Shooting the Rapids

COVID-19 and the Long Crisis of Globalisation

by , | May 18, 2020

Back in 2010, a report entitled Confronting the Long Crisis of Globalization, which we co-wrote with Bruce Jones, was published by the Brookings Institution. Today, we release a new report exploring the link between the Long Crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic. Read the full report here – Shooting the Rapids: COVID-19 and the Long Crisis of Globalisation.

Introducing the Long Crisis

The Chinese government first reported “cases of pneumonia of unknown aetiology” to the World Health Organization (WHO) on 31 December 2019. A week later, the new virus responsible for the disease outbreak was identified. Tightly connected global systems quickly spread the virus across the world, and by the time WHO declared a global pandemic in mid-March, 114 countries had reported cases.

Governments everywhere have scrambled to contain not only a public health emergency that could lead to millions of deaths, but also the biggest economic crisis since the 1930s. Below the surface, a profound political, social, and cultural transformation is also underway. 

The signs of strain on both decision makers and the public are clear. As the crisis unfolds, people are struggling to maintain good mental health in the face of such wide-reaching upheaval, new inequalities are being created between and within countries, and government officials are left playing what “feels like a game of whack-a-mole”. 

Meanwhile, in the midst of a pandemic that pits all of humanity against the virus, we face decisions at both local and global levels about whether to act in self-interest or in the collective interest. 

This is the world in the age of coronavirus, the latest in a series of shocks typical of the “long crisis” of globalisation.

A decade ago, in Confronting the Long Crisis of Globalization, we warned of a turbulent period for globalisation in which risks would spread and multiply across borders just as rapidly as opportunities. Now, as we prepare to face the global risks presented by COVID-19, we are building on that first piece to explore what we do and don’t yet know about the crisis, set out a playbook for collective action, and present a plan for international co-operation.

Shooting the Rapids: Key Findings

Today, as we find ourselves in an especially perilous stretch of the river, the metaphor of  ‘shooting the rapids’ is more relevant than ever before.

As we navigate the whitewater of a major systemic crisis like COVID-19, there are many routes we can take, but it’s still the river – not us – that decides the speed and direction of travel. There’s no chance to pause, rethink, or reverse direction; the threat of capsizing looms; and above all, it’s essential that everyone paddles together.

Layers of Change

The coronavirus outbreak marks a turning point in the 21st century. If the world that existed in the wake of the disastrous invasion of Iraq saw us at “a fork in the road” – in the words of Kofi Annan – then seventeen years later, we are on a razor-sharp knife-edge. 

In our report, we identify three layers of change that make up the greater COVID-19 emergency, each one unfolding at its own speed.

First, there’s the initial phase of the public health emergency, likely to last at least two years. We may have learned a lot about COVID-19, but many public health decisions are still surrounded by uncertainty, as much for those making them as for the public witnessing their effects.

The way in which the pandemic continues to unfold will be determined by many different factors, ranging from (poorly understood) fundamentals of epidemiology and governments’ effectiveness and legitimacy to patterns of inequality. We also don’t yet know how other shocks – heatwaves, conflicts, natural disasters – will be impacted by the pandemic.

The second layer is the economic crisis, which could last five years or more, and the impacts of which are still largely hidden to us. Bailout packages have been large and innovative, but it’s likely that governments will struggle to protect people as growth evaporates, supply chains erode, and systemic pressures build. 

For us, this raises two key questions. Can governments support their citizens in the short term while building a longer-term foundation for reset or recovery? And who will ultimately pay the greatest costs: younger workers or older investors?

Lastly, there is the social emergency, marked by polarisation and insecurity, that could last for a generation. Governments entered this crisis with already polarised societies and depleted levels of trust, and with many poorly led and coping with high levels of inequality, grievance, and populism, tensions are rising and fragility is spreading.

We do not yet know whether a democratic model for containing the virus will emerge, whether the wave of local mobilisation will be sustained, or if rifts between generations will widen or heal.

Playbook for collective action

Millions of lives, billions of people’s futures, and trillions of dollars depend on whether we opt for the ‘Larger Us’ approach to the crisis or polarise into ‘Them and Us’. It’s clear that collective action will be essential to effectively fighting the pandemic, but first, we need to lay the groundwork.

To promote collective action, there’s much to be done: enforce rules proportionately; confront the new inequalities that have emerged from the crisis; tell a story of hope rather than of tragedy; defend the facts; create consensus around solutions; build innovative partnerships and, perhaps most crucially, give everyone a role in the response – to once again employ the metaphor of shooting the rapids, the direction of the boat depends on the combined efforts of all those on board.

Plan for international co-operation

When a crisis is as complex as the COVID-19 pandemic, our strategies for fighting it need to be agile and flexible. Even so, we know that an action plan for international co-operation should have four main dimensions.

First, the international system needs to firefight better, getting the emergency response right to build hope that the most urgent problems can be overcome. 

Second, it needs to make societies and people feel more secure, not only to defuse risks of violence and conflict, but to create the psychological conditions needed to support collective action. 

Third, the critical global infrastructure must be protected, identifying the forms of global co-operation that we absolutely cannot afford to lose, and then defending them like our lives depend on it (they do). 

And finally, we need a new deal for a new generation, protecting the future of children and young people through education, jobs, and climate protection.

Whatever uncertainties we face as we navigate this crisis, one thing remains clear: it’s our capacity to act collectively that will determine our fate, and in the choice between adopting a ‘Larger Us’ approach or polarising into a ‘Them and Us’, the stakes are incredibly high.

One choice ushers in a breakdown, with sky-high infection and death rates, savage economic impacts, and people turning on each other just as the need is greatest to work together; the other, a breakthrough, where the toll of the pandemic is still heavy, but our capacity for collective action grows. These are the two futures we currently face – which one will come to pass is up to us.

To explore our findings in more depth, read the full report here – Shooting the Rapids: COVID-19 and the Long Crisis of Globalisation.


  • Alex Evans

    Alex Evans is founder of the Collective Psychology Project, which explores how we can use psychology to reduce political tribalism and polarisation, a senior fellow at New York University, and author of The Myth Gap: What Happens When Evidence and Arguments Aren’t Enough? (Penguin, 2017). He is a former Campaign Director of the 50 million member global citizen’s movement Avaaz, special adviser to two UK Cabinet Ministers, climate expert in the UN Secretary-General’s office, and was Research Director for the Business Commission on Sustainable Development. He was part of Ethiopia’s delegation to the Paris climate summit and has consulted for Oxfam, WWF UK, the UK Cabinet Office and US State Department. Alex lives with his wife and two children in Yorkshire.

  • David Steven is a senior fellow at the UN Foundation and at New York University, where he founded the Global Partnership to End Violence against Children and the Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies, a multi-stakeholder partnership to deliver the SDG targets for preventing all forms of violence, strengthening governance, and promoting justice and inclusion. He was lead author for the ministerial Task Force on Justice for All and senior external adviser for the UN-World Bank flagship study on prevention, Pathways for Peace. He is a former senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and co-author of The Risk Pivot: Great Powers, International Security, and the Energy Revolution (Brookings Institution Press, 2014). In 2001, he helped develop and launch the UK’s network of climate diplomats. David lives in and works from Pisa, Italy.

More from Global Dashboard

Justice for All and the Economic Crisis

Justice for All and the Economic Crisis

As COVID-19 plunges the world into its most serious economic crisis for a century, a surge in demand for justice is inevitable. Businesses face bankruptcy – and whole industries may be insolvent. Similar pain is being felt in the public and non-profit sectors....

Who Speaks for the Global South Recipients of Aid?

Who Speaks for the Global South Recipients of Aid?

The murder of George Floyd and the resurfacing of the Black Lives Matter movement has led to heightened discussions on race in the international development sector. Aid practitioners in the North have not only condemned the systemic racism that they (suddenly) now see...