Coronavirus is opening dangerous political windows
The handling of the Covid-19 pandemic by many countries has been lacklustre. The UK government’s incompetence and posturing lost us EU ventilators and its lockdown measures have been half-heaRted and opaque. We have an unelected official in Downing Street with an inordinate share of decision-making power. Prime minister Johnson’s covert operative Cummings is not a fit feature of democratic politics – his strategic flipflopping has cost British lives. He should face the electorate or fall back.
Nevertheless, we have a leader that appreciates the magnitude of the problem. The outright denial of the likes of Bolsonaro, López Obrador, and Trump has cost countless of their own countries’ lives, not to mention the US president’s sanctions programme that will prevent Iran from being able to afford medical resources and financial remedies. It is true that the domestic political situation in Iran is poor, with internal political strife and a lack of accountability, but Trump’s actions are exacerbating desperate conditions. Trump also contributed to that domestic situation with recent aggression in the region.
Even president Bush temporarily lifted sanctions from Iran in 2003 in the midst of a catastrophic earthquake so that a humanitarian project could take place there. This is not the time to pursue regime change or disruption (if there ever is one). There has to be a distinction made between the regime and its people. With death toll estimates soaring to figures like 3.5 million due to Tehran’s limited capacity, Trump could end up with the lives of millions of innocent Iranians on his hands.
Many have looked for opportunities in this crisis. China is positioning itself to come out of this with a markedly stronger standing in world politics. Italy, Spain, France, Greece and many other European nations will long remember how China – not the European Union – sent them testing kits (although some were faulty and await replacement), millions of masks, and personnel in this dire time. China has undermined the EU in Europe and supposedly shown an aptitude for global governance. We have to think about whether we can accept a world dominated by a state that shows such blatant disregard for the basic human rights of freedom, truth, and equality. China’s moves to save lives around the world are welcome but sad given its simultaneous moves to harm its own people, forcing Uyghurs into even worse labour and residential conditions than before and harming whistle-blowers.
The EU now has an overt dictator in its midst. Prime minister Orbán’s “illiberal” inclinations were common knowledge, but his recent acquisition of indefinite emergency powers has compromised Hungarian checks and balances, separation of powers, and civil liberties. Parliament is closed, elections are cancelled – removing from sight even the facade of a turnover of power – and existing laws are now open to suspension as the prime minister rules by decree. There is widespread concern that these extraordinary political circumstances will solidify and form the post-pandemic status quo. With a supermajority in parliament, support from the president and ruling party of Poland who will continue to veto any of the EU’s punitive measures, and fellow illiberal, anti-immigrant leaders on the world scene, including president Trump, the Hungarian situation is one to watch. The EU has taken high-profile blows to legitimacy in the last five years alone. Very soon we will be talking with greater confidence about the nail in the EU’s coffin.
Exclusionary sentiment based on ethnic or religious difference is being fueled around the world. Racism towards Chinese people has risen sharply. Trump refers to the “Chinese virus”, in an attempt to position himself as a wartime president against a foreign enemy.
Prime minister Modi of India will conceivably use the crisis to discriminate further against his country’s largest minority. Representatives of his party, the BJP, referred to Muslims and their supporters as “rapists and murderers” that ought to be shot, days before 36 Muslims were brutally murdered in the recent Delhi Riots. In 1975 prime minister Gandhi declared a state of emergency, during which the political elite censored the press, imprisoned opponents, suspended elections, and carried out a mass-sterilisation campaign of the population. What Modi would do in a state of emergency, with one of the strongest majorities in Indian electoral history and amidst such an atmosphere of Hindu majoritarianism, is cause for concern.
International coordination in response to this pandemic has been lacking, resulting in part from the dearth of global leadership as Trump’s America has withdrawn from its hegemonic role. The ensuing power vacuum may speed up the long-heralded arrival of the new, Chinese world leader. In dealing with this pandemic, a more cooperative international attitude with greater transfer of information and expertise will be needed – Europe should have done more for Italy, Serbia and the rest of its cohort, but it will have opportunities to prioritise unity going forward.
We must be vigilant as we shape our world coming out of this crisis. There are countries that have shown solidarity and organisation, but the overall picture is bleak, without even having touched on the austerity of the coming years and the halted climate change agenda. The events unfolding will give some world leaders just the excuse they were looking for to selectively curtail welfare. This will then provide the precedent for continuing malpractice after the pandemic has been subdued and overcome. How will Putin’s Russia, Orbán’s Hungary and other precarious nations develop given current constitutional manoeuvres? How will Muslims fare in India and minorities in other countries? When will the stigma be lifted from Chinese people all over the world? These issues will not be resolved any time soon nor without serious further costs. This is what the world will take from the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic beyond the virus.
Image credit: US Federal Government – Public Domain