Growing protectionism and mercantilism undermine liberal advancements

At the turn of the 21st century many nations have increasingly become citizens of the international community. Given that this is a period where many developing democracies are increasingly autonomous in their participation with this globalised world, this is important.  However, can the advancements made in decentralising state power, free trade, and global interaction be preserved despite the growing push for protectionism after the Covid-19 pandemic?

One of the main purposes of international organisations such as the United Nations (UN), the World Health Organisation (WHO) or the World Trade Organisation (WTO) is to create order an in increasingly globalised world. Their role is to set the international agenda and facilitate the free flow of information and resources between states. These bodies are being undermined due to growing protectionist attitudes, which have the potential to undo the strides made in creating a liberalised world.

At the start of the pandemic, countries were disjointed in the appropriate action that it would take in tackling the pandemic. The WHO initially made management recommendations earlier in 2020 such as reporting, established a supply chain network and distributed medical equipment, test kits and food resources. Simultaneously, the WHO allowed China to downplay the spread of the pandemic, thus downplaying the seriousness. Despite this organisation being a voluntary body with ratification from 196 member states, the non-compliance with WHO recommendations persists, and is a legacy that can also be traced back to the Ebola pandemic outbreak.

The founding of COVAX has not made this pandemic any easier. The United States had initially withdrawn from the vaccine initiative which is aimed at pooling the financial resources of countries together, and later re-joined under President Biden. This initiative aims to help poorer countries in affording vaccines; they are unable to buy vaccines in bulk from vaccine manufacturers in bilateral deals like the US and the European Union can do. COVAX only assembled a month after the start of the pandemic.

On the note of vaccine nationalism, 14% of the world's population has 53% of the world’s vaccines.  COVAX is intended to be a pooled negotiating mechanism, not a company nor a supplier, is not subject to public tender or procurement rules. This is surprising given that South Africa acquired 12 million doses for 10% of the population from the initiative.

The existence of COVAX is polarising given that states such as Canada has 7 times the vaccines required for its population.

The WTO, which is a body that aims to encourage global free trade, has reported that 80 countries have introduced export prohibitions or restrictions as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. And only half of these countries formally have notified the WTO about imposing such restraints, as is required of them. Under the rules of the WTO, governments are required to be transparent about the measures used to bar free trade, but this has fallen away during the pandemic.

During recent years the US also led anti-free trade policy; the Trump administration had imposed $5 billion in tariffs on medical supplies that the US imported from China. The supposed leader country of liberalising trade has contradicted the impact of specialisation efforts which attempt to make the cost of goods cheaper and accessible across market lines. Tariffs are artificial price makers; they are tax that is levied on imported goods and is paid by consumers. This makes access to important goods such as healthcare products a guarantee for only wealthy individuals.

The WTO has also been weakened in its ability to arbiter free trade, as the US has blocked the appointment of new appointments to the Appellate Body of the organisation. An important element of the Dispute Settlement System, which settles trade disputes between parties.

Under a more globalised system resources should be moving freely and sold on an innovation basis. However, regions such as Canada, the European Union, and France have subjected traditional imported medical technologies to additional screening and have extended these requirements to food security and financial infrastructure.

In the global South growing nationalism means something else entirely. The actions of these countries call into question the free trade attempts that are being made in Africa, most significantly the African Continental Free Trade Area. African goods production tends to be homogeneous, with few instances of diversification and sparse infrastructure and trading networks. This new era of a renationalised world economy can raise potential security threats in the region. Nationalisation requires enthusiastic devotion and hatred towards perceived threats, domestically and externally, towards this devotion must be eliminated. African states could also simply be used as strategic alliances for the increasingly protectionist Global North or even being the centre of exacerbated conflicts, removing their own agency and dynamism.

The pandemic has also incentivised leaders to clamp down on opposition, and violent conflict is continuing in spite of the virus. The war in Tigray, Ethiopia, that started in November 2020 is such an example. Any global event has the potential to destabilise vulnerable areas. With current protectionist policy, there are few incentives for the global community to follow through on promises of peace. This is demonstrated with the United Nations Security council expressing concern around Tigray a whole 6 months after the conflict began.

Export restrictions induce scarcity on markets, raise prices and cause disproportionate harm to developing nations that cannot afford to compete in bidding wars. This was demonstrated at the start of the pandemic with mask shortages and now with vaccine access.

Covid-19 has affected global free trade through the forced deceleration of international trade and the rise of economic protectionism that states are using. All these efforts beg the question, how can citizens and businesses navigate this increasingly protectionist world?

Protectionism is ineffective as it fails to directly address the root causes of the challenges facing policymakers during the Covid-19 pandemic. Is it really a concern of China 'owning' too much of the world or an issue in failed diversified supply chain management and domestic innovation?

We are supposed to be a world that is unified by common goals and using the global free market to aid in the pursuit of peace, innovation and global sustainability. These global organisations were intended to be used when states hindered these goals and for action to be taken against their undermining of liberal policies. But what use are these bodies when states do not comply with these shared goals and actively undermine them? What precedent will Covid-19 pose in terms of national policy and overall international relations?

This article was first published on City Press on 23 May 2021.

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