The Great Paradox of Covid-19

Closing the borders between EU member states and locking people in their apartments has made us more cosmopolitan than ever. For perhaps the first time in history, people around the world are having the same conversations and sharing the same fears.

‘Man is the only known time machine.’ Georgi Gospodinov, Time Shelter

In José Saramago’s novel Blindness,1 a man suddenly loses his sight, as does the doctor who examines him and a thief who steals his car. Fearful of the spread of the ‘white sickness’, the government takes draconian measures to halt the contagion. All those who are already blind and those who have had contact with them are rounded up and taken to a former mental asylum at the edge of the city. Any attempt to leave the hospital is met with lethal force from patrolling soldiers, petrified that they will also lose their sight. The asylum becomes more of a concentration camp than a hospital.

In the novel’s final pages, the epidemic finally abates as suddenly as it began, leaving people to wonder why they went blind. “I don’t think we did go blind, I think we are blind, blind but seeing”, concludes one of the characters in the novel. “Blind people who can see, but do not see.”2 The loss of sight is a characteristic of every epidemic; we feel blind because we did not see the pandemic coming, and we did not understand what was happening around us. Saramago does not believe that epidemics transform society, in his view, they help us see the truth about our societies. If he is right, it is important that we understand what we witnessed while we were imprisoned in our homes. My reflections on the impact of covid-19 began with my articulation of seven early lessons and one quarantine later, they have been reconceptualized into seven paradoxes.

The Virus Has Synchronized the World

The first paradox of covid-19 is that it exposes the dark side of globalization—but also acts as an agent of globalization. The virus is most vicious in places that are, according to the British historian Frank Snowden, “densely populated and linked by rapid air travel, by movements of tourists, of refugees, all kinds of business people, all kinds of interlocking networks”.3 At the same time, it has synchronized the world and brought us together in a way no previous crisis could accomplish. For some time we have lived in a common world.

The second paradox of covid-19 is that it has accelerated the trend towards deglobalization that was triggered by the Great Recession of 2008–9, while at the same time exposing the limits of renationalization. In a post-covid-19 world, Gideon Rachman surmises that “It is hard to believe that large developed countries will continue to accept a situation in which they have to import most of their vital medical supplies”.4

Covid-19 has accelerated the trend towards deglobalization that was triggered by the Great Recession of 2008–9, while at the same time exposing the limits of re-nationalization.

If the high point of globalization in the 1990s was represented (at least in the public imagination) by the efficiencies of just-in-time global supply chains, then today the public is seduced by the image of a strong state that can stockpile all the resources society needs in a crisis. That said, of all the crises threatening humanity, covid-19 may be the most globalization-friendly in terms of the evidence it provides for the importance of international cooperation. Unlike wars, pandemics do not pit nations against each other. Unlike great migrations, they do not cause violent nationalism. Unlike earthquakes or tsunamis, pandemics are global. A pandemic is a crisis that allows humanity to experience its interdependence and its togetherness. It places humanity’s hope in science and rationality. And rather than the pandemic itself, it is the failure of the world’s political leaders to mobilize a collective response to the crisis that makes me pessimistic about the future.

Unpredictable Political Consequences

The third paradox of covid-19 is that fear of the virus in the early stages of the pandemic inspired a state of national unity that many societies had not experienced in years, but in the longer term it will deepen existing social and political divides. With the passing of time, however, the pandemic will not only intensify the political, economic and social divisions that were once manifest throughout all societies, but it will also establish the pandemic as a line in the sand. And the more the fear of covid-19 recedes, the less we will acknowledge that the threat was ever real. The paradox is that the countries that were either most effective in containing the virus or were most fortunate to be not visited by it, will be the places where public opinion will be most eager to criticize the government for its lockdown policies.

Unlike wars, pandemics do not pit nations against each other. A pandemic is a crisis that allows humanity to experience its interdependence and its togetherness. It places humanity’s hope in science and rationality.

The fourth paradox of covid-19 is that it has put democracy on hold, at least in Europe, with many countries enacting a state of emergency. By doing so, however, it has limited people’s desire for a more authoritarian government. One consequence of civil rights and liberties being frozen will be a rejection rather than an embrace of authoritarianism. In the early stages of the crisis, people willingly granted extraordinary powers to their governments, but they will become increasingly uncharitable as economic concerns begin to supplant public health ones. This is the changing nature of the covid-19 calamity; a health disaster that will turn into an economic one makes the political consequences of the crisis incredibly difficult to predict.

The fifth paradox of covid-19 is that while the EU was notably absent in the early stages of the crisis, the pandemic may become more critical for the future of the Union than anything in its history. The EU is not just risking territorial disintegration, as in Brexit, but a slide into irrelevance.

The Pressure of Globalization

The sixth paradox of covid-19 is that while the virus brought back the ghosts of the three recent crises that have shattered Europe in the last decade—the war on terror, the refugee crisis and the global financial crisis—it also revisited the policy outcomes of those crises. The outcome of the global financial crisis was the unwillingness to mutualize debts and reluctance to loosen constraints on governments’ spending as a way to overcome the crisis. Now we see the opposite happening. The European experience of the war on terror was that unlike Americans after 9/11, Europeans were unwilling to trade their right to privacy for more security. This crisis revisits that decision.

The refugee crisis ended up with the unspoken consensus that closing internal European borders was impossible and that if this happened the biggest losers would be the Eastern Europeans. This crisis demonstrates that borders could be closed, at least for a while, and that Western Europe is also a major loser from it. The charter flights organized at the peak of the pandemic to transport seasonal workers from Eastern Europe to France, Germany and the United Kingdom have dramatically changed the nature of the debate.5

A final paradox is that while the EU views itself as the last man standing in defense of openness and interdependence, it could be the pressure of globalization that pushes Europeans to adopt more common policies and even to delegate some emergency powers to Brussels.

In the early stages of the crisis, people willingly granted extraordinary powers to their governments, but they will become increasingly uncharitable as economic concerns begin to supplant public health ones.

The Crisis Diminished Enthusiasm for the EU

In the EU, public health has always been the ‘competence’ of national governments. When Italians and Spaniards were dying by the thousand every day, Brussels had little to say. The European Union has proven structurally unsuited to ameliorating the unfolding catastrophe, an irrelevant actor at the very moment when people were seeking protection. Imprisoned in their homes, Europeans suddenly ceased thinking about the European Union. While Italians and Spaniards felt betrayed by the EU, their betrayal was focused on their fellow Europeans and their governments rather than on the European bureaucracy.

When people became absorbed by understanding why fewer people were getting infected and dying in some European countries than others, the idea of a common Europe disappeared. Nobody cared to count the number of dead or infected on a continental level. No government called out for European health policies or for the Europeanisation of covid-19-related personal data. There were times during this crisis that the European Union began to resemble the final decades of the Holy Roman Empire, when people living in the territory of the empire became unaware that they were even still a part of it. In many places in Europe, the covid-19 crisis diminished citizens’ enthusiasm for the EU but at the same time forced governments to realize their dependence on the EU.

When people became absorbed by understanding why fewer people were getting infected and dying in some European countries than others, the idea of a common Europe disappeared.

Faced with the political challenge presented by covid-19, European leaders are confronted with a strategic choice: they can either fight to preserve a globalized world of open borders, or they can work towards a softer version of de-globalization. At the end of the day, they will end up doing both. Brussels will remain the last man standing in defense of globalization while at the same time trying to use the pressures coming from the process of de-globalization to obtain more powers and advocate more integration in certain areas.

The globalized nature of covid-19, combined with the realization that nineteenth-century economic nationalism is no longer an option for small and mid-sized European nation-states, may give a chance to a newly configured, EU-centred territorial nationalism. The coronavirus has taught Europeans that if they want to remain safe, they cannot tolerate a world in which most medicines or masks are produced outside of Europe. Likewise, they cannot rely on Chinese companies to build a European 5G network. If the world is going protectionist, effective protectionism in Europe is only possible on a continental level.

Closing the Borders Has Made Us More Cosmopolitan

During the acute phase of the crisis, we saw that national self-reliance trumps mutual interest. When Italy asked allies for urgent medical supplies, not a single EU country responded. Germany initially banned the export of medical masks and other protective gear and France requisitioned all the face masks that it produced. The European Commission was forced to step in and regulate the export of medical equipment.

While the return of the nation-state was the inevitable response to such a massive public health danger, in a world lacking American leadership and sundered by the US–China rivalry, a more united Europe and a Brussels endowed with emergency powers may turn out to be the only realistic solution to deal with the next phase of the crisis.

The great paradox of covid-19 is that closing the borders between EU member states and locking people in their apartments has made us more cosmopolitan than ever. For perhaps the first time in history, people around the world are having the same conversations and sharing the same fears. By staying at home and spending countless hours in front of computers and TV screens, people are comparing what is happening to them with what is happening to others elsewhere. It might only be for this weird moment in our history, but we cannot deny that we are currently experiencing what it feels like to live in One World.

The coronavirus has taught Europeans that if they want to remain safe, they cannot tolerate a world in which most medicines or masks are produced outside of Europe.

It is one of the great optical illusions of twenty-first-century globalization that only mobile people are truly cosmopolitan and that only those who feel at home in different places can maintain a universalist perspective. The truth is, however, that the world’s ultimate cosmopolitan, Immanuel Kant, never left his hometown of Königsberg. His town at various times belonged to different empires, but he always preferred to remain there. Today’s paradoxes of globalization (or de-globalization) perhaps began with him. covid-19 has infected the world with cosmopolitanism, while turning states against globalization.

This text comes from the new book of Ivan Krastev ‘Is It Tomorrow, Yet?—How the Pandemic Changes Europe’ which is forthcoming with Penguin in English and a number of other languages in mid-June. We print it with the author’s kind permission.

Ivan Krastev

Ivan Krastev is a Bulgarian political scientist. He is president of the Center for Liberal Strategies in Sofia, Permanent Fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna and a member of the European Council on Foreign Relations.

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