Globalisation in the age of COVID

I remember learning in high school about globalisation, how cultures the world over were bleeding into each other due to air travel, television and the internet. As I got older, I observed when travelling overseas how every airport and supermarket was a carbon copy, and at university we examined how global trade and mass migration were fuelling this one, big alphabet soup.

Fast forward to 2020, when air travel and mass migration fell apart, at least they did Down Under, where the borders are as firm as you would expect on a big island during a pandemic. The global supply chain certainly faltered also, albeit briefly, and our major exports suffered the wrath of a China licking its wounds.

In some ways we are more connected than ever: TikTok dance challenges and national renditions of ‘The Blessing’ dominated the airwaves, every man and his dog became an expert on the mounting daily case numbers in Europe, and we scrutinised the drama of the US Presidential campaign as if it were our own.

Packages from overseas overwhelmed our local post offices as locked down families shopped online as if their lives depended on it; and the push to develop the silver-bullet vaccine rivalled the old Space Race. And yet, other pillars of globalisation were crumbling. By 2021, the world was feeling, in some ways, a little smaller.

A preoccupation with our own daily-changing news made our media myopic at times, with political upheavals in the developing world being vastly underreported. Economic crisis at home led many people to ‘shop local’ and drove governments and businesses to reconsider local production.

Usually hyper-mobile Aussie travellers who happened to be on their home turf were forced to spend their tourist dollars within their own state (or risk a state border crossing if feeling particularly brave), while those working or exploring overseas were lucky to make it home at all.

Strict quarantine and training limits for tennis stars here for the Australian Open did not play well on international screens, and from our Great Southern Land we occasionally found ourselves forgetting how much of a community-transmission-free bubble we were living in.

It will be interesting to see in coming months and years as international travel picks up and economies recover whether any of this increased nationalism remains, or whether we simply dive back in to how things were before: a great, global movement of things and ideas.

The losers from closed borders will certainly not forget this time: the stranded international students with neither casual employment nor welfare entitlements, queuing for food parcels and living in cars; the beleaguered higher education sector which may, as a result, never recover. The multinational couples and families separated for months on end; those working in travel, hospitality and associated industries like the cab driver I spoke to the other day who hadn’t had an airport run or seen a Cabcharge in nearly a year and was wondering, “who will pay the mortgage?”

In many ways, our reliance on the international flow of people and goods has come back to bite us, and yet the flow of images and ideas, and the shared trauma of a ubiquitous disease has us feeling closer than ever. Maybe this sedentary global ‘pause’ will remind us how lucky we have it, and teach us not to take that for granted.

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