Could COVID-19 Be A Political Reset For Society?

The coronavirus pandemic has shaken up the status-quo of policy-making around the world. Certain countries, including the UK, are witnessing a monumental paradigm shift in which heavy state intervention has become the new norm. It has become clear that for the state to not do so would have dreadful consequences both for human health and for the survival of the economy. State health care systems, despite finding themselves barely hanging on in the face of a constant bombardment of new patients, have demonstrated themselves to be vital elements of any desirable society. Moreover, governments providing vast economic welfare and security packages has become commonplace, with the Conservatives taking a drastic U-turn on their ordinarily discriminatory policy-making to set aside a large sum aimed at helping those affected by economic precarity. This move, amongst several others, led one bewildered minister to state: “we’ve just nationalised the economy”. His confusion is understandable: the state taking on such a crucial governing role over society is unprecedented in the recent history of western liberal democracies.

Meanwhile, right-wing populists and free-market junkies around the world have taken a rather different approach. In a desperate attempt to safeguard economic growth and close ties with big business whilst simultaneously upholding their strongman image, leaders such as Trump and Bolsonaro have opted to play down the severity of the pandemic. Unsurprisingly, Trump has responded in a typically immature fashion to the crisis: on top of an absence of proper state-wide measures, he also ignored expert advice and continued to shake hands at meetings. A personal favourite was his brazen categorical denial of being a coronavirus carrier (despite the clear message from world health experts that it is possible to carry the virus and not experience symptoms). Bolsonaro has reacted in a similar fashion, comparing the coronavirus to a flu and rubbishing the need for quarantine measures. Worse still, his totalitarian streak was once again put on display today when he threatened to sack his health minister for, quite understandably, disagreeing with his stance. According to modelling by Imperial College London, drastic isolation measures could save over a million lives in Brazil. However, despite evidence of this amazing potential to limit suffering, Bolsonaro has stuck to his view, and in a blatant disregard for the key notion that the measures in place exist in order to reduce, and not totally eliminate deaths, he astutely pointed out in a nihilistic tone: “some will die… that’s life”. 

President Bolsonaro addressing his supporters in the midst of the pandemic, 19th April (Image: Andressa Anholete / Foreign Policy)

Displaying such incompetence when faced with potential societal disaster is something which will not go unnoticed. In Brazil, people are showing their indignation at Bolsonaro’s childlike behaviour. Ex-loyalists have voiced their disbelief at the president’s decision-making, the press are writing scathing critiques, and in an fascinating display of bottom-up citizen organisation, gangs are using their position of power and influence to introduce quarantine measures in favelas. Despite these shows of defiance, though, the absence of a clear and sensible state-wide policy will inevitably result in thousands of completely preventable deaths. Similarly, in the US, the virus has evidenced the inability of both the government and the state infrastructure to respond to a genuine crisis. Trump’s denial of the threat and pathetic policy response would be damaging enough, but on top of this is a totally ill-equipped healthcare system. 15% were without health insurance in 2018, and the number of hospital beds per 1000 people is a mere 3, placing the US at 40th internationally (Japan is top with 13 per 1000 people). In practical terms, this means that even if the White House were to shift their stance to take the outbreak more seriously, the country is simply not prepared. Having also slashed the pandemic response team in 2018, the White House has demonstrated a terrifying disregard for public health, a move which will severely hamper their ability to respond to the threat once it inevitably strikes them a heavy blow. In fact, as of the time of writing, the USA has become the country with the highest number of cases. The Trump administration is promising to send out cheques to families in a desperate bid to cover up the wounds of inadequate policy and recover popular support. However, with the death toll mounting and elections looming, an optimistic spectator could predict that this crisis will be the downfall of the quiffed business mogul.

That said, optimistic is the key word, and a word which one expert in particular would be very wary of deploying.  In her superb book ‘The Shock Doctrine’, Naomi Klein retells a common story of what happens in the wake of a global crisis regarding policy-making. In essence, she explains that the hysteria is capitalised on by the ruling elite to push through radical measures which worsen inequality. This evidence-based narrative is important to bear in mind when considering the potential changes which society could experience following the current pandemic. The response of several states to coronavirus fits scarily well with Klein’s framework. For instance, both China and the US have permitted more lax pollution standards as a result of coronavirus, plastic bag lobbying companies are insisting on the removal of the 5p price tag (claiming that they are less likely to carry the virus), and Trump has granted enormous bailouts of airline and oil companies. These measures would ordinarily trigger public criticism, but these are not ordinary times. The public is so fixated on the immediate risk that dangerous legislation is able to slip through the cracks. This is helped by the tendency for populations, particularly in the US, to rally around their leaders in times of crisis. It happened under Bush, and it is happening again under Trump – his approval ratings have gone up since the start of the outbreak. Other right-wing demagogues with a taste for totalitarianism are licking their lips at the sudden public acceptance of strict state-enforced measures. Orbán, the prime minister of Hungary, has gleefully taken advantage of the new status quo by dissolving parliament and is now ruling by decree. In states like USA, China and Hungary, where democracy was already a farce even prior to the outbreak, the virus could serve as a warmly welcomed present to legitimise and worsen their authoritarian tendencies.

U.S . airlines are requesting a bailout of over $50 billion according to the WSJ. It’s worth considering that the same airlines spent 96% of their free cash flow on stock buybacks in the last decade. (Image: Daniel Slim / Agence France-Presse)

Presently the left finds itself in an exciting yet also terrifying situation. Coronavirus has shifted the goalposts to allow for more extreme policy-making. On the one hand, this is positive. Massive state intervention to protect workers during the outbreak has demonstrated that when it is deemed necessary by the powers that be, the government has the resources and legal power to significantly change the face of society. This in turn has demonstrated that the austerity over the previous 10 years was not an economic necessity, but rather a political one. Although a painful truth, it is one which can be a cause for optimism, since the public is now fully aware that the main barrier to greater equality is political will. However, this barrier is made of strong stuff, in the form of the right’s organisational capability and know-how when it comes to profiting from crisis situations. COVID-19 presents a host of opportunities for the right to smear the progressive movement, with migration and globalisation being the softest and most obvious targets. In addition, there is a risk that the extreme totalitarian-like measures being pushed through could become the new norm. Indeed, this is also where the potential for critique levelled at idealist left-wing philosophy crops up. Praising the virtues of state intervention is all very well, but it must also be accepted that a heavy state role can be a slippery slope towards the dystopian measures enacted in China (geo-tracking and surveillance) and Hungary (full-blown authoritarianism). The fact that in the case of China such strict measures were relatively successful is evidence of the necessity to tread even more carefully when wishing for a considerable state role. It is one thing to implement draconian measures in times of crisis, but it is another to feed off public acceptance of these measures in a particular context like a pandemic to enforce similarly oppressive policy once the threat is gone. 

With this in mind, once we emerge from lockdown, the public would do well to demand a state which places the welfare of the public at the top of its priorities, whilst also adhering to robust democratic institutions and principles. Furthermore, it will be vital to remember that the battle against coronavirus was not won through immature denial of the virus’ threat, nationalist isolation or dreams of magical free-market solutions; it was won by a public working tirelessly and sacrificing personal liberty in aid of a common good. This includes those who adhered to government social distancing measures but also, even more importantly, those who continued to work in order to keep the most fundamental cogs of society turning. This in particular will leave a lasting legacy on a post-coronavirus society. It will be tough for governing elites to dispute the reality that behind a thriving or legitimate state authority is a workforce propping them up. Coronavirus has exposed this, opening up a possibility for the needs of the majority to be valued through genuine social welfare policies (universal basic income would be the obvious first step). While it is important to congratulate the public for their diligent response, this must not serve as a distraction from the government’s pitiful strategy and policy-making throughout the pandemic.

A return to pre-coronavirus normality is out of the question. The uncertainty lies not in whether society will alter, but how. This strand of RNA has given the pursuit for social justice and greater equality a huge amount of impetus; what will be crucial now is for the left to capitalise (no irony intended) on this unique moment in history, because, as Naomi Klein puts so well: “these moments when the impossible seems suddenly possible are excruciatingly rare and precious”.