By Vesna Pusic
The global health crisis of COVID-19 has shocked the world and left us all in need of rethinking international relations, multilateral organizations, organized healthcare, poverty, political sovereignty and many other aspects of human condition in general. However, this crisis did not hit a previously healthy, prosperous and comprehensible world. Had this been the case, we might have been more ready, more united and less leaderless in confronting it. Instead, this crisis comes at the tail end of a series of four major shocks that have hit the world in little over a decade. They have all been great disrupters: increasing inequality, marginalizing accountability, ridiculing and punishing solidarity and upending the value systems different peoples and societies were used to – if not exactly living by them, at least measuring their lives against them. What all these crises have in common is the prominent global resurrection of two instruments of mass mobilization: fear and hate.
The first was the financial crisis of 2008. It produced bailout for the banks and austerity for the middle class and the poor. Not only did it not touch the issue of inequality. It did not even address the issue of poverty. Even if you could argue that people were still better off than the previous generations, their personal experience was that their own lives were not improving, but stagnating or deteriorating. In Europe it produced insecurity and fear and right after that everybody started hating Greece. The countries of Southern Europe were even tagged with the derogatory acronym PIGS (Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain). So the ones who suffered the most in the crisis were blamed for the global misfortune.
Second was the refugee and migration crisis of 2015. It was the result of wars in Iraq and Syria and a major “misunderstanding” between Europe and Turkey. It produced fear, closely followed by hate of refugees and migrants. Populist leaders were quick to recognize the opportunity it presented for publicly legitimizing extreme nationalism, racism and bigotry. It was not difficult to persuade local populations to give up a little freedom in exchange for protection from the “hordes of Muslims” at their borders. This crisis also reflected itself in countries that had nothing to do with the European – Middle Eastern refugee crisis, countries on other continents and in completely different parts of the world.
Third was the populism crisis of 2016. Although Europe and the world had their populists before 2016 and some of them in power, the real crisis only took hold with the election of Donald Trump as the US President. The entire value system was turned upside down. Alternative facts, i.e. not speaking the truth, i.e. lying became acceptable. It became the new normal. Targeting minorities gained legitimacy. Hate became a standard tool of politics. An important focus of hate and hate-speech became “the elite.” A closer look could tell us from the very start that it was not the money elite, or the power elite, or the military elite, or the celebrity elite. It was all along only the knowledge or the competence elite. Competence or the understanding that to do any job well, there is a certain amount of knowledge that you need, is the true enemy of populism. So on top of hating minorities, the populism crisis mobilized hate of competence. Wrapped in the language of anti-elitism, populists gained support from the very people who would suffer the most from their policies.
Fourth is the COVID-19 pandemic crisis. This crisis provoked global fear and high levels of uncertainty. In the old, uneasy equilibrium between freedom and security, the scales were suddenly heavily tipped in favor of security. But both societies and institutions were already conditioned by the three previous crises. The values and standards of freedom and liberal democracy have been under attack and revision for over a decade. So the “Corona Dictators” had a relatively easy job. However, in their transformation from “Illiberal Democrats” to “Corona Dictators” they had to act fast. At the beginning they tried to find somebody to hate, calling it the “China virus,” encouraging people to inform on each other in times of quarantine, blaming Italians, blaming the EU. But the pandemic is spreading too fast and nobody is spared. Competence becomes all-important again. People want leaders who can lead, crisis managers who can manage crisis, doctors who can cure and manage a pandemic, scientists who can find a vaccine, journalists who can inform. All of a sudden truth and competence became vital for survival. Again, hate as a political tool for avoiding responsibility was very close below the surface: blaming and hating other countries, political and social groups, science and scientists… Also, creating an atmosphere in which now the citizens can hate each other: the ones who go out, the ones who wear masks, the ones who don’t wear masks, the ones whobuy too many toilet paper rolls, the ones who “usurp” ventilators.
Conspiracy theories, denial, contradictory responses, confusion, the blame game and political exploitation of the crisis abound. But simultaneously, unlike the previous three cases, this crisis has also potentially opened the doors to a reversal of three major global trends that until recently seemed like unavoidable curse of global politics.
It confronted the omnipresent trend of dismissing knowledge, science and competence. In spite of rampant conspiracy theories, a vast majority of people wanted to hear information from scientists and doctors they could trust, who based their advice on knowledge and facts. All of a sudden, scientists became popular public figures and the hope that scientific research will result in a vaccine debased the previously increasingly arrogant and aggressive anti-vaxxers. The fact that cities and whole nations took to applauding their health workers every evening, demonstrated that the COVID-19 crisis awakened most people to the importance of competence, the vital role played by the knowledge elite.
Although it is primarily associated with the US, “my country first” became a slogan and an attitude that many leaders, political parties, religious groups and social movements adopted as their own. It succinctly expressed the sentiment that they tried to promote for years. And that sentiment is not patriotism – the fact that most people love their country, even when they dislike its government. This sentiment has nothing to do with love. It is a sort of competitive isolationism. The message is: we can go it alone, we don’t need anybody else and we don’t care about anybody else, we have one set of criteria for ourselves and another for everybody else. In a strange way it combines an inferiority complex and a superiority complex all wrapped in one. International organizations become superfluous, multilateral agreements irrelevant, international cooperation one-sided and international law is dismantled. COVID-19 has made that attitude tragically laughable. A pandemic knows no borders, no nations, no border patrols and no walls. And to successfully confront it, scientists, governments and societies need to work together. The China-Africa COVID-19 Summit, held virtually this past June, is a good case in point: understanding your own economic interests means understanding you need a functioning, healthy business and trading partner. These types of concerns can be successfully addressed only as joint concerns. The COVID-19 experience has not silenced the “Me first” voices, but it has demonstrated to billions of people how irrelevant and personally dangerous they are.
Finally, COVID-19 has shown that the world cannot successfully confront a major crisis without returning at least a small, basic level of trust and accountability in international relations. No matter how cynical or self centered you are, this experience has shown that you will not become a global leader, or even a regional leader if you cannot be trusted. Even locally, truthfulness, trust, and accountability have been laughed at and dismissed for some time now. But in a time of global crisis the world is incapable of functioning without it. It is not a matter of sentimentality or self righteousness. It becomes a matter of efficiency. And whichever potential global power grasps this first and manages to navigate with it, will have the upper hand.
Professor Dr. Vesna Pusić, MP, is the former Minister of Foreign and European Affairs and First Deputy Prime Minister of Croatia and an Associate Member of the InterAction Council.