Frayed
FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno (The Philippine Star) - April 9, 2020 - 12:00am

The lockdown has been extended. We now have at least three more weeks to go before restrictions are listed. The economic and psychological strains this will put on all of us will be tremendous.

It is not only our communities that are under great strain. This is a pandemic. The whole world is under the same strain as we are.

It is not only our own processes we should examine critically as we plot a way to recovery from the depths of this health crisis. The global order is changing rapidly before our eyes.

At this moment, the British prime minister is in ICU. Since the UK has no constitution, there is no clear mandate for succession. In the midst of this pandemic and all the stresses of Brexit, the state of Boris Johnson’s health magnifies all problems in that country.

An American aircraft carrier is basically grounded in Guam after its crew was decimated by coronavirus infections. Suddenly, the prospect of the world’s most powerful militaries crippled by infections becomes all too real.

Donald Trump has not been profuse in expressing his gratitude, but aid has been streaming in to the US from Russia and China the past few days. The “air bridges” deliver vital medical supplies to what was heretofore the most powerful country on earth. Inept leadership brought this country down.

During Richard Nixon’s time, the US dollar was detached from the gold standard. Since then, the currency’s value was what the market assigned to it. Facing a deep recession and widespread labor dislocation, the fate of the US economy could send the dollar swinging wildly. If that currency drops off the cliff, the world’s balance of wealth will shift dramatically.

Last week, Trump misled the world by claiming he had worked out production cuts to prop up the price of oil. As it turns out, the OPEC+ countries still have to commence negotiations later this week. Should oil prices remain as low as they are, the American oil industry will go bankrupt ahead of the others. Trump’s Plan B is, of course, to impose tariffs on foreign oil.

For the first time since 1973, the global economy will not have the petrodollars to fuel its growth. The economies that rely on oil revenues will face serious dislocation. 

That prospect will have major repercussions for us. For years, we relied on OFW remittances to prop up our own economy. Today, we are repatriating OFWs from imperiled cruise ships. In the next few months, we will see many OFWs returning home because their host economies are in deep trouble. Remittances will dwindle.

After the pandemic rolls over, whenever that will be, the likelihood is that economies will be seriously reviewing their supply chains with a view to increasing self-reliance. Interdependence will be rolled back. Dependence on imports will be reduced. 

We are not sure if increasing autarky will help the world better ward off pandemics. It could make pandemics deadlier because there is less incentive to help out countries that struggle most. 

At any rate, this health crisis has caused the global order as we know it fray at the seams. We do not quite know the shape of the new international order replacing it. 

Friends

This pesky virus has taken too many lives. The world has lost too many great artists and scientists. In our own case, too many good doctors and dedicated nurses have succumbed.

Since this epidemic spread, I have lost three good friends to the virus: Alan Ortiz, Eileen Baviera and Rene Velasco. All three hold PhDs in political science.

I worked with Alan since the mid-nineties when we set up the Foundation for Economic Freedom. Alan and I were the only political scientists in a group composed mainly of trained economists. I shared his interest in international relations but not his passion for big bikes.

Eileen was one of my very first students. She blossomed into our country’s foremost Sinologists and served as dean of the UP Asian Center. I will always remember those days when I would drive over to her place to partake of her late husband Jorge’s impeccable paella. Over good food, we talked about movement politics.

Rene, one of the best minds to emerge from Torres High School, I have known for close to 50 years. I first met him when his younger brother Ronald, who passed away earlier, took me to their home in Caloocan to make pillboxes. At the UP, we worked together first as activists and then as colleagues at the Department of Political Science. He was our Japan expert. 

I recall one bright day during the mid-seventies when we walked together to the Asian Center, then refashioned as the President’s Center for Special Studies led by Col. Jose Almonte, to try and get admission to the post-graduate program in Strategic Studies. We were not admitted, perhaps because we were ex-detainees. 

This did not cause either of us to lose our interest in policy studies. Over the years, we came together to work on policy papers and political projects. 

I suppose we complemented each other. I always had the wildest ideas. Rene, ever the organization man gifted with the people skills going with it, always fretted about execution. That kept our team well grounded. The best thing I learned from him is that an idea is only as good as its execution.

Rene loved assigning nicknames for his friends. He called me “Aristotle” for constantly disagreeing with our college mentors. He called me that until the last time we met.

FRAYED
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