Covid-19 has killed the small state – for now. Liberal democracies are rising to the challenge of an existential threat as they did in World War II. Individualism and diversities, global trade and travel, freedom of association and movement, freedom of religion, have been displaced by the global threat of the pandemic.
States across the globe are commanding economies and controlling their citizens. Surveillance and the curtailment of citizens’ rights is the order of the day, naturally. They will need to be lifted once the Covid-19 emergency is over.
In Australia – Federal and State – governments are spending dizzying amounts of money to strengthen our health infrastructure, our economy, in policing and for logistics in an effort to keep us safe from the virus and from all the deeper effects of a rapidly collapsing global economy.
The Federal government leads the biggest emergency effort since World War II. Prime Minister Scott Morrison has brought together health professionals, economists, state premiers, unions and business. Union chiefs are negotiating and agreeing with liberal market politicians – something not seen since the Hawke and Keating Accord of the 1980s. The OECD praised Treasurer Josh Frydenberg’s attempt to deep freeze the economy and are presenting this approach as a global economic model. Covid-19 is clearly bigger than partisan politics.
Authoritarian regimes like those in Turkey, Iran, Hungary, Russia, Philippines, and others, may fall if the pandemic continues for more than six months and their citizenry begin to die in large numbers. Jail, truncheons and bullets do not stop a virus. Dictators may hide behind their “castellated abbeys” like Prince Prospero in Edgar Allan Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death but like Prospero they will succumb to the virus, or revolt.
China will emerge a preeminent military and economic power saddled with the responsibility of rebuilding much of the world. The US will be focused on its own recovery. The Chinese people’s actions – the Wuhan doctors, nurses and health staff – reminded the Communist Party of the Confucian edict that the emperor needs ‘the mandate of heaven’ to rule. Chinese national pride and communitarian ethos, the effort of doctors and health staff, Red Army and volumeters were bigger than President Xi Jinping who became aware of how easy it is to fall.
China cannot afford to squander its long-term global ambitions. Saving face will be part of China’s agenda. Soft and economic power will coalesce to fight the racism the Chinese people and its diaspora have endured due to Covid-19.
In Old Europe, the epicentre of the Covid-19 pandemic, the European Union failed. It botched efforts from the start. Each nation retreated behind its borders as the Union closed all Schengen area borders in an attempt to stem the coronavirus pandemic. This fed into the populist narrative of the far-right, in favour of inward-looking social policies and closed nations.
Spain and Italy descended into hell as tens of thousands of people died and continue to die – old and young. Their cities, societies, cultures, and economies will be scarred permanently. Southern Europe – Spain, Portugal, Italy and Greece were lectured by Holland and Germany for seeking a moratorium on their mammoth structural debts. In a post-Covid-19 Europe, the South and South East will need to look more to Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa for the region’s future.
The African continent, which had enjoyed economic and democratic growth over the last ten years, is in danger of retreating into the past. Burkina Faso – which is facing a humanitarian crisis led by attacks linked to Islamic extremists. Powerful African states like Nigeria and South Africa are expelling other African nationals and non-African nationals. Limited travel by Africans to Asia and the West, may have limited the spread of Covid-19. Then again the lack of accurate figures along with frail health infrastructures may soon present another reality. The case for the re-emergence of old-style African dictatorial regimes may seem to make sense to military strongmen after the end of the pandemic.
The Middle East and North Africa – with the exception of Iraq, Syria and Yemen who are at war -seem to be dealing with Covid-19. Israel and the Palestinian Authority have coordinated efforts to ensure the safety of citizens, this effort could reignite stalled peace plans. Jordan and Tunisia acted early and still have small numbers of infections. Time will tell.
The US, the world’s preeminent democracy, is in trouble. President Trump’s narcissism, lack of empathy and his lack of skills have created a catastrophe. More will die in New York by next week than they did in 9/11, if the current rate of deaths continues. Shortages of ventilators and PPE exposed the US’ shambolic heath system.
Governors like New York’s, Mr Cuomo, will occupy the daises of heroes in future American history. Trump will be seen as Nero fiddling while Rome burned. He is the snake oil salesman making light of Covid-19, holding states ransom for more PPE, and not enacting wartime legislation for command of industry.
The American Republic as a whole, the states and citizens, the health professionals, technocrats, economists, and the military, their industrial and financial complexes are now working to rescue the union without support from the President. The trillions released by the federal government – with Trump’s begrudging acquiescence – may be too late for many, but hopefully not too little.
Liberal states across the globe – in varying ways – seem to be honouring the part of the ‘social contract’ that ensures citizens’ safety. They are working to stave off a life, as British philosopher Thomas Hobbes warned is, “Short, nasty and brutish” without the state. The dominion of the secular state across the globe over church, mosque, temple or synagogue has been re-established. One hopes for some time.
When it is safe enough to go out, the state will need to sustain the economy for a period. New and large infrastructure projects will be needed. The growth of jobs, the maintenance of energy, extended health services, (including mental health), and education will be at the forefront of the state. For liberal states, opening borders to the economic necessity of migration will also be at the forefront of discussion. Populism, racism and isolation do not bode well for economies or people.
Importantly, our liberal state will need a plan from now, on how to retract from policing our lives. Then it will need to ensure liberal market economic growth, the form of growth we have enjoyed over the last 30 years and that has enabled the state to do the work it is doing now. Otherwise the social contract will have failed to protect lives, liberty and freedom.