Botched responses from governments have ranged from denial to disinformation while exacerbating a global leadership vacuum.
Vladimir Lenin once wrote, “There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.”
Such a sentiment feels apt at this moment.
Since the coronavirus (Covid-19) appeared on the scene last December and started waging indiscriminate biological warfare, it has wasted no time in throwing our global system into a state of turbulence and on the verge of an economic spiral.
At warp speed within the space of weeks, it spread from China to over 180 countries. The global count now stands at over 250,000 cases and 10,000 deaths. Those numbers will have increased by the time you read this.
Our collective response in that span has gone from zero to anxiety-ridden hoarding and social isolation. At least we have a deluge of memes as coping mechanisms to shine a light in these dark times.
What of our leaders? It would be fair to say that governments across the board have all had a rude awakening.
While it comes as no surprise that an authoritarian regime like China tried to cover up the extent of the spread, it has managed to ‘flatten the curve’ with an industrial-scale mobilisation alongside city-wide lockdowns.
Despite the warning signs out of China and the rapid escalation of contagion as medical professionals and the World Health Organisation sounded the alarm, it fell on deaf ears.
And particularly for a host of democratically elected strongmen – who electorally profited from sowing discord in our ‘post-truth’ era of politics – as they scrambled to put together a transparent, factually-based response to contend with a global pandemic.
The sloppy reaction by right-wing populist governments reveals how managerially incompetent and civically damaging their nativist playbook is in times of crisis, all the while widening the chasm of global governance in an age of insularity.
US President Donald Trump moved from dismissing Covid-19 as nothing more than the “winter flu” that would “disappear in the spring” to declaring a national emergency and passing a $1 trillion stimulus package. But his administration wasted precious time as the crisis worsened.
For the self-acknowledged germophobe Trump, the outbreak was to be seen through the prism of the stock market and his own re-election. He first floated the idea that the virus was a Democrat “hoax” to undermine him. Pressure was applied on his officials to downplay the risks.
In a masterstroke of reckless hindsight, he had dismantled the office in charge of pandemic response within his National Security Council in 2018. Repeated calls for cuts to public health agencies made it clear the Trump administration never bothered to prioritise the federal government’s ability to counter a pandemic.
Furthermore, Trump’s war on expertise is directly linked to decades-long cultivation of anti-intellectualism within American conservatism, which has manifested most prominently during his presidency.
Consider how partisan the public response to Covid-19 is: poll data shows that Democrats are more likely to change their behaviour as recommended by experts than Republicans were.
“Trump of the Tropics” President Jair Bolsonaro has come under mounting criticism for his lax handling of the outbreak, which he originally called a “fantasy”. Not before long, his own national security adviser, energy minister and the head of the Senate all tested positive for Covid-19.
Struggling to revitalise Brazil’s weak economy, the outbreak has pummeled the country’s markets and aviation sector as protestors took to the streets to demand Bolsonaro’s ouster. To make matters worse, his son decided to spark a diplomatic row with China, Brazil’s largest trade partner.
Boris Johnson’s bumbling premiership chose to navigate through the eye of the storm by tasking Britons with adopting “herd immunity” – essentially a Malthusian policy of organised neglect masquerading as scientific pragmatism.
The priority was to place the welfare of those considered socially useless below the needs of the economy and business; the natural expression of a Laissez-faire ideology of social destruction that slashes government and offloads pain onto the vulnerable employed by successive Tory governments.
While Russian President Vladimir Putin has taken serious measures to combat the spread, the suspiciously low number of confirmed cases and one death strongly suggests that public health information is being politicised.
Kremlin-propagated disinformation is now channeled domestically, as it appears Russian doctors were attributing fatalities to pneumonia to assist in the government’s cover up.
All the while, Kremlin-linked state media outlets have peddled the conspiracy theory that Covid-19 was a US bioweapon. The accusation that a hostile foreign power is behind the virus has also been making the rounds in China, Iran, India and the US.
Hungary’s nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban has employed a familiar script by blaming foreigners for the spread of the virus in the country. Government officials and pro-Orban media outlets have politically weaponised Covid-19 by drawing links to the virus and migration.
India, under the spell of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s politics of Hindu nationalism, has hardly fared much better. Its 1.3 billion population could easily become the next hotspot for the pandemic, and the government seems severely unprepared with the medical capacity necessary to handle the scope of an outbreak.
Thanks to a government that readily politicises religion at the expense of science, Hindu nationalists have taken the opportunity to push magical remedies and pseudoscience as COVID-19 cures, notoriously touting the elixir of bovine urine and dung.
However, it might be foolhardy to believe this crisis would stem the tide of reactionary populism and prove that we should return to a time when technocratic reason reigned. In fact, it could have the opposite effect.
Take Italy, the country second-worst hit by the virus after China. If a severe economic downturn precipitates an EU bailout with punitive conditions, the fear is that far-right populists – Lega Nord and Brothers of Italy – will be waiting in the wings ready to strike.
For Putin, the crisis is an opportunity, potentially playing into a longstanding ambition has been to supplant the international liberal order with great power imperialism.
A pro-Kremlin pandemic strategy has already emerged, with a disinformation campaign amplified across online media to exacerbate distrust and advance apocalyptic stories to Western audiences.
To some observers, the pandemic could play the role of “creative destruction” that accelerates the international system’s decline, allowing illiberal regimes to advance their (geo)political goals.
Covid-19 might well be a once-in-a-century event. As the world faces one of the worst peacetime cataclysms of modern times, it occurs during a climate of xenophobic nationalism on the rise and geopolitical instability.
Responsibility is in short supply. The easiest scapegoats are migrants, porous borders and foreign power ploys. The severity of the crisis could well reach a point where incremental policies are jettisoned by governments who find themselves confronting frustrated populations willing to acquiesce to authoritarianism.
Without a response rising to the level of transnational coordination, the crisis is only likely to deepen trends towards de-globalisation. Expertise and institutions matter.
The populist right’s playbook is not equipped to handle the nature of a response that demands trust in science, solidarity and global cooperation.
But neither is the decaying order of neoliberal economic orthodoxy, which values short-termism and fiscal austerity, making us sitting ducks for catastrophe and susceptible to that well-worn playbook’s snake oil vendors.
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