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The Coronavirus pandemic has put the globe and its civil society into crisis mode. Not only has it upended our lives as we know them, it has also shaken up geopolitical matters. Across continents, existential questions of legitimacy have resurfaced, questioning not only the political leadership, but the systems our nations are built upon.
Times of crises naturally uncover the weaknesses and shortcomings of certain political ideologies. Populism is exposed for its inclination towards reducing complexity and stereotyping. Hard-lining capitalists have had to surrender to the fact that a thriving economy alone does not do the trick when public health is at stake. Even autocratic rulers have seen the limits of their political power and had their authority questioned.
Evaluating the strategies different governments have put in place to fight the Coronavirus greatly reveal the true nature of their societal systems. And the responses we’ve witnessed across the world are quite divergent.
China. In early December, doctors and scientists warned of a newly spreading respiratory disease. The government initially tried to cover it up. Doctors and journalists, who tried to tarnish the perfectly staged appearance through photographs and reports from the hospitals, were shut silent – until the first doctor treating COVID-19 patients had died and the façade crumbled. This approach has led to fierce criticism of China’s political leadership by the population. Citizens are now protesting that the spread of the virus could have been significantly decelerated and contained if the signs had been acknowledged early and action taken accordingly. Ultimately, the Chinese government succeeded in imposing drastic measures – not least because of the comprehensive state surveillance apparatus. The Chinese population, especially in the city of Wuhan, was confronted with far-reaching curfews and a complete lockdown that lasted several weeks. On March 10, Xi Jinping visited the city of Wuhan, assuring the public that the worst had been overcome. “Sunshine always comes after the rain”, he said.
Now that the political crisis had been averted, the Chinese set out to increase their geopolitical influence once more. Disguised as generous and altruistic donations of medical equipment to aid nations that are currently suffering, China seeks to extend a hand to the struggling southern European states and – even more surprising – to the United States, too. Chinese doctors have already arrived in the hospitals of Italy and Spain, and the deliveries of masks and other equipment from retailers like Alibaba are filling European and American warehouses already. While this could just be another clever move, it is likely to be part of a large-scale reshuffling of global power structures. In any case, the Chinese government has begun to feel that its authority by means propaganda is crumbling, especially in times of crisis. And that its citizens expect, above all, the truth and clarity of information.
United States. Geopolitically, the signs have long been hinting at a decline of American hegemony and the inability of the global community to fill this very vacuum. Furthermore, the Coronavirus pandemic seems to deepen a crack that has been running through international relations for a long time: de-coupling and de-globalization. The U.S. and China have been rivals for quite some time now. The ongoing trade conflict turned into a broader conflict on values, geopolitical influence and even national security. While the Trump administration steadily pursued its “America First” strategy, the economy had to realign its supply chains in the manufacturing sector and many other industries. The global health crisis resulting from Coronavirus aggravates this foreclosure and burdens the already fragile supply chains. On top of that, both the U.S. and the Chinese government are spreading conspiracy theories over the origins of the virus – Donald Trump referring to it as the “Chinese virus”; Xi Jinping claiming that U.S. army athletes imported the virus during the Military World Games in Wuhan in October.
What makes the crisis in the United States so severe is a combination of two things: On the one hand, the U.S. government’s ignorant response to the virus outbreak in the first place, with Donald Trump downplaying the crisis and claiming that it ‘will have a good ending for us’. On the other hand, the Coronavirus pandemic reveals the limits of neoliberal, capitalist beliefs. For one, the availability of health care and treatment is a privilege that is not universally accessible. Coronavirus testing kits are scarce, and if available, cost a small fortune. Not to mention the subsequent treatment or even a hospitalization in case of a positive test result. Furthermore, the United States lacks a comprehensive state welfare system, leading to the fact that the economy is under extreme pressure because struggling companies cannot secure their workforce. Millions of Americans have lost their jobs recently. The governmental safety net is weak: no unemployment compensation, no universal healthcare. The Coronavirus pandemic is not only a health crisis, it is also a system crisis.
Europe. Across the European Union, responses to the Coronavirus outbreak have varied greatly, too. Currently, there is no unanimous approach by the EU countries. Rather, the European Commission is trying to hold the Union together by financially strengthening the public health sector, as well as the overall economy. Furthermore, to fight disinformation, the Commission focuses on providing accurate, factual resources about the spread of the virus and the respective measures to contain it.
Within the EU, Italy is among the countries who have been hit the hardest by the Corona crisis. Attempts to explain this are, among others, based on the high average age in the country and the fact that people live together in multi-generational households. The tragedy of high mortality rates that unfolded in Italy accelerated the introduction of more rigorous measures to deal with the pandemic in many other European countries.
Germany, for instance, has imposed the closing of schools, childcare facilities, restaurants, stores and non-critical services by mid-March. As of now, these measures are already starting to reverse the steadily accelerating curve of new infections. The government has further announced that it is not going to ease the rules for another two weeks. The effects on Germany’s export industry are quite disastrous – with experts claiming that it could be the deepest cut since the global financial crisis in the 1930s. To offset the economic effects of the pandemic, the German government has announced to gather funds into the three-digit billion range.
While most of the EU countries have imposed restrictions of some kind, there are countries that seem to be counting on the principle of herd immunity. In Sweden, for example, public life is still ongoing. Schools, gyms and restaurants are still open. The government had been advising its citizens for weeks that they should avoid social contact wherever possible. Yet, the voluntary sacrifice does not seem enough, as both infections and fatalities are rising steadily.
Meanwhile, France, Italy and Spain have asked for a European burden-sharing of the financial impact the Corona crisis entails – a model debated as “Coronabonds”. Germany and Austria have already expressed their objection. And with it, the question arises whether European solidarity is nothing more than a paper declaration.
The aftermath. What remains is the question of how our world will set out to be once this blows over. What happens to a European Union that is more fragmented than ever before? Will this be the end of globalization? The fact is: no one can make serious predictions on how this will affect our societies going forward. It would be desirable if this crisis situation brought the global community closer together. After all, it is our multilateral world order with strong institutions, expertise, and enlightened responses to global challenges that brought about peace in the European Union for 75 years.
Interestingly, the Coronavirus could accelerate the transition towards a more sustainable society, and a resurgence of the concept of “environmental capitalism”. 2020 is not just the year in which a pandemic paralyzed public life, it is also the year when humanity started to actively tackle climate change.
Photographs of declining air pollution in China and Italy, as well as the suddenly clear Grand Canal of Venice, hint at the fact that global climate is recovering. The halt of economic activity, especially in air and ground travel, has significantly reduced the use of fossil fuels. China has reported a sharp decline in carbon dioxide emissions of about 25 percent in February alone.
The Coronavirus pandemic is without question a terrible crisis. This state of emergency demands that we pause for a moment, and that we reflect on what seems self-evident for us: the way we conduct business, the values we center our lives around, and ultimately, whether the systems we have put in place are sufficient and rise to the challenges we’re facing.
Are our economies fit to tackle inequalities and to live up to its obligation to up- and reskill workers? Are our systems permeable enough to provide equal opportunities for everyone and to stand up for the weakest parts of society? And are we, in our western democracies, truly practicing solidarity, unconstrained and rational discourses, and live up to the promise of liberty and security? The Coronavirus turns out to be a test of our systems – and the answers we find to these questions will determine the world we’ll know tomorrow. Let us hope we find good ones.
Please note that the views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of Munich European Forum e.V.