The uncertainty that shrouds the Covid-19 pandemic mimics the perceptual fog that engulfs actors in any military conflict. While dealing with this mire, countries, leaders and citizens are grappling with the threat of rapid disease spread and an unmitigated contagion.
In the midst of the crisis, various trends like competitive geopolitical narrative building, authoritarianism, increased surveillance and social tensions are gaining traction. It is imperative to understand these complex trends before the fog clears for the post-Covid world to make some sense.
Countries with an eye on the post-Covid geopolitics are creating strategic narratives to deal with the eventual fallouts of the crisis. The United States has maintained that guilt of the crisis falls on China, because of Beijing’s delayed disclosure of information, and the virus’ origin in Wuhan. On the periphery of this accusation are also theories of bio leak, or, in some cases, potential biowarfare. US President Donald Trump terming Covid-19 as a “Chinese virus” is part of this narrative-building. As the death toll in the US rises, domestic political pressure could further propel the country’s leadership to divert attention by redirecting focus on China’s culpability.
China, too, has continued its propaganda, which includes accusing the US military of causing the spread of the disease via covert means. It continues to deny intentional information suppression. Beijing has also been opaque about the information on the early progression of the spread and its impact in terms of deaths and infections. Globally, it is working to mount a narrative of being an effective responder and responsible global power by exporting health equipment to the EU, Southeast Asia, and even the US.
The nosediving relationship from competition to trade war to open accusations has taken its toll on multilateral organisations. An example is the US halting funds for the World Health Organization, alleging ‘China-centrism’ and their ineffective response to Covid-19. A lack of consensus between the US and China has also impeded the UN Security Council (UNSC) from providing leadership during this crisis. The UNSC remains in gridlock without a single resolution being adopted. The US has also engaged in diversion of scarce medical supplies being shipped to other countries via outbidding and other tactics. This play of narratives seems to be snowballing into a new-age conflict of perception, propaganda and economics.
The pandemic requires leaders to give strong responses in uncertain times. This creates an opportunity for leaders to consolidate power and expand state control at the risk of diluting democratic values. The narrative of an efficient, centralised leadership to contain the crisis has emerged rather organically due to the nature of the response required to the pandemic.
In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban has been able to get parliamentary sanction to rule by decree, effectively circumventing democratic institutions with no end date. In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has used the pandemic to postpone his corruption trial and block parliament from functioning. The Philippine parliament has passed legislation granting President Rodrigo Duterte extensive emergency powers. Monarchies like Jordan are clamping down on freedoms, particularly on the press and movement.
As the crisis worsens, authoritarian leaders could view this as a unique opportunity to seize power with popular approval, and project pandemic containment as a justification for authoritarian leadership. If combined with powerful propaganda, this trend could pose serious long-term threats to democratic values globally.
Normalisation of Surveillance
Expansion of surveillance is another trend associated with growing state control in response to the pandemic. Several countries have increased surveillance to track disease cases and enforce lockdowns effectively.
According to Yuval Noah Harari, surveillance has made a significant jump from external to under the skin (biological parameters), all legitimised by the crisis the world faces. Widespread panic could legitimise rampant government surveillance without checks and balances, negatively impacting the right to privacy. The access that expanded surveillance and its wide-ranging implications may be difficult to roll back.
China and Israel are leading in it with sophisticated and widespread surveillance technology. Many other nations too are following suit. The use of CCTV-based facial recognition, GPS-based mobile phone location surveillance, tracking digital payment locations and other technologies are being used by many nations. The post-Covid world might see unprecedented control over the people by governments via surveillance that was normalised during this crisis.
At a psychological level, a general inability to distinguish between the virus and the vectors as the source of the crisis is dangerous. Individuals, communities or nations are being villainised despite usually being unintentional victims of the same pandemic. The fear induced in-group bias in such stressful times will raise social tensions furthering rifts in society.
The migrant population in various countries is already facing implicit discrimination and seen as carriers responsible for the spread of the virus. Fringe parties will exploit this fear to further the narrative of “migrants with corona” as the cause of the nation’s suffering. This discourse will lead to a more inward-looking, fractured society.
Marine Le Pen, French far-right leader, has already flagged relaxed immigration policies as a key cause for the spread of the virus. Racial discrimination across the globe started even before the pandemic took its current form and continues unabated. In the era of social media and fake news, such extreme views can echo across society creating challenges of hate crimes and civil unrest.
Most projections of the pandemic envisage a long-drawn-out crisis and a painful economic recovery ahead. The disruption to the status quo is certain, but its nature is unpredictable. Wrapped in the fog of war trends of geopolitical interests, centralised control, surveillance and changes to social behaviour are indicators of how the future might play out. It is imperative that beyond the efforts of containing the pandemic, emerging narratives are also flagged and managed.
(The author is a researcher in Geo-Strategic Affairs/Public Policy working with a think-tank in Delhi, and a former LAMP fellow)
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