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Nationalist populism rules during the pandemic

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Lord Peter Hain is a former anti-apartheid leader and British Cabinet Minister. His new memoir, A Pretoria Boy: South Africa’s ‘Public Enemy Number One’, has just been published by Jonathan Ball.

Covid-19 has been a boon to the world’s authoritarians, tyrants and bigots. It has given them what they crave most: Fear and the cover of darkness.

After the last global crisis – the financial implosion of 2008 – Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown saved the world economically by leading the G20 in a public-investment driven recovery that prevented a huge global recession from becoming a catastrophic depression.

But instead of a coordinated global response to the Covid-19 outbreak, countries have manoeuvred for national advantage, competing not cooperating over personal protective equipment (PPE), testing and tracing, with Britain woefully failing on all three. And also allowing trade wars and populism to envelope the world.

The Covid-19 pandemic has led to the complete shutdown of large parts of the global economy, with the International Monetary Fund describing the economic decline as the worst since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

This invisible universal virus can affect everyone in every part of the world. Yet, today’s multipolar world of big powers led by self-styled Big Men like Xi, Modi, Trump and Putin has failed miserably to meet the challenge of that global threat.

The contrast with the hugely impressive and successful leadership of three women – New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern, Denmark’s Mette Frederiksen and Germany’s Angela Merkel – is stark.

“Having lived with Covid-19 for six months now, the most important thing we have learned is that we are going to have to live with it for an awful lot longer. Essentially, we are six months into a lifelong relationship.”

Each of their country’s records of low infection and low death rates says it all. And they offer such a contrast to another self-styled right-wing “Big Man” – President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, whose country has now overtaken the UK with the second highest death rate and number of cases after the US. (Although undisclosed totals in the elected autocracies of Russia and Iran are almost certainly right up there.)

Boris Johnson’s inept leadership has left Britain with the worst death rate in Europe. He did not join Germany, Italy, France, Norway and the EU Council and Commission in their recent call for treatments and vaccines to be shared equally, particularly with developing nations. It is tragic that, instead of cooperating to protect the most vulnerable worldwide, countries like Britain seem to be racing to get a vaccine for themselves to win commercial and geopolitical benefit. 

The UK even failed to take advantage of joint European procurement of PPE, instead espousing British “exceptionalism” and “national self-sufficiency” in line with the Tories’ anti-European stance – and suffering chronic shortages which helped trigger shocking death numbers among hospital staff, especially black, Asian and minority ethnic Britons.

With governments across the world grappling with how on earth to come successfully out of lockdown, salutary warnings have come from experts about what lies ahead.

The pandemic is unlikely to disappear in the near future, argues Mark Woolhouse, professor of infectious disease epidemiology at Edinburgh University. 

“Having lived with Covid-19 for six months now, the most important thing we have learned is that we are going to have to live with it for an awful lot longer. Essentially, we are six months into a lifelong relationship.”

This point was also stressed by David Nabarro, professor of global health at Imperial College London, and an envoy for the World Health Organisation on Covid-19: 

“We have got to get out of this mirage sense that all will be resolved when a vaccine appears at the end of this year to save us. That is not going to happen. And even when we do get a vaccine that is safe and works, there is still the issue of how we get it to the 7.8 billion people who inhabit our planet. The global eradication of a disease is a very, very difficult business. We managed it with polio eventually, but we are still trying to get rid of measles.” 

If that is the case, where among today’s global leaders can be found the sort of vision offered by Gordon Brown? Recently, he argued compellingly:  

“The first few years of the past decade brought a very defensive nationalism, which I would call protectionism: closing borders, cutting back on immigration, building walls, imposing tariffs. In the past two or three years, we’ve moved to a more aggressive nationalism, which is America First. It’s the attempt to put populist nationalism on a global level – India First, China First and everything else – so you’ve got, if you like, a global coalition of anti-globalists.”

But, he insists, “If you’ve got a medical emergency, a pandemic. You cannot solve this problem in one country; it has got to be solved in every country. If you can’t agree on health multilateralism, what kind of multilateralism can you agree on?  

“You’ve got what people now call ‘vaccine nationalism’. You’ve got this idea that countries just take what they want in a race to the bottom in a global search for equipment. The only way to solve some of these problems is to cooperate to build up capacity, to search together for a vaccine and a cure, to stop a second and third round by protecting the poorest countries, from whom the disease would flow back into the West if we did nothing. 

“When we talk about self-isolation, we’ve got to think that national self-isolation has become an issue, but we’ve got to fight it.”

The palpable absence of global leadership and cooperation has also concealed worrying attacks on human rights, with Covid-19 a factor.  

Brown said sub-Saharan Africa is paying more in debt interest payments than it is investing in health, and called for debt write-offs, adding: “it’s not just debt relief. The IMF and the World Bank have got to open up the resources. If you look at what’s come out of the G20, IMF and World Bank meetings in the past week, we haven’t agreed on the special drawing rights, which is essentially international money that would be created and would be of special help if we could direct it to the poorest countries. Even without an American Congressional decision, you could release about £600-billion of extra money. You could find a way that it was delivered and managed to help the poorest countries.”

(See: Gordon Brown: “The solution to this crisis is still global”)

The palpable absence of global leadership and cooperation has also concealed worrying attacks on human rights, with Covid-19 a factor.  Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad is deliberately allowing the pandemic to spread in areas opposed to him, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies.  

China’s President Xi Jinping is similarly allowing a coronavirus outbreak to plague one million Uighur Muslims cramped with terrible sanitation and medical facilities in internment camps.

Other authoritarian presidents are also exploiting the pandemic.  Hungary’s Viktor Orbán is now bypassing Parliament to rule by decree, and jailing journalists and others who “spread false information”.

President Trump continues to erode or repeal environmental protections as the Guardian recently reported. NBC News reported last month that, actively blessed by President Jair Bolsonaro, “deforestation of the Amazon has soared under cover of the coronavirus”. India’s President Narendra Modi has stepped up anti-Muslim pogroms, with his supporters labelling the virus a “Muslim disease” and pro-Modi TV stations declaring the nation to be facing a “corona jihad”.

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, still in power despite losing the last election, has used the virus to corral opponents into a government of national unity and announce the annexation of whole slabs of the West Bank, which would destroy any remaining hope of an independent Palestinian state. But such a seismic illegality goes almost unnoticed with the pandemic dominating the headlines.

As the Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland commented: “the pandemic has been a boon to the world’s authoritarians, tyrants and bigots. It has given them what they crave most: fear and the cover of darkness.”  

Where then are we going to find the kind of global leadership needed to protect our most vulnerable families and communities?

Or to tackle an even more serious threat: climate change. The International Renewable Energy Agency, for instance, has estimated that investment in renewable energy could result in GDP gains of $100-trillion dollars before 2050. That would offer some hope to billions now suffering in the Covid-19 pandemic. DM

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