The Real Culprit of the Pandemic: Globalization

By Shlomo Maital

Nov. 9, 1989. The Berlin Wall falls. The two Germany’s unite quickly. The European Union expands. And the age of globalization begins.

December 2019. Wuhan. A novel coronavirus is identified. It spreads globally.  

   Has the age of globalization ended? And – is globalization the true underlying culprit?

   I’ve been reading a remarkable book, two decades old, by a brilliant science writer Mark Buchanan: Ubiquity: Why Catastrophes Happen. Three Rivers Press, New York: 2001.

   In Chapter 8, Buchanan recalls the “six degrees of separation” discovery of social psychologist Stanley Milgrom, in 1967 – in which any two people anywhere can be connected, by no more than six direct links, each link comprising someone you know personally. Based on Milgram’s work, Buchanan writes, two scholars, Watts and Strogatz, modeled such ‘networks’ as a tool for modeling the spread of infectious diseases.   [Duncan Watts and Steve Strogatz. “Collective dynamics of small-world networks”, Nature 393, 1998, pp. 440-442.]

     Their finding: (in 1998): “Watts and Strogatz also modeled the spread of infectious diseases on small-world networks, and found that they spread much faster than they would on ordered networks. What’s more, only a very few shortcut links are necessary to make this happen. This has disturbing implications for how dangerous diseases might be able to spread over the world, carried to or from remote places by just a few long-distance travellers”.

     Explanation: “ordered networks” are regular ‘grids’, where your links are your immediate neighbors. Small-world networks are like ‘six degrees of separation’ disorderly ones, like the kind Milgrom discovered – in other words, real networks as they are in the real world.

   Globalization has massively expanded trade and travel. The benefits have been massive. Emerging markets, especially in Asia, have grown wealthy. Western consumers have been flooded with inexpensive goods from Asia.

   But apparently, the price is the current pandemic. When the whole world is interconnected by flows of goods, people and information, it grows wealthy and prosperous (though not everyone of course) – and also becomes highly vulnerable to pandemics.

   I am, and have been, a big fan of the benefits of globalization.  But as often happens, we ignored the attendant risks.  We were told in 1998 and in 2001. I guess we were not listening too closely.