On December 31, 2019, an artificial intelligence (AI) startup in Canada called “BlueDot” flagged a new disease. It was Coronavirus. It took nearly a week for human-led organizations to catch up.
On January 6, 2020, the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) was alerted to Coronavirus. Three days later, on January 9, the World Health Organization (WHO) issued a warning.
And, on January 30, the WHO declared Coronavirus a global health emergency.
Now, the disease has become an international crisis. Governments don’t know what to do. Businesses are stopped in their tracks. But, as world races to stop the spread and find a cure, there is more to this than just disease. There is also geopolitics and technology. After all, it was an algorithm, not a human, that identified Coronavirus, the most threatening virus since the Spanish flu.
And, it is geopolitics, not just healthcare systems, that is starting to define how this disease affects the world.
Looking at Coronavirus through the lens of geopolitics
In a geopolitical context, what exactly is Coronavirus? Of course, it is a disease. And, disease has long been a driver of geopolitics (and geoeconomics). For decades, disease has shaped entire regions of the world and held back business (i.e. AIDS or Malaria in sub-Saharan Africa). Coronavirus is doing the same thing.
For instance, British Airways (BA) has stopped all flights in and out of China.
This is a big deal. For several years, expanding into China has been a top priority for the airline. In fact, in 2014, BA proposed more routes to Chinese cities such as Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Chongqing, and, most interestingly, Wuhan. This shows the power Coronavirus has.
Businesses are halting profitable corridors, threatening their revenue, and ultimately, success.
At the same time, governments are taking action. Singapore banned all Chinese visitors, Russia closed part of its border with China and countries like Australia and Vietnam are starting to restrict access to foreigners who have recently visited China. All of this is “business as usual” when it comes to disease. But, Coronavirus may go beyond this. It may go beyond just impacting businesses and borders. This is because Coronavirus is operating at multiple levels. Beyond just being disease, it is also revealing the attitudes of countries and companies. Take China’s “friends.” Countries like Russia, North Korea and Singapore, who depend on China for economy and military, were the first to close their borders and start distancing themselves. They did not hesitate or think about their relationship with China.
But, China’s “adversaries,” like US, India or Japan, have not taken such radical steps. They are maintaining caution and warning their people. But they are not banning Chinese or closing borders. The irony is clear. China’s friends are behaving with China in ways China’s competition is expected to behave! Is Beijing seeing this? And, will the way China’s so-called friends have behaved influence China’s foreign policy in the future?
At the same time, businesses are taking unexpected steps towards China. Take Apple. Outside of US, China is the most important market for Apple. Apple is building products specifically for the Chinese market. Even at launch events, Apple has started communicating in Mandarin, not French, German, Japanese or Hindi, a clear indicator of where Apple wants to grow.
And yet, Apple has shut down all of its stores and offices in China. This means, until the stores (and offices) are reopened, the retail division of Apple China will generate zero revenue. No iPhone sales, no AppleCare repairs.
Would Apple do the same in US if Coronavirus was spreading? Most likely not. The revenue hit would be too big. In China, Apple must know it can take the revenue hit. Perhaps, Apple is betting on online orders to offset its retail loses. Either way, because of Coronavirus, Apple is making decisions in China that it may not make in other large markets. And, this is providing insight into exactly how “core" China actually is for large corporations.
New geopolitical implications of Coronavirus
As Coronavirus jolts the world and reveals hidden truths, it is also creating new geopolitical realities.
- First, the relevance of institutions is being questioned now more than ever. As WHO issues recommendations to try and control global response to Coronavirus, many governments are ignoring them. One of the recommendations calls for governments to not impose “trade or travel restrictions” like a travel ban. But, from Italy to Vietnam, countries are imposing bans on flights to/from China. The WHO no longer has the same influence (or control) it once had. It is fast becoming irrelevant.
- Second, technology is playing an unprecedented role in world affairs. It was AI in Canada that found the disease. And, it may be AI in pharmaceutical firms that helps design a vaccine. And, it may be AI that helps governments identify what segments of the population need the vaccine the fastest. It is technology that is providing the insight that countries and companies once provided. This comes with its own set of geopolitical implications and possibilities. For example, nations may start to depend on AI to flag new threats, be it disease or social unrest. And, they could take steps based on what AI tells them. For instance, imagine if the Canadian government had taken preemptive action because Canadian AI identified Coronavirus in China. From quarantine to travel bans to bringing back Canadian nationals to new healthcare policies, Canada would be taking steps domestically and internationally because of AI. And, Canada may do it quietly, without telling anyone why. The rest of the world may scratch their heads because they do not yet know a new virus has emerged in China. Or, Canada may publicly announce the virus in China, on purpose, a kind of public humiliation, a geopolitical move. All of this is to say that countries could soon have a deep understanding of other nations at the most grassroot level, thanks to AI. And, alongside all of this, countries may start to predict events before they even happen. Imagine if Hungary knew that a new virus was going to emerge in China weeks before it actually did? This leads to an area of Next Geopolitics known as “Algorithmic Foreign Policy” or “Predictive Foreign Policy.”
- Third, Coronavirus has emerged at a time when fears are rising over genetically-engineered weapons. Again, technology is driving this. And, the world must prepare. Consider that Coronavirus took time to become infectious. From animal-to-animal transmission it mutated to animal-to-human transmission and finally human-to-human transmission. While this all took place quite fast, it still took place over the course of weeks. This gave the world some time to take action. But, a genetically-engineered virus may be highly infectious from the get-go. It may infect millions in weeks, becoming a new global pandemic.
And, worst of all, it may be difficult to find out who is responsible. Was it a country? A rogue group? An accident?
Without a plan for genetically-engineered weapons, the world will be caught off guard. Perhaps, solving Coronavirus can be used as a blueprint a future pandemic that is “man-made.” Lastly, access to medicine could become a source of geopolitical tension. US drug companies might build new medicines for Coronavirus. And, they may export them across the world. Except, as US and China struggle to solve trade disputes, the US might restrict certain drugs from being exported to China, the same way it has started restricting certain AI-exports. This means that because of trade tensions, fueled by geopolitics, China would lose access to crucial medicines it needs. Will the US take this step? And, how might China respond?
As the world enters a new decade, it is also entering an age of brand new challenges. One of them is new diseases. Coronavirus may be the first of what is to come. But, to truly understand what is taking place, what could happen next and what kind of solutions to create, a holistic approach must be taken. This means looking at new diseases, like Coronavirus, as more than just diseases.
It means understanding the broader impact, including on geopolitics and businesses.
If this approach is taken, then new paradigms and ideas will be gleaned. For instance, the role that AI and other technologies are playing in treating disease and driving world affairs. And, the relevance (and possible reinvention) of institutions. Ultimately, all of this will define long-term success for a country, company or city. This means everybody needs to a new playbook. In this playbook, the old and new worlds of geopolitics coexist, converge and clash in ways few have imagined. In this playbook, identifying the new risks and opportunities will give players “first mover advantage.”
With Coronavirus, the first section of this playbook is being written. The question is: has the world realized it?
BY: Abishur Prakash (Author of Next Geopolitics 1-2.) – Toronto, Canada