The national and global political fallout of Covid

by July 4, 2020 0 comments

Many short-term measures imposed now may have a long-term influence on both national and international governance and political ideology

Though the economic fallout of the pandemic is more vivid, its impact has political dimensions, too. Many short-term measures imposed now may have a long-term influence on both national and international governance and political ideology. The political impact, in the national context, seems to be arising out of four factors: Nature of response by countries; manner of response; deepening of societal fault lines and nature of the regimes vis-à-vis their effectiveness in controlling the virus.

It might impact the world order, too, due to the shifting of the balance of power and the ideological debate on global cooperation vs isolationism and liberalism vs authoritarianism.

Normally, the response to a disaster is 3R: Rescue, Relief and Rehabilitation. But in the case of the Corona, a fourth R has crept in and this is Regulation. The lockdown resulted in complete disruption of all movement, the economy and  personal liberty. Across countries, not only the framework of regulations but the manner of imposition has a common pattern.

The executive, with or without the consent of the legislature and other stakeholders, gave itself absolute powers and responded by executive decrees. The differential impact of sudden economic disruption on different strata of society has exacerbated the strain across the existing societal fault lines of rich vs poor, urban vs rural, region vs region, local vs migrants, employer vs employees and so on.

The crisis has also fuelled debate on the effectiveness of authoritarian regimes vis-à-vis democracies as major democracies like the US, Germany and Italy faltered in their effort while authoritarian regimes of Singapore and Vietnam controlled the virus well. Now, let us see the likely impact. The first political impact is the centralisation of power. The ruling elite in Hungary, the Philippines, China, El Salvador and Uganda have used the crisis to accredit themselves with emergency powers, moving them further away from democracy. In India, the invoking of the National Disaster Management Act, too, resulted in centralisation of powers in the national executive.

The second is the abridgment of fundamental rights, expanded State surveillance and banishing of protests. In Hungary, Jordan, Chile, Thailand and so on, punishments were prescribed for spreading misinformation, which opens the possibility of muzzling any voice of dissent. Invasive surveillance systems in Israel, South Korea and Singapore, unthinkable earlier, are being hailed as effective measures for slowing infections.

Plus, the social strains caused by economic disruption may change political alignments and the landscape of political debate by creating more fractured societies. The spirit of federalism has also been impacted due to excessive centralisation of power.

Another impact of this outbreak may be reduction in the influence of the neo-liberal trend of decreasing role of the State, considering the strong, dominant and pivoting role played by the State to counter the virus. Given the experience of the current crisis, it will be difficult to argue that the private sector and philanthropy can be a substitute for a competent State during a national emergency.

While it may be argued that these are emergency measures and were needed to tackle an unprecedented situation with a firm hand, it cannot be predicted with certainty that all these measures will be done away with once the crisis is over. More so because this contagion is going to stay for some time. The longer it prevails, the more difficult it will be to dismantle emergency powers. Forget about authoritarian or tending to be authoritarian regimes, it may tempt even democratically-elected governments to continue the emergency measures in the same or modified form, to centralise powers and strengthen their hold on the polity, given the comfort it provides to the ruling elite. The most dangerous possibility is posed by the use of high-end technologies for surveillance, which opens up many possibilities for misuse during normal times, too.

The current crisis has also brought to the fore the debate over the future of a new world order. There may be two types of impacts on the world order. First may be the shift in balance of power and resultant shifting dominance over international organisations. The second might be a boost to the ideology of isolationism vis-à-vis global cooperation and authoritarianism vis-à-vis liberal democracy.

The global distribution of power seems to be shifting away from the US and Europe, which are faring badly in containing the disaster as compared to the East Asian countries which have fared well. The slogan of “America First” under the Trump presidency and its unwillingness to take the position of a global leader, before and during the pandemic, has led to the beginning of China’s dominance and aggression in the new world order. Beijing was already silently working towards domination in the economic order, global trade balance and supply chains, spreading hegemony over the ruling elite of developing countries, in Africa and Asia through debt-trap diplomacy and more recently in capturing the United Nations institutions. The outbreak has only accelerated this process.

At the ideological level, the disruption of global supply chains, the leading role of State actors and centralising tendencies may lead to a dominance of nationalist, isolationist and illiberal ideologies on the international arena. Globally, at the national level, we may see a rise in authoritarian, centralising tendencies and changing political landscape on account of fractured societies. At the international level, in the absence of a change in US policy and its hesitation in providing a rallying point for liberal democracies, it would be a free road for China to advance its ideology, technology and politico-economic dominance in the emerging world order.

Some scholars point to the lack of goodwill of China as a counter argument to its rising influence but we must remember that global politics is not a popularity contest. Hard politico-economic facts cannot be ignored. Second, the failure to ensure global cooperation in tackling the pandemic may lead to rising nationalist and isolationist tendencies and wear out the effectiveness of international organisations.

(Writer: Dipak Kumar Singh; Courtesy: The Pioneer)

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