Voters across the West have sent the same message again and again in recent years: We want the outside world to go away. In Poland and Hungary, nationalist parties have scored repeated election wins by pledging to keep out both dark-skinned migrants and the liberal mores of their European neighbors. In Britain, a majority of the public opted to pull up the drawbridge and give the finger to Johnny Foreigner with Brexit, which finally took effect last week. (See Best Columns: Europe.) And then there’s the U.S., where President Trump triumphed in 2016—and could again this November—with promises to lock down the border and pull back from a “rigged” global trade system. But shutting out an increasingly hyperconnected world is easier said than done, as the new coronavirus outbreak has shown. (See Talking Points, Best Columns: International, and Best Columns: Business.)
In a matter of weeks, a bug that was born in a wildlife market in the central Chinese city of Wuhan has spread to at least 25 countries, infecting more than 24,000 people, thanks to an air travel network that links nations together with an efficiency unthinkable even a few decades ago. Because China is a critical hub in the global economy, businesses across the world are feeling the pain of this epidemic. American automakers source some 15 percent of their components from China, and the consumer electronics industry about 50 percent of its parts. But that supply has come to a dead stop since Beijing ordered factory workers to stay home in a bid to prevent further infections. If firms can’t buy what they need from China, Chinese factories might in turn be forced to slash imports of machinery, raw materials, and technology from America and other countries, triggering a downward economic spiral. Our leaders can build walls, order tariffs, and issue travel bans, but they’ll never be able to inoculate us against the rest of the world.