Just like the coronavirus pandemic could permanently change daily life across the world, it also holds the power to transform world politics in profound ways. The exploitation of national crises or disasters can and often does establish controversial and questionable policies. While citizens are too distracted to hold their leaders and governing bodies accountable, governments move forward with alternate agendas coming out with more control. The political phenomena that made an appearance in all major events of the world, including the Iraq War, the 1973 coup in Chile led by General Augusto Pinochet and now the latest Coronavirus Pandemic.
Conspiracy theorists bask in their glory as another natural crisis hits the world wiping out the most vulnerable members of society. Some claim that these are human-made events to benefit one or another party; some claim that this is the punishment of society for misbehaving and treating nature poorly. Whatever the theory, we can all agree that almost all citizens of the world are displeased with unpopular policies being pushed upon them in the wake of a new pandemic.
Just recently, Anne-Marie Slaughter, CEO of the think tank New America and a former director of policy planning at the State Department during the Obama administration claimed that “this crisis is a time machine to the future… I think we’ll look back and see that this was like the Great Depression or a war, and that created political space to make big policy changes that seemed just too hard even two months ago.”
The latest coronavirus has crafted the perfect conditions for governments and the global elite to act to put forward political agendas that would otherwise be met with great opposition if people weren’t all so disoriented and instilled with fear. This chain of events is the blueprint that governing bodies have been following for decades known as the “shock doctrine”, a term coined by activist and author Naomi Klein.
The nationalist, populist wing of the Republican Party that has been warning about the dangers of globalization appears to have gotten a boost.
"One of the core arguments of the Trump 2016 campaign is that in our supply chains and our manufacturing economy, we'd become too dependent on a globalized world, especially China," said conservative J.D. Vance, the author of Hillbilly Elegy. "It turns out that if you want to have an economy that can weather a crisis, you actually have to be able to make some core things yourself, whether it's wireless technology, whether it's pharmaceutical products, whether it's ventilators and hospital masks."
While former Clinton White House aide Bill Galston sums up the democratic stance: "The COVID-19 pandemic has been a brutal x-ray of the weaknesses of our social safety net in dealing with national emergencies. We shouldn't be caught flat-footed by the next emergency any more than we should be caught flat-footed with a nearly empty national health emergency reserve, which was never restocked when it should have been."
Either way, political agendas are being pushed.
If you outline a timeline of wars, natural disasters and economic crises you’ll see a pattern emerging in how these 'events' were dealt with after they happened, otherwise dubbed as ‘disaster capitalism’.
Disaster capitalism complex is the practice of taking advantage of a major disaster to adopt economic policies that the population would be less likely to accept under normal circumstances. In other words, large companies and governments have learnt to profit from disasters.
With around 93% of the world’s population living in countries with restrictions on mobility and 210 territories affected by the coronavirus, the pandemic has brought forward new challenges and magnified old issues related to migration.
COVID-19 has onset a chain of policies adopted by the European Union as it attempts to navigate out of the depths of a pandemic. In an attempt to slow down the spread of the virus, governments across the world have taken drastic measures, restricting both international and local travel and closing borders; meaning that many people cannot purchase flights for holidays or business trip. Measures that have never been taken before at such a global level. Italy was one of the first European countries that were so drastically affected by the coronavirus, and the first to close its borders internally as well as ports to irregular migrants- many of which were still arriving in makeshift boats from Libya.
Cyprus, Poland and Malta completely suspended all incoming flights, leaving many citizens stranded for a short period of time, while the majority of EU countries have restricted travel from other countries. Other countries such as Spain, Belgium, Slovenia, Bulgaria and France have prohibited travel to areas outside of the place of official temporary or permanent residence, with certain exceptions. While many of these restrictions are likely to be short term, it will be months maybe even years before cross-border travel may normalise- if it ever does.
This delay in cross-border travel is fuelled by the growing xenophobia that is brought forward by many prominent government figures, including the presidents of the United States, Hungary and Slovakia linking immigration to the outbreak and dubbing the virus names such as the ‘Chinese virus’ and ‘the Wuhan Coronavirus’ among many others. Unfortunately, this is not a new phenomenon.
If you look back in time you will find that in the 1830s the cholera outbreak in America was blamed on immigrant Irish workers, the Ebola outbreak was named after a river in Congo where it was detected and led to the abuse of African people, while the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome stigmatises people from that region. COVID-19 is no exception, in the minds of many, the connection between a place or a nation gives worldwide legitimacy to the attitudes that xenophobes and racists already hold, particularly reinforcing the notion of a ‘superior culture’. Since the WHO declared this a worldwide pandemic, there has been an increase in racist incidents with reported cases of physical, psychological and virtual attacks committed against certain ethnic communities, namely people of Asian origin.
In Europe, the agricultural sector depends on high numbers of seasonal workers as the International Labour Organisation expects to have a loss of 11.8% in working hours. Although the European Commission issued guidelines to facilitate the free movement of critical workers, farmers are finding themselves without the much-needed labour force to pick fruit and vegetables. Despite heightened racist attacks and increasing xenophobia, COVID-19 has highlighted the world's dependence on migrants and shines a faint light at the end of the tunnel offering an opportunity to improve their working conditions.
In the meantime, India’s pandemic lockdown turns thousands of people into refugees overnight. Hundred of thousands of migrant workers are desperately trying to return home in their own country. People are forced to walk thousands of kilometres on foot only to reach bleak quarantine centres mimicking the overfilled refugee camps we have seen across Europe in the past few years. Many people are escaping these centres complaining that the shelters lacked basic facilities such as electricity, toilets & beds and some didn’t even have doors or windows. The Indian government is facing a dilemma like many others, how to handle the health and security of its population as well as the massive income inequalities between ethnic groups.
The adverse economic impact of the coronavirus is likely to be severe and prolonged with experts foreboding a depression in many advanced countries, but what does this depression mean for the country’s elite?
If you look back in time, after every big national crisis in America, the federal government has emerged with a new, greater role. The current pandemic and expected recession could result in a new, expanded role for the federal government once again.
"Suddenly, in a crisis like this, people realise across the political spectrum that unless we can provide a floor, the whole economy can crash," said Slaughter. "That paid sick leave is not about coddling workers. It's about making sure that sick workers don't come to work and infect others. People are equally realising, if workers have no money to spend, the economy can't function."
Since the inception of COVID-19 global markets have suffered dramatic falls due to the outbreak, more than 30 million people in the US have filed for unemployment benefits in the last six weeks, oil prices are at a 21 year low with US prices hitting negatives for the first time and the tourism industry worldwide faces collapse.
While disruptions to supply will have negative effects on economic activity, it will be demand shocks that will most likely plunge the economy into a freefall. Despite a third of Germany’s jobs being lost to the pandemic, according to the president of the Federal Association of the German Tourism Industry (BTW), the soon to be leader of the European Union is injecting €750 million to extend trial capabilities in finding a vaccine against COVID-19. And according to the German-based Association of Research-Based Pharmaceutical Companies, 121 vaccine development programs are underway around the world.
So we come to question: has the World Health Organization (WHO) been handling the COVID-19 outbreak as well as possible? Or have there been shortcomings? And what is beyond the international agency's control?
Caught between the US and China, the world health body has been unable to enforce compliance or adequate information sharing.
The US president has used claims of WHO’s dysfunction to justify cutting off US funding of $400m a year and accused it of withholding critical information about the danger of COVID-19. China, on the other hand, argued against this and against declaring an emergency on 22 January, when the voting took place. The other emergency members and advisers were experts from the US, Thailand, Russia, France, South Korea, Canada, Japan, Netherlands, Australia, Senegal, Singapore, Saudi Arabia, Sweden, and New Zealand. Their advice is confidential, but for the vote to have been split, several western, or western-aligned, representatives must have voted with Beijing.
Society & Censorship
The coronavirus pandemic has become the new scapegoat for censorship. Governments all over the world are introducing drastic emergency measures, suspending many of the freedoms that citizens normally take for granted. Many of these measures are put into place in order to ‘flatten the curve’ of the virus spreading and are being played as opportunity costs in that we must be willing to sacrifice certain liberties for the safety of our colleagues, friends and family.
Aside from flying police drones, controlled outings across Asia and Europe and immunity passports, the world faces a new challenge on how to keep people safe without violating their basic rights. To top it off, an increasing number of governments are also using the current health emergency to suppress criticism and undesirable information through the proliferation of laws against disinformation. An example of such an incident was when EU ambassadors submitted the opinion piece to mark the 45th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the EU and China. This piece was then redacted in China’s English-language newspaper China Daily, publishing the same piece but a sentence that linked the initial source of the coronavirus outbreak to China was removed.
The EU had raised “very serious concerns” about the request to censor the article but admitted that it agreed to the publication of this redacted statement as this meant that the bloc could communicate with the Chinese audience on other key EU issues, such as human rights, climate change and the pandemic response, claimed EU foreign affairs spokesperson Virginie Battu-Henriksson in Brussels.
“China has state-controlled media. There is censorship, that’s a fact,” Battu-Henriksson said.
She went on to add that the EU, nevertheless, regretted that the article had not been published in full.
The removed passage said, "The outbreak of the coronavirus in China and its subsequent spread to the rest of the world over the past three months, has meant that our pre-existing plans have been temporarily side-tracked."
The current coronavirus outbreak hasn’t just blurred lines for the EU as it has undoubtedly resulted in the viral spread of misinformation worldwide. Leaders face questions about their preparedness to deal with the pandemic that has killed nearly 300,000 people worldwide and use fake news bans as convenient tools to suppress criticism and accurate information.
In countries such as Egypt and Singapore, Hungary and Slovakia applications of fake news restrictions have led to a heightened level of prosecutions of lawyers, opposition politicians, watchdog groups and activists. This has spread to social media platforms themselves. Twitter, Facebook and Youtube walk a tight line between ensuring the integrity of vital information to the limiting of potentially harmful disinformation. Due to lockdown measures, the use of automated content moderation has increased where automated algorithms rather than human beings have mistakenly removed well-researched journalistic stories covering the coronavirus outbreak. Despite the fact that this is not a man-made error, it puts into perspective the dangers of censoring balanced information in times of real emergencies.
The idea that governments across the world should even tolerate false and misleading information, let alone promote them is deeply counterintuitive in a democratic environment. This stems back to how the shock doctrine allows governments to push forward unpopular policies through the use of unreliable information. Harsh measures are indeed needed to combat the virus but censorship is only a symptom of another disease rather than the cure for the existing one.
Despite various predictions on when the pandemic will come to a halt, no one knows how long this recession will last and to what extent will governments implement unwelcome rescue programs. There is hope that governments have learned from previous crises and that at least there is a possibility that the global economy could experience a sharp rebound once the pandemic is over.