounting in Ukraine. Putin and US President Joe Biden will talk by phone on Thursday to hopefully defuse the crisis. NATO and the EU strongly support the United States against Russia, which might not have been possible with Donald Trump.
What is India’s place in this new formation of a China-Russia axis opposed to the Western democratic alliance led by the United States? India has played soccer with the United States and Russia. So far Prime Minister Narendra Modi has managed to have his cake and eat it too. As we know, the United States wants India to be a bulwark in Asia against a rising China. India is part of the quad and is firmly in the American camp when it comes to China. But it is also a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a group where Russia and China are in the driving seat.
New Delhi, Russia’s traditional relay, is not about to abandon an old friendship that had served it well since independence. So far it has been successful, but it is not clear how far it can maintain its strategic autonomy in a crisis. But China remains a major concern and will remain so until the border issue is finally resolved, but it will take time.
Narendra Modi’s government has so far conducted its foreign policy well, intensifying its relations with the Gulf as well as with the powers of Central Asia. Its only failure was Afghanistan where successive governments had backed the US-backed elected government of Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani. Now, with Taliban control, India’s footprints are all but erased from Afghanistan. Yet that cycle may change when the international community recognizes that the Taliban government and India’s development assistance can make a difference for the better.
What is much more worrying for India, however, is that its domestic politics are encroaching on its foreign relations. Fringe elements within the Hindutva movement are emerging. Hate speeches by religious leaders calling for action against Indian Muslims, incidents of assault on churches reported in several corners of the country.
These incidents were widely reported by the international media and will capture the attention of world leaders. This worrying trend will be amplified if the government does not limit its hardline support base. India has already slipped into Freedom House ratings as a “free” to “partially free” country.
Freedom of the press, frequent recourse to the Sedition and Prevention of Illegal Activities Act (UAPA) and the impunity with which the armed forces operate in Kashmir and the North-East thanks to the Special Powers Act armed forces, do not do justice to India’s democratic credentials.
But democracy and human rights are slipping not only in India, but around the world, including the United States. The Trump years integrated the fringe elements into the United States, resulting in the unprecedented attack on the American capital by Trump supporters on January 6.
Laws are also being put in place in Republican-controlled states to make voting difficult for blacks and other minorities, the backbone of the Democratic Party. But there is also a massive push from the Liberals, resulting in inter-party polarization in the United States. The standoff between right and left will continue in the developed world next year.