by Brecht Jonkers (Special Reports, Crescent International Vol. 49, No. 4, Shawwal, 1441)
The destructive influence of the Covid-19 strand of coronavirus on the health of global population needs no explanation. Worldwide, the pandemic has infected more than 5.5 million people at the time of submitting this article (MAY 25) and has resulted in the death of nearly 350,000 people.
More indirectly, but no less nefarious for the people involved, are the socioeconomic results stemming from the rapid advance of the virus and the often harsh and far-reaching consequences that governments have had to take in order to stem the tide. In the United States alone, by May 14 the total number of unemployed had reached 36 million Americans, of whom many millions have little or no chance of receiving substantial government aid. The Guardian newspaper reported that 40% of low-income households suffered job losses, leading to severe hardship.
The pandemic may prove to be a major turning point in our lives, indeed in recent history. Already, attitudes towards fundamental issues such as role of the state in society, government intervention, public and private healthcare, and the dichotomy between individualism and collective responsibility are reportedly changing, especially in the West. French President Emmanuel Macron, originally viewed by many as a centrist status-quo politician, has had to concede that “The day after when we have won, it will not be a return to the day before.” Although a healthy dose of scepticism towards such promises remains necessary, “Le Jour d’Après” (The Day After), is already being prepared by several French politicians, with matters such as extensive healthcare reform on the agenda.
In Germany, often considered the leading power in the European Union, leading social-democratic politician and former Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel expressed a deeply-rooted frustration with the United States and the traditional US-European axis. “The silence surrounding the pandemic between the two sides, shows that one can hardly speak of a transatlantic community,” Gabriel wrote in an opinion piece. When the very fabric of Atlanticism is being stirred, even if it is in favour of a “reinvention of Europe” as politicians such as Gabriel propose, it is a clear sign that things are changing rapidly.
The changing winds are not lost on the proponents of the status-quo themselves either. The Egmont Institute, a Brussels-based think tank dedicated to the defence of liberal and Western policies, ran a heavy-worded article as early as March, filled with anti-Chinese rhetoric that wouldn’t have been misplaced in the Cold War era. The accusations of China “instrumentalising the virus” and the claim that China “attempted to hide the outbreak” despite Beijing warning the WHO as far back as December 2019, showcase a restlessness and unease that can be considered highly unusual for Western political agitators.
Even more importantly, the coronavirus has undermined one of the fundamental pillars of the European project: the dogma of the “balanced budget”. After decades of pressure on member states to reduce national debt, enact strict austerity measures and let the free market roam around, the European Union has been forced to encourage necessary spending for the sake of its very survival. In a dramatic break from orthodoxy, the EU has formally suspended its budget rules, allowing member states to practice deficit spending.
The crisis also painfully displayed the disunity that threatens to tear Europe apart entirely. The north-south divide, which has plagued the EU ever since the 2008 economic crisis, was revealed even more clearly when the wealthier Northern European states effectively attempted to block much-needed aid to heavily-affected countries such as Italy, Spain and Portugal. This near complete lack of solidarity and united European effort has drawn criticism even from some of the most dedicated supporters of the EU project. The rapid arrival of Russian and Chinese aid to Southern Europe has further fed already rising resentment towards the eurocratic elite in Italy and Spain in particular.
Moving away from Europe, the corona crisis is causing a fundamental shift in the global power balance. In an influential essay published by Spanish newspaper El Pais, South Korean philosopher Byung-Chul Han argued that “Asian states like Japan, Korea, China, Hong Kong, Taiwan or Singapore, that have an authoritarian mentality which comes from their cultural tradition” have weathered the crisis far better than the “democratic” nations of the West. “China will display the superiority of its system even more proudly,” Han concluded.
Indeed, long lockdowns in the “democratic” West, and the often repressive enforcement measures thereof, are contrasting more and more with the systematic testing and tracing policy of nations in Asia. While the individualistic approach of the West, for example, will see so-called contact tracers “work with patients to help them recall everyone with whom they have had close contact”, a country like Malaysia demands citizens to note down their personal information and phone number in nearly every single store or business they enter, for centralised registration purposes. It may seem but a minor difference, but it is a testimony to a fundamentally different underlying idea.
This fundamental change in approach is perhaps best witnessed in Vietnam, a country that despite having its first case of Covid-19 as far back as January 23, still succeeded in not suffering a single coronavirus death. The key: strict, drastic and even draconian measures for the protection of the common interest. Though predictably condemned by the “free world” at the time, Hanoi’s policy of travel restrictions, contact tracing, far-reaching health checks, mass testing and emphasizing collective responsibility resulted in one of the world’s best statistics in terms of combating the pandemic.
It remains to be seen how the worldwide mentality could be altered in the aftermath of this pandemic. The question also remains whether or not any change in mindset, especially in the West, will have a lasting effect on international politics. The feeling of Western supremacism and European or American exceptionalism is particularly strong, and rooted in centuries of hegemony and convictions of superiority over the rest of the world. It may prove hard to shake off this feeling of entitlement completely and face the new reality of the world. The hawkish and warmongering stance of the Trump regime towards China is perhaps the best example, symbolised by growing anti-Chinese hostility among the US population. The age-old strategy of finding a scapegoat will always be easier than facing the uncomfortable truths of one’s own failure as a country.
Regardless of the mindset that the Western public opinion settles on eventually, it does seem that Harvard international relations expert Stephen Walt probably summarised it well when he wrote: “Coronavirus will accelerate the shift of power and influence from west to east (...) The governments’ response in Europe and the US has been very sceptical, and likely to weaken the power of the western brand.”
It is perhaps even more telling that soon afterwards, the professor followed up on this analysis with an article titled “How the United States can still win the Coronavirus Pandemic”.