par Gerry Rodgers
In addition to its immediate and devastating impact on individuals and families, the Covid-19 pandemic has many other consequences. One important and dangerous one is to reinforce the resurgence of nationalism. Europeans are used to the idea that national borders are of decreasing importance in our lives, and we think that this is both desirable and normal. But for the majority of the world, borders are walls and barbed wire fences, obstacles that are designed to protect on one side and exclude on the other. We are lucky to be able to live in a more open world and take a wider view, to see how many problems and goals are common across countries and need common solutions. That is vitally true of the Covid-19 epidemic, but the immediate reaction has been a retreat to the nationalist perception and the national solution. Borders have suddenly hardened, with no obvious logic when the virus is present on both sides of the border. Supplies of masks and gels and ventilators are discussed as a competition between countries, so there is the absurdity of American and French contractors (governments?) bidding up the prices of masks in Chinese airports, or attempts by influential countries to control the flow of medicines or research into vaccines, so as to serve their own citizens first. WHO has tried to maintain the argument for a global strategy, but after years of denigration by leaders of countries who cannot see beyond their domestic political interests, the UN system as a whole is much weaker than is needed. And the international financial system has lost credibility as the adverse effects of neoliberal globalization became apparent – in which capital and goods could move freely across borders, and viruses too, but not the majority of people.
The nationalist agenda is tied to power, and built on lies. In country after country, leaders proclaim how their countries are ahead of the curve in the control of the pandemic, even when the claim is demonstrably false, as in the US and the UK, for example. George Orwell understood how important it is for authoritarian states to control history, so that past mistakes are redefined as successes, and today’s slogans and rules are presented as eternal, even if they were changed yesterday.
It is part of the nationalist agenda that we are better than them, and that justifies keeping them out, and serving us first. National aggrandisement comes before the safety of humanity. But it also serves the goal of power. In times of stress and crisis, for reasons which must surely be rooted in mass psychology, leaders become the carriers of the hope of the population, regardless of their plausibility or capability. It is always helpful for politicians to have an enemy, and the Covid 19 virus is a convenient enemy for those whose ultimate goal is power and control.
We need to escape from rabid nationalism. The pandemic should not be allowed to prevent that.