As countries turn inward, pandemic threatens the foundations of globalization

From his apartment in Manila’s Bonifacio Global City, Eric Go can still see planes going past his windows. Like many in Southeast Asia’s middle class, Go, who grew up in the U.S. and works for an e-commerce company, has been used to near-seamless mobility: ride-hailing, low-cost airlines and direct flights back to his family in New York.

“It was never really an issue. I can hop on a plane and go wherever I want to go. That’s how I see freedom,” he said. “It’s like, OK, there’s turmoil in Manila, or it gets too hot, I can leave. And now I can’t leave at all.”

Since the COVID-19 crisis intensified in mid-March, Go has been trying to get back to his parents in the U.S. But the few flights still running have become prohibitively expensive, and since most require long layovers, the risk of being stuck indefinitely in transit is high. All around the world, borders are slamming shut as governments try to contain a global pandemic that has already killed more than 40,000 people.

In the Asia Pacific, China, India, Singapore, Taiwan, Vietnam, New Zealand and Australia have all barred nonresidents from entering. Others, including Japan, have suspended visa waivers and imposed quarantines on most arrivals. Whole cities are on effective lockdown — streets empty, businesses shuttered.

The suddenness with which these measures dropped into place is shocking for those who have only known an era of globalization and relative plenty. While Go’s parents remember troops on the street in Manila and shortages in the shops, he has never experienced this level of uncertainty. “The normal amenities that you’d have in life have been stripped away. … The question you ask is, how is it going to be next week? Will we still have bread next week? Will we still have eggs?” he said. “I have never experienced an egg shortage in my life. I’ve never had a curfew in my life.”

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