In times of turmoil like those we live in today there is always a risk that people will fall for propaganda and fake news. That they will take refuge in conspiracy theories rather than accept the realities of the situation that we are going through.
The outbreak of Coronavirus (Covid-19) is no different. Already we are seeing conspiracies spread online –state sponsored or not – as people try to derive some sense of meaning from the events that are currently unfolding. And with the spread of these false narratives comes the risk of irrational populist backlashes.
The most public of these so far has been the re-emergence of the feud between the United States and Communist China. The Communist Party of China put the rumour out amongst their people that the United States military was somehow behind the spread of Covid-19 in Wuhan – an obvious lie to try and damage the reputation of America in the eyes of the Chinese people. To which President Trump naturally responded by calling out the fact that the pandemic had started a result of the failure of the Chinese Communist Party to report accurately and truthfully the scale of the crisis in November last year.
This has naturally had a knock-on effect in both countries – with reports of racist abuse being hurled at Asian Americans, and of foreign workers being banned from entering their places of work in China. Fears are growing amongst the expat community in China that their days of being welcome are ending.
Of course, China – being the paranoid status conscious regime that it is – has responded with a massive PR putsch in the West. Chinese foreign aid is being sent to Southern Europe in an alleged show of solidarity, whilst Chinese doctors are being flown to Italy and Spain. The hope in Beijing is that this cynical display of support will be enough for people to forget that in China critics are censored, propaganda numbers spouted and that the Uighurs are being ethnically cleansed. It is of course conceivable that this is an altruistic move – but history and common sense tells a different story.
The virus, amongst other things, plays into a different and more dangerous narrative. That is the spread of right-wing populism and left-wing extremism across the globe. A disease spread by globalism plays right into the hands of those who seek to undermine it.
Be under no illusion – as soon as the virus has cleared from our shores, and we face the economic clean up, populists such as Marine Le Pen, Nigel Farage and Matteo Salvini will all be ready to stand up and blame neo-liberal globalism. They will collectively try and pull the wool over the people’s eyes and tell them that this disease only spread because our immigration policies were too lax, or because we are too dependent on international trade, or because the establishment didn’t go far enough to stop the spread. They’ll play on the advantage of hindsight to claim that national governments didn’t do enough – when we all know that they are doing all they possibly can.
The ongoing epidemic has also offered a convenient mask for those who are already in a position of power. One need only look at how quickly countries like Serbia, the Philippines, India and the United States closed their external borders despite having so few cases when doing so. Or look again at how quickly China and the United States have found excuses to attack one another over their handling of the epidemic.
Equally – we will no doubt see those on the extreme Left try and capitalise on the economic turmoil that will follow this outbreak. The Corbyns, Sanders and Melenchons of this world will have all the ammunition they need to pursue a rigorous anti-capitalist campaign against the establishment. Expect to see calls for mass nationalisation and continued extreme economic intervention. They too will feed into the anti-globalist message and try to undermine the liberal world order that we have worked so hard to build since the 1990s.
We should also be prepared to see a renewed focus on Euroscepticism – as populists on both the left and right will clamour to lay the blame on the European Union, in particular on the Schengen Zone. The usual suspects will hark on about the need for a return to national borders.
Of course, these cases are not yet being made by the populists – they’re smart enough to know not to make a noise during a crisis. They understand that no one will forgive them, when it’s over, if they have disrupted the work of governments and international institutions that have been trying to fix the problem. Instead they will wait to build their case and then force it on people when things start to clear.
It is for that reason that we ourselves must be ready to stand up to them when they do. We must ready the arguments that defend neo-liberal globalism. We must be ready to defend the actions of our governments and show that in the cold light of day that they acted in the only way that they could have. That they did all that they could to try and stem the spread of the virus.
We must be ready to show the populists that it was a joint venture of the international community that kept food on our shelves, medicine in our pharmacies and doctors equipped in our hospitals. We must not allow them to undermine the work that we have done together, and we must not allow them to play on the fears of the people when this is all over.
There is no denying that we will all emerge into a radically different world – but there is no reason why we should allow that world to be one dictated to us by hard-headed ideologues and extremists.