The 2008 financial crisis left the global order brittle and vulnerable. The Covid-19 pandemic threatens to shatter it altogether.
It is the second time in 12 years a world-splintering shock has ensued. The first time could be treated as an anomaly. But the second time raises alarm bells and could have far-reaching consequences.
Or so observers are claiming. But a crisis does not necessarily have to be a monumental turning point.
The intricate dynamics within the system were already shifting and threatening a new arrangement. Now, coronavirus has the potential to accelerate those changes expeditiously.
As the last decade culminated, the world witnessed an unforgiving nationalist surge where nativist leaders monopolised the international environment. From Jair Bolsanaro in Brazil, to Viktor Orban in Hungary, Narendra Modi in India and Donald Trump in the United States. Their ascendancy suggests their politics has a substantial number of subscribers.
They emphasise the importance of the nation-state, dismiss the importance of global goals and their modus operandi is often populist. This typically includes ‘othering’ groups and depicting them as threats to the fabric of their respective societies, ergo making them the victims of their pernicious rhetoric. Be it Jews in Hungary, Mexican migrants in the US or Muslims in India.
That the spread of the virus started in China, and spread rapidly because of the interconnected nature of the hyper globalised world where borders are open and the movement of people and services from country to country has never been easier, is likely to provide chauvinistic leaders with political ammunition.
Indeed, it will perhaps only fortify their assertions that the biggest threats nations face today are foreign and prompted by the unrestrained immigration and stern focus on internationalism that the neo-liberal order advocates.
Thus, the calls for greater protectionism and immigration controls that were already compelling prior to the pandemic could intensify. Ostensibly, it is unlikely there will be a return to the mutually beneficial global trade that defined the last decade. It is hard to imagine countries will return to a reliance on external sources for their vital supplies, and a shift to localised production and economic self-isolation may be on the cards.
In fact, the virus outbreak could provide an opportune moment for the aggressive nationalists who have long discounted international cooperation and multilateral institutions to dismantle them conclusively.
The European Union:
Top on that list could be the EU.
In the continent, Euroscepticism has been rampant for several years now. The turbulent and unpredictable nature of the Brexit process may have temporarily stifled those countries hoping to follow Britain’s path and exit the alliance.
However, the health emergency has the potential to unleash such ambitions, but with a deeper vengeance. Research shows that the vote share for Eurosceptic parties across the last two decades has more than doubled.
The response of the bloc as a whole and the individual nations to Covid-19 has not aided the cause. Every time a crisis erupts which threatens the continent, the cohesion, cooperation and the solidarity the bloc stands for, is challenged.
In 2015, the continent was faced with its biggest refugee crisis for 70 years. But it came unstuck. Thousands of refugees were blocked from passing through several crossings in Europe and countries closed their national borders on one another. Those chaotic confrontations and border disputes impugned the true unity of the continent. The backlash was consequential too, as a remorseless wave of Eurosceptic nationalism was born.
Five years on and the plight is no different. European countries were some of the hardest hit by coronavirus. Especially Spain and Italy who were at the epicentre of the pandemic. But when they looked to their partners for assistance and collaboration, they were disappointed.
It seemed as though as the shadow of 2015 was lingering. Particularly when in late February Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan declared he would no longer stop asylum seekers from trying to cross into the EU. This consumed the European Commission’s undivided attention. Fears of a renewed migration crisis overshadowed the pandemic, even as the virus was devastating Italian lives and overwhelming their hospitals. When Rome activated the EU’s ‘civil protection mechanism’ to request face masks and other protective equipment, it was an admission that it was in trouble. But the silence it received from the rest of the 26 EU countries was deafening. It highlighted just how woefully underprepared for a crisis the EU was and signalled the degree of the disjunction that was to follow.
In fact, when Italy became the worst-hit country after China, the support it received came from countries outside the EU. China was the first country to act, as it offered to sell Italy 1,000 lung ventilators, 2million masks, 20,000 protective suits and 50,000 swabs for coronavirus tests.
Then Russian President Vladimir Putin quickly displayed his diplomatic charm as he flew over Russian aid into Italy. The Russian supplies were dispatched bearing a sticker with a heart and the words ‘from Russia with love’.
Not only did Putin send over protective masks, coasts, ventilators, swabs and testing equipment, but doctors and disinfection teams were also on board, according to the Italian Foreign Ministry.
The EU left the door open, and there was nothing surprising about the Machiavellian manner in which Jinping and Putin entered. Irrespective of whether their motives were political, and whilst the coverage their propaganda machines disseminated suggests their moves did produce weighty political capital, it nonetheless still illustrates the extent to which the EU fumbled the issue.
To compound matters, whilst non-EU countries were proactive, EU countries like France and Germany were initially imposing limits on the export of protective medical equipment.
Then the initial lethargy was eventually addressed and leaders convened on Thursday 26th of March via socially distant video conference, and on the agenda was a simple proposal co-signed by nine different eurozone governments. Titled the ‘coronabond’, it was a new type of public debt instrument backed by all the members of the currency union as it seemed they finally came together to combat the virus.
‘We are collectively accountable for an effective and united European response’, read the proposal. But there was no coordination and certainly no unanimity. A six-hour summit only engendered more confusion and showcased the bloc’s inability to coalesce at the vital times. Whilst France, Spain and seven other Eurozone countries endorsed the scheme, Germany, Austria and Netherlands robustly dismissed the idea of shared debt.
Indications are that concerted responsibility and altruism are EU values only in theory. It does not reflect well that individual financial considerations were being prioritised over collective alarming health concerns. In fact, it reinforces the notion that the 27 EU countries always place their governments, electorates and national interests first.
It is however erroneous to suggest the EU just stood by the entire time. The European Commission recently announced a funding plan worth €100 billion to help member states subsidize workers’ wages. Then on the 10th of April, the EU finance ministers struck a deal which allows the European Investment Bank to set up a fund to back as much as €200 billion of loans to cash-strapped companies across the bloc, as long as the money is used for health-care costs.
But the union’s legitimacy may have already been demolished, and it may prove too little too late.
Therefore, it is of little surprise that Serbia’s President dismissed European solidarity as a ‘fairy-tale’.
Likewise, Italy’s Matteo Salvini declared ‘This is a den of snakes and jackals. First, we defeat the virus, then remember Europe. And, if necessary, we say goodbye.’ That is nothing new from the right wing minister, but when footage emerges of Italians burning the EU flag, it indicates his statement is not so much the usual divisive soundbite, but conceivably representative of the growing sentiments in the country. And he will not need an invitation to play on those.
Nor will he be alone. As thousands of Europeans witness their families and close ones fall victim to the coronavirus, they will remember how there was no United State of Europe. Feelings of betrayal will heighten, and when Eurosceptic leaders use rule number one from their populist playbook and capitalise on disgruntled and estranged feelings, it could prove fatal for the EU.
The EU is supposed to be an aspect of the rules-based international system which imposes limits and regulates the behaviour of states. If the pandemic debilitates the union, it could whet the appetite of leaders hoping to exploit the terrain to usher in new measures. Surveillance is a prime example.
Several countries have turned to more sophisticated technologies to tackle the outbreak. China was one of the first as it utilised its arsenal of surveillance tools. This ranged from deploying hundreds of thousands of neighbourhood monitors to log the movements and temperatures of individuals, to the mass surveillance of mobile phone, rail, and flight data to track down people who had travelled to affected regions.
Israel had similar measures. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave the green light to the Israel Security Agency to deploy surveillance technology normally reserved for battling terrorists to track coronavirus patients.
Some democracies also followed suit. South Korea harnessed closed-circuit television (CCTV) and credit card data to track the movements of individuals, while Taiwan integrated health and other databases so all Taiwanese hospitals, clinics, and pharmacies could access the travel information of their patients.
As temporary measures to tackle a global health crisis, such innovations should be welcomed. In fact, in countries where such procedures are present, the outbreak has been contained relatively well. However, the problems emerge when those emergency measures outlast the emergency.
Citizens are currently willing to trade their privacy for the sake of their health. But that temporary choice could become a permanent one. Governments could easily maintain the steps currently adopted using the justification that they will persist in order to restrict the possibility of another similar crisis.
For example, measuring body temperature is one of the fundamental ways of determining if someone has succumbed to the virus. So, a hypothetical government could easily demand that every citizen wears a biometric bracelet that monitors body temperature and heart-rate 24 hours a day. The acquiring of such data would be indispensable, especially for public health workers when it comes to assessing patients.
But the resulting data would be stored in government algorithms and could be used for their political advantages. Suddenly, the government would have access to not just body temperature, blood pressure and heart rates, but also the emotions and what triggers jubilation or outrage among its citizens.
For leaders with sardonic intentions, no moral ceiling and a yearning to rule with an iron first, they will know exactly who their most ardent supporters are and who the dissenters are.
Hence, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Access Now, Privacy International and 103 other organisations issued a joint statement urging governments to show leadership in tackling the pandemic, but whilst respecting human rights when turning to digital technologies to monitor people.
But it is precisely these types of international bodies and their global governance which could be curtailed by the end of the pandemic, thereupon potentially providing inward-looking authoritarian nationalists with suitable surroundings to profit and enforce improper practises.
The post-coronavirus global structure does not have to be an unfavourable one. But the era of unrestrained nationalism and the demise of the EU and wider international institutions was well under way, and simultaneously digital technologies were developing at breakneck speed already. The political climate this health emergency stimulates could hasten such developments.
Instead of disturbances, they could become the new normal.