Understanding COVID-19 in a Global Era
Figuring out how this global pandemic will change our lives requires understanding how our interconnected world is designed to work in the first place.
COVID-19 is changing the world in ways both small and profound: classes are now taught online, millions are out of work, and social distancing has become the new global reality—at least until a vaccine can be developed.
Keeping up with the daily flood of news can be exhausting, not to mention confusing, especially when this pandemic affects nearly every aspect of life. If there’s one thing we’ve learned in recent months, it’s that COVID-19 is far more than just a global health challenge; it’s a crisis that affects trade, monetary policy, development, and even cyberspace.
With the constant bombardment of news, it’s understandable to have questions: What does COVID-19 have to do with cyberspace and cybersecurity? Why do I keep hearing about global supply chains, and how do they affect me? How is the world even set up to respond to such a complex, global crisis?
In order to make sense of how COVID-19 is reshaping the world, it’s important to first understand how the world is supposed to work. It’s an ambitious goal, but World101 can be your road map. This interactive online resource is dedicated to guiding you through today’s complex, interconnected, and ever-changing world.
We encourage you to explore World101’s full library of multimedia resources to help make sense of these uncertain and unprecedented times. To get started, let’s explore ten questions you may have about how COVID-19 is reshaping the world and how World101 can answer those questions.
What does it mean for the world to be more connected than ever before? And what does that have to do with COVID-19?
In 1776, it took a month for news of the Declaration of Independence to reach England. Today, the U.S. president can speak with leaders in London, Beijing, and Moscow with the click of a button. But more than just information now travels from country to country with unprecedented speed. Globalization means people, ideas, money, goods, data, drugs, weapons, greenhouse gases, and more circumnavigate the planet every day. Also on that list: viruses. As COVID-19 has revealed, what happens in one part of the world doesn’t necessarily stay there. Click here to learn more about globalization and its effect on your everyday life.
The news often talks about COVID-19 affecting global supply chains. What are supply chains, and why should I care?
Supply chains are networks—consisting of individual producers, companies, transportation, information, and more—that extract raw materials, transform them into finished products, and deliver those products to consumers. In other words, supply chains are the steps it takes to turn an item (like aluminum) into a finished product (like that new iPhone in your pocket). But amid COVID-19, global supply chains are experiencing tremendous strain as factories shut down, international travel grinds to a halt, demand for certain products skyrockets, and shoppers quarantine inside. As a result, it has become exceptionally difficult for first responders to get personal protective equipment such as masks, gowns, and surgical gloves and for everyday consumers to buy things like meat, eggs, and even toilet paper. Click here to learn more about how people and goods move around the modern world and here to learn more about how trade works.
How else is COVID-19 affecting the economy? And how will it recover?
In the early months of this crisis, we saw record-high unemployment claims and businesses close around the world. And although it’s too early to know the full economic scope of this situation, we learned in 2008 just how difficult it is to recover from a global financial crisis. Intricate supply chains mean just one country’s recovery is not enough; rather, the entire world needs to recover, especially when complex goods (again, think iPhones) are produced across multiple countries. Click here to learn more about how countries coordinate an international response to a financial crisis in a world in which financial problems do not respect borders.
The news often brings up the Federal Reserve, which feels like one of those institutions I should know. Help me out: what is the Federal Reserve?
The U.S. Federal Reserve (also known as the Fed) is the United States’ central bank. Central banks are essential institutions, typically focused on keeping prices stable, maximizing employment, and helping a country’s economy grow. They play a significant role in the United States and around the world, especially in trying to stabilize the economy during this pandemic. Click here to learn more about the Federal Reserve and here to learn more about monetary policy more generally.
Sometimes the news feels a little like alphabet soup—there’s the WHO, the UN, the WTO, the IMF. . . What are these organizations, and why isn’t there just one institution responsible for fighting this pandemic?
That’s right—there isn’t just one organization coordinating the global response to COVID-19. Instead, you have mayors, governors, presidents, and leaders of international organizations putting forward various (and sometimes contradictory) guidance. This crisis reveals the messiness when global problems meet local politics. Nevertheless, each of these institutions has a valuable role in tackling various components of the crisis. Click here to learn more about some of the world’s most influential institutions and for the playbook in how organizations ought to respond to a pandemic.
It seems that just about every scientist in the world is working on COVID research right now. Why is producing a vaccine such a tricky process?
The typical vaccine takes around eight to ten years to produce. Today, health experts are trying to manufacture a COVID-19 vaccine in just twelve to eighteen months. Beyond the billions of dollars in research and development and the incredible number of man-hours, vaccine development also requires immense international cooperation from development to distribution. Click here to learn more about the steps it takes to fill a pill bottle on the shelves of your local pharmacy.
It’s often said that elderly populations and individuals with certain preexisting conditions, or comorbidities, face the highest risks regarding this pandemic. What exactly are these preexisting conditions, and what do they have to do with international relations?
It’s true that COVID disproportionately affects individuals with noncommunicable diseases (NCDs). NCDs are diseases like diabetes, heart disease, and lung cancer—diseases that do not transmit between people. NCDs are a growing problem internationally. In 1990, just three out of the top seven causes of death worldwide were noncommunicable. By 2015, that number had grown to six out of seven. Mexico is just one example of a country that struggles with a surging prevalence of NCDs. Click here to learn more about the basics of global health and its relationship with international affairs and foreign policy.
Has the world ever faced a health crisis like this before?
Unfortunately, the answer is yes—the world has dealt with several health crises in the past. Between 1918 and 1919, another influenza pandemic swept the world. It infected one-third of the world’s population and killed between fifty and one hundred million people—about five to ten times as many people as died in World War I. In the United States alone, that flu killed at least 675,000 people and decreased U.S. life expectancy by twelve years. Despite such pandemics, the world has in fact become steadily healthier over the past one hundred years. Click here to learn more.
I’ve spent way too much time on Zoom these past few months, so perhaps now is as good a time as ever to ask this question: how does the internet actually work?
Getting online is pretty straightforward, right? Plug in a router, and the rest is virtual: you enter a password, open a browser, and type in an address. But wait. Not so fast. Hidden five miles below sea level and up to twenty-two thousand miles above the earth’s surface, a large and complex network of cables and satellites allows you to find your way in a new neighborhood and stream the latest Netflix show. Click here to learn more about how cyberspace works and here to learn about how various actors use this realm to launch cyberattacks.
COVID is clearly changing life in unprecedented ways. Will the world look the same when all is said and done?
Once again, it’s too early to say. But just as 9/11 cast a shadow on twenty years of focus on terrorism, so too will the COVID-19 pandemic likely cast a shadow on health infrastructure and the need for additional social spending. Lives will likely be lived more online than ever before. Poverty from recession and accompanying political upheaval could bring more migration and, along with it, more political controversy. The world will probably end up rethinking free trade and perhaps even another existential crisis it faces: climate change.
To learn about all of these issues—and more—check out World101. Stay informed of the issues, forces, and actors that shape the world and your everyday life.