COVID-19: nationalist authoritarianism or global citizen empowerment

By Mike Phipps

There are now two billion people across the world – a quarter of the population – living under some form of lockdown as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Behind this astonishing statistic, responses to the virus vary significantly.

On one hand, the USA, which, in the hope of maintaining ‘business as usual’, tried to minimise the impact of COVID-19, now seems to be suffering the worst of both worlds. Much of its economic life is suspended, but no real progress has been made in containing or eradicating the virus. This is the negative proof that the choice between lives and livelihoods – humanity versus the global economy – is indeed a false dichotomy.

Poorer countries will be hit hardest. Malawi, for example, has just 15 ICU beds. Their crisis is compounded by the fact that it is often Europeans, with the privilege of unfettered freedom of movement, who have brought the pandemic to these countries. Nigeria’s first case was an Italian citizen working there who had flown in in February; the Republic of Congo’s was a dual French and Congo citizen who had returned from Paris. Kenya’s was an American woman who had travelled through London.

Nigerian writer Chidera Ihejirika noted: ”While there are marginalised people in every country, the reality is that right now, the privilege to move around has the power to harm and possibly kill others. This is especially relevant in regions where people do not have the privilege of practising social distancing, self-isolating, accessing quality healthcare or safely leaving, should they need to escape.”

Self-isolation and lockdown in much of the world are very different to the western experience – in conditions of intermittent electricity, food more likely to go off, insufficient space to practise social distancing and no welfare to fall back on. Most people cannot afford not to work – if that’s true in the west, it’s even truer in the Global South. One policy analyst observed: “The order to wash our hands must have triggered reactions of disbelief amongst the millions of people living in the shantytowns, shacks, favelas and the outskirts of cities like Johannesburg, Nairobi, Mexico DF or São Paulo…  In some places, such as South Africa, access to drinking water is privatized. It is estimated that 1 billion people make up these ranks of the urban poor surrounding big cities, 80% of which are located in Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa.” Add to this the drastic slashing of western development aid to poorer countries that will inevitably occur as richer states prioritise their own needs.

In many countries, lockdown and curfew are the stock responses. On their own, such measures will achieve little. Ecuador’s nightly curfew is unlikely to contain the disease if at the same time, dead bodies are left lying in the streets.

China of course took draconian steps to contain the outbreak, despite losing valuable weeks by officially denying its existence. But this was part of a multi-faceted strategy, including testing and tracing,  to contain the outbreak. Life is now beginning to return to normal in Wuhan.

Other countries, even less developed ones, have emulated China’s approach. In a recent article, Medea Benjamin and Nicolas J.S. Davies cite the case of Vietnam, which “has doctors, nurses and other health workers in every community. Anyone arriving in Vietnam is checked for a fever and quarantined if they have one. Even those who don’t are under a strict stay-at-home order for 14 days. This is so strict that their names are published in local newspapers and the public are asked to tell the local health authorities if they see them outside… If there is a suspected COVID-19 case in a building, the whole building is quarantined for two weeks, but quarantine Vietnam-style includes three meals a day, delivered for a small charge. All large buildings have whole-body sanitizing stations, not just hand sanitizer, at every entrance. Vietnam is using empty hotels as quarantine sites, with house-calls from a doctor as part of the service.”

Smaller, richer states can do more. Iceland has tested a larger percentage of its citizens than any other country and the results have been instructive: about half of all COVID-19 carriers show no symptoms at all. So testing only those with symptoms, as in the UK and elsewhere, is of limited use in containing the virus. Mass testing, as the World Health Organization has insisted, is vital for contact tracing, the key to containment and eradication.

The difference in measures taken from state to state can have a dramatic impact on citizens, but the global economy is unlikely to recover until the world as a whole gets over the pandemic. In wealthier countries, governments had a particular responsibility to show leadership, having the means to afford the necessary precautionary resources. They are now locking down their citizens, because the virus is out of control, largely due to their failure to act earlier.

“Could the lockdowns have been avoided?” asks Marxist economist Michael Roberts.  “The evidence is increasingly clear that they could have been.  When COVID-19 appeared on the scene, governments and health systems should have been ready.  It is not as if they had not been warned by epidemiologists for years. .. In early 2018, during a meeting at the World Health Organization in Geneva, a group of experts… predicted that the next pandemic would be caused by an unknown, novel pathogen that hadn’t yet entered the human population… More recently, last September the UN published a report warning that there is a ‘very real threat’ of a pandemic sweeping the planet… Governments ignored the warnings because they took the calculated view that the risk was not great and therefore spending on pandemics prevention and containment was not worth it.”

The conclusion is clear: governments took a conscious choice not to be prepared, not to be able to conduct mass testing, not to have sufficient protective equipment, not to have enough resources in health and social care. Had they done these things, they would not have just saved lives: it would have been possible for everyone testing negative to carry on working as normal and the economic damage would have been greatly reduced.

Instead, lockdowns. But even these vary significantly in scope and effect. The US has been particularly badly hit. This is due not just to the lack of national political leadership or the absence of public healthcare. The impact is connected to the wider health of the body politic. “Over past years American democracy has experienced significant decay,” noted one commentator, ”while citizen satisfaction with democracy, as well as trust in each other and political institutions, has declined immensely. The responses of the US government to the crisis clearly reflect these features.”

Governments elsewhere, with track records of decades of international cooperation, have responded by closing borders and imposing national solutions, even though it is patently obvious that in terms of both health and the economy, full recovery can be worked for only at an international level.

While Cuba, as ever a model of internationalism on health matters, sent 50 doctors to help Italy, a country especially hard hit by the crisis, the EU did nothing. Observed one analyst: “The president of the European Council does not even have a team of ten physicians to send to Italy or Spain. On the other hand, the EU spends €420 million on Frontex, its over-equipped border police.”

Spain and Italy, both severely hit, are struggling to respond adequately to the virus, given the fragile and indebted state of their economies. But the prospect of the EU coming to their rescue remians faint. Proposals to help the poorer member states of southern Europe financially to fight the epidemic, by issuing ‘corona bonds’ have been rejected by the richer northern states, in particular Germany and the Netherlands. Instead, the European Stability Mechanism will probably be used, as it was after the global crash twelve years ago, conditional upon the usual austerity measures that are imposed on countries that seek to borrow money.

If EU member states cannot find a common interest, what hope is there for the rest of the world? Yet, there really is no alternative. In a long, thoughtful article in the Financial Times, Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari argued that the current pandemic offers us two essential choices, between totalitarian surveillance and citizen empowerment, on the on hand, and between nationalist isolation and global solidarity on the other.

To stop the pandemic, entire populations need to comply with certain guidelines. One way of achieving this is for governments to monitor people, punishing those who break the rules. New surveillance techniques make this more effective, as the case of China illustrates. “By closely monitoring people’s smartphones,” he writes, “ making use of hundreds of millions of face-recognising cameras, and obliging people to check and report their body temperature and medical condition, the Chinese authorities can not only quickly identify suspected coronavirus carriers, but also track their movements and identify anyone they came into contact with.”

But these techniques are being developed elsewhere. Israeli prime minister Netanyahu recently authorised “surveillance technology normally reserved for battling terrorists to track coronavirus patients. When the relevant parliamentary subcommittee refused to authorise the measure, Netanyahu rammed it through with an ‘emergency decree’.”

The dangers involved in this kind of mass surveillance technology being normalised are obvious, not just in terms of the loss of privacy, but also in the harvesting of information, which governments could manipulate in a way that would make Cambridge Analytica’s data-hacking activities look very amateur.

In reality, asking people to choose between privacy and health is a false choice.  Empowering citizens is more effective than installing totalitarian regimes to fight the epidemic. If people have access to the relevant scientific information, they can modify their behaviour even without the state policing it. “A self-motivated and well-informed population is usually far more powerful and effective than a policed, ignorant population.”

But for this to work, trust is needed: people need to trust science, public authorities, and the media. Trust in all these things has been undermined in recent years by irresponsible politicians and it is not accidental, as noted earlier, that where trust is most lacking, for example the USA, the virus is being fought much less effectively. It’s unsurprising that many Americans have responded to the current emergency by a big increase in the purchase of firearms.

“The coronavirus epidemic is thus a major test of citizenship,” argues Harari. “In the days ahead, each one of us should choose to trust scientific data and healthcare experts over unfounded conspiracy theories and self-serving politicians. If we fail to make the right choice, we might find ourselves signing away our most precious freedoms, thinking that this is the only way to safeguard our health.”

Hungary springs to mind, where prime minister Viktor Orbán is now empowered to rule by decree – not just for the duration of the epidemic, but indefinitely. Elections are suspended, any perceived obstruction of official efforts to deal with the crisis has been criminalised, and anyone spreading false information about the pandemic will face up to five years in jail. The authoritarian power-grab is coupled with a ratcheting up of anti-migrant rhetoric, with foreigners blamed for the outbreak.

The second important choice we face is between nationalist isolation and global solidarity. Both the pandemic and the resulting economic crisis are global problems that can be solved effectively only by international co-operation – information-sharing, globally producing and distributing medical equipment on a fair basis. This would be in stark contrast to current reports of pre-ordered equipment being diverted to the US in what some media termed an act of “piracy”, or the US offer of $1bn to a German pharmaceutical company to buy monopoly rights to a new COVID-19 vaccine.

It also means an end to wars. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres recently proposed a ceasefire in the thirty-odd armed conflicts that are ongoing around the globe.  Reports of Israeli forces demolishing an emergency coronavirus centre in a Palestinian village generated justifiable outrage. But equally obscene are the low-intensity conflicts, such as the sanctions regime imposed by the US on Iran, which denies it vital medical equipment necessary to fighting the pandemic.

Guterres’ call may be less fanciful than many imagine. In response to COVD-19, the New People’s Army in the Philippines announced it was observing a ceasefire in its decades-long conflict with the state that has seen 43,000 fatalities. In Cameroon, a separatist militia also declared a coronavirus ceasefire, combatants in Libya agreed on a “humanitarian pause” and Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces announced it would “avoid engaging in military action”. These moves have been replicated by armed groups in Yemen, Ukraine, Colombia and elsewhere.

A pause to hostility is one thing, but many regimes will be reluctant to go down the road of international solidarity. There is nonetheless evidence that humanity may be ahead of them. Alongside the selflessness of countless health and other emergency workers, it is heartening to read of the General Electric factory workers at the company’s Massachusetts aviation facility who organised a protest to demand the company use its plants to produce ventilators for use in the fight against coronavirus. It is actions like these and the other positives that can be harnessed from this pandemic that should help inform our approach to other international crises, such as the climate emergency, once the current crisis has passed.