Geopolitics

Coronavirus: What Unites And Divides Us

Communities across the globe are all grappling with the same scourge. And yet, the pandemic is also fueling an every-nation-for-itself mentality. Where will it lead us.

One Billion Rising activists march in Manilla, Phillippines.
Dominique Moisi

-OpEd-

As it worsens, the coronavirus crisis also brings into sharper focus our collective contradictions.

The epidemic — contrary to what some say — doesn't lead to a rise of populism or to the strengthening of authoritarian regimes. It doesn't help partial democracies at the expense of traditional liberal democracies. In fact, the virus represents a boost, at least initially, for leaders in power, regardless of their politics or their ways of exercising power.

At the same time, the increasing popularity of the leaders in charge often comes with an uptick in criticisms concerning the way they handle and manage the pandemic. Hence the fact that, especially during a major crisis like this one, people behave towards their leaders like teenagers with their parents.

They want their leaders to protect them, but when they deem that protection to not be effective enough, or else too heavy-handed, they unload with a barrage of criticisms, and with arguments that can actually be quite valid: "If only you had protected me from the start, I wouldn't be in the situation I am today," or "Isn't the complete lockdown you subjected me the result, in fact, that there aren't enough masks and tests?"

During a major crisis like this one, people behave towards their leaders like teenagers with their parents.

Still, most nations are grateful to their leaders for being "at the helm" when the winds are so strong. Political leaders in charge are gaining popularity almost in every country. From Boris Johnson to Donald Trump, Emmanuel Macron to Angela Merkel, Viktor Orban to Giuseppe Conte, all the leaders benefit from the pandemic. You would have to exhibit completely irresponsible behavior and rhetoric, like Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, to not gain an increasing popularity among voters.

Trump's case, in the United States, is particularly interesting. U.S. public opinion, for the most part, seems to have forgiven his early blunders, his underestimation of the severity of the threat and the fact that he seemed to give priority to saving jobs rather than lives. His daily briefing, now much more sober, has become must-see TV for many Americans, as are the uddates in France by Health Director Jerome Salomon. Trump may not have the "gravitas' of New York governor Andrew M. Cuomo, but he seems to be aware at last of the exceptional nature of the crisis.

In the United Kingdom, a majority of British people are empathizing with PM Boris Johnson, who is himself infected by the virus. But this rallying behind the man in charge is just an illusion. A majority of British people will soon criticize his unwarranted optimism and debatable "herd immunity" strategy.

Indeed, as the number of victims surge and the pandemic's economic costs rise, we could witness a turn of events at any moment. The public counts its frustrations as Molière's L'Avare did with his gold.

In this second phase, which can happen very soon, all of those who are not in power today and who maintained a reasonable rhetoric during the peak of the crisis, may earn a kind of "opposition reward." This change of course is all the more plausible given how naturally ungrateful people tend to be. World War II hero Winston Churchill survived in the political realm for just a few months after his victory. The UK was tired of glory. They wanted a welfare state.

Today populations are torn between fear for their lives and fear for their jobs. Right now, the the first takes precedence over the second. But for how long? There will come a time when tensions will become higher and higher between these two priorities.

Supporters of the Indian government's controversial Citizenship Amendment Bill.— Photo: Sachelle Babbar ​

Coronavirus hasn't strengthened populists, at least not yet, but it is encouraging nationalism. The more a country has felt abandoned, even betrayed by its neighbors, cousins and allies, the more people rally behind a flag. In Italy, a particularly moving video shows a doctor embracing the peninsula in his arms as you would do with a child.

"They didn't all die but all were affected," wrote La Fontaine in the fable Les Animaux malades de la peste (The Animals Stricken with The Plague). Today, the worst hit countries, Italy and Spain, are also the ones who need European solidarity the most, as they have the heaviest debt and most fragile economies.

Consequently, the surge of nationalist reflexes has an impact on solidarity. In the coronavirus context, it is not a good time to be a Syrian refugee. This withdrawal and lack of solidarity is also happening inside Europe. Each country naturally focuses on its sick patients, on its deaths. Television news has never been so national, some might even say provincial.

At a time when Americans "hijack" mask shipments on a Chinese airport tarmacs by offering the most cash, the "One for all and all for one" spirit of the Three Musketeers seems all but dead and gone.

American philosopher Martha Nussbaum wrote about a series of experiments done on mice. When some of the mice were subjected to pain, other mice would demonstrate emotional distress — empathy, in other words — but only if they'd previously interacted with the mice in question. Are we like these mice? During a crisis, can we only show solidarity with our fellow citizens who share our nationality?

This tragedy should deepen and extend our humanity. Instead the opposite seems to be happening, as if the physical lockdown has become emotional as well.


For the coming weeks, Worldcrunch will be delivering daily updates on the coronavirus pandemic from the best, most trusted international news sources — regardless of language or geography. To receive the daily Coronavirus global brief in your inbox, sign up here.

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A tribute to the 30,000 Iranian political prisoners murdered in Iran in 1988

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Hannah Steinkopf-Frank and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Laba diena!*

Welcome to Wednesday, where Afghanistan's Taliban demand to speak at the United Nations, China takes a bold ecological stand and we find out why monkeys kept their tails and humans didn't. Business magazine America Economia also looks at how Latin American countries are looking to attract a new generation of freelancers known as "digital nomads" in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

[*Lithuanian]

🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

• Taliban ask to speak at UN: With global leaders gathered in New York for the 76th meeting of the UN General Assembly, Afghanistan's new rulers say their country's previously accredited United Nations ambassador no longer represents the country, and have demanded a new Taliban envoy speak instead. Afghanistan is scheduled to give the final intervention next Monday to the General Assembly, and a UN committee must now rule who can speak.

• Four corpses found on Belarus border with Poland: The discovery of bodies of four people on Belarus-Poland border who appear to have died from hypothermia are raising new accusations that Belarus is pushing migrants to the eastern border of the European Union, possibly in retaliation over Western sanctions following the contested reelection of the country's strongman Alexander Lukashenko. The discovery comes amid a surge of largely Afghani and Iraqi migrants attempting to enter Poland in recent weeks.

• China to stop building coal-burning power plants abroad: Under pressure to limit emissions to meet Paris climate agreement goals, China announces an end to funding future projects in Indonesia, Vietnam and other countries through its Belt and Road initiative.

• Turkey ratifies Paris climate agreement: Following a year of wildfires and flash floods, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced at the UN that Turkey will become the last G-20 country to ratify the emissions-limiting accords. Turkey already signed the agreement in 2016, but has yet to hold a vote in parliament.

• Mass evacuations following Canary Islands volcano: More than 6,000 people have fled the Spanish archipelago as heavy flows of lava have buried hundreds of homes. Four earthquakes have also hit the Canaries since the Sunday eruption, which could also cause other explosions and the release of toxic gas.

• Rare earthquake hits Melbourne: The 5.9 magnitude quake struck near Melbourne in southern Australia, with aftershocks going as far Adelaide, Canberra and Launceston. Videos shared on social media show at least one damaged building, with power lines disrupted in Australia's second largest city. No injuries have been reported.

• The evolutionary tale of tails: Charles Darwin first discovered that humans evolved to lose this biological trait. But only now are New York scientists showing that it was a single genetic tweak that could have caused this shift, while our monkey relatives kept their backside appendages.

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

"The roof of Barcelona" — El Periodico daily reports on the latest delay from what may be the longest-running construction project in the world. Work on the iconic Barcelona church La Sagrada Familia, which began all the way back in 1882 as the vision of master architect Antoni Gaudí, was slated to be completed in 2026. The Barcelona-based daily reports that a press conference Tuesday confirmed that the deadline won't be met, in part because of delays related to COVID-19. Officials also provided new details about the impending completion of the Mare de Déu tower (tower of the Virgin), the first tower of the temple to be completed in 44 years. Although it is currently the second tallest spire of the complex, it will become the highest point of the Sagrada Familia, reaching 172.5 meters thanks to an illuminated "great cross."

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

Latin America, the next mecca for digital nomads

Latin American countries want to cash in on the post-pandemic changes to the fundamental ways we work and live, in particular by capitalizing on a growing demand from the new wave of remote workers and "youngish" professional freelancers with money to spend, reports Natalia Vera Ramírez in business magazine America Economia.

💻🏖️ Niels Olson, Ecuador's tourism minister, is working hard to bring "digital nomads" to his country. He believes that attracting this new generation of freelancers who can work from anywhere for extended visits is a unique opportunity for all. Living in a town like Puerto López, he wrote on Twitter, the expat freelancer could "work by the sea, live with a mostly vaccinated population, in the same time zone, (enjoy) an excellent climate, and eat fresh seafood." For Ecuador, the new influx of visitors with money to spend would help boost the country's economy.

🧳 While online-based freelancers already hopped from country to country before COVID-19, the pandemic has boosted their current numbers to around 100 million worldwide. The Inter-American Development Bank estimates there could be a billion roaming, digital workers by 2050. Some European countries already issue visas for digital nomads. They include Germany, Portugal, Iceland, Croatia, Estonia and the Czech Republic, but in the Americas, only four countries make the list, namely Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Panama and Costa Rica.

💰 In August 2021, Costa Rica approved a law for remote workers and international service providers, intended to attract digital nomads and make its travel sector more competitive. The law provides legal guarantees and specific tax exemptions for remote workers choosing to make the country their place of work. It allows foreign nationals earning more than $3,000 a month to stay for up to a year in the country, with the ability to renew their visa for an additional year. If applicants are a family, the income requisite rises to $5,000.


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#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

$2.1 billion

Google announced yesterday it will spend $2.1 billion to buy a sprawling Manhattan office building, in one of the largest sales of a building in U.S. history. The tech giant plans on growing its New York workforce to more than 14,000 people.

📣 VERBATIM

It is sickening and shameful to see this kind of president give such a lie-filled speech on the international stage.

— Opposition Brazilian congresswoman Vivi Reis in response to President Jair Bolsonaro's inflammatory 12-minute speech at the UN General Assembly. The unvaccinated head of state touted untested COVID-19 cures, criticized public health measures and boasted that the South American country's environmental protections were the best in the world.

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Hannah Steinkopf-Frank & Bertrand Hauger

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