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COVID-19 Pandemic and the Nation State

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By Ayodele Aderinwale and Heinrich Bergstresser

The undeniably global nature of the COVID-19 crisis will once again substantially confirm that crises are the real driving force for change. During and after the crisis humankind is often confronted with the urgent need to ponder on the direction in which the pendulum of reorientation is swinging, will swing or should swing. Crisis in the recent past, the number of which has steadily increased over the last three decades, have often led to prolonged transition phases.
Glasnost and Perestroika and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union led to a massive surge in globalisation and, indirectly, to numerous armed conflicts and the importance of Non-state-actors in this regard. The wave of migration towards Europe and the growing misery of internally displaced persons in almost all regions of the world pose challenges to the people, societies and states affected which, it seemed, had been forgotten since the end of the Second World War. The bankruptcy of the Lehman Brothers Bank precipitated a financial crisis which triggered a tremendous redistribution of global wealth in favour of international financial capital. In addition, 9/11 served as the prelude to an unprecedented surge in the scale and duration of Islamic insurgencies and terror attacks.
And now the COVID-19 crisis, triggered by an (almost) invisible enemy that seems to eclipse everything in terms of threat potential, rationality and imagination. The virus, which was first reported in Wuhan China, circumnavigated the globe within a few weeks and established itself rapidly and daresay virulently in other regions of the globe. The COVID-19 virus performs its dangerous work at breakneck speed and exponentially at the same time, confronting a global village of states whose complexity and close economic ties offer an ideal conduit pipe for global spread and impact. Simultaneously and painfully revealing the soft under belly of current global configuration and the vulnerability of modern societies which had practically imposed individualism and self-responsibility as the dominant paradigm in terms of social relations. The reality of current developments is more of an unprecedented experiment in a “politically defined world laboratory” which for quite a long time will determine power structures for the better or the worse.
In several regions of the world the radical neo-liberal discourse of recent decades has created a growing distance between the elites, including the political class and large sections of their citizens. This, in turn, has triggered a massive and obviously mistaken deregulation and commercialisation of critical social sectors areas such as health, security, education and infrastructure, which resembles a redistribution machine in favour of a numerically small group of rich and super-rich people – the so- called Super Hubs – who, for example, meet at the annual World Economic Forum in Davos. In Africa in particular the divide is highly pronounced such that the WaBenzis have mutated into WaJetis[2]! For the rest of the populace, it is a constant preoccupation with what to eat, where to live, what to wear, how to stay dry and alive and seldom if ever is there a serious concern with the word political and without the adjective political the noun society has nothing to qualify.
At the same time, the justified fears in the upper middle class of being relegated have increased, not to mention the fears of the lower middle class of slipping into precariousness. Purchased with the promise of unlimited freedom and unbridled pleasure, the protagonists have so far been quite successful in fading out the growing objective contradictions. The COVID-19 virus, however, which is free of any ideology, turns out to be a brutal spoilsport, bringing all the blatant contradictions to light and raising the essential questions about the legitimacy and power of the Nation State (particularly as conferred on it by the Westphalian treaty). Over quite a long period this Nation State, conquering and exploiting more than half of the world, took shape of today’s western liberal state. With the surplus, to a large extent generated by external exploitation it developed the capacity to provide for basic needs such as security, health etc to the vast majority of the citizens, and in addition the steering capacity of modern political systems. The dysfunctionality of the so-called limited or what we call the hybrid state is now so obvious and so stark. For once the Western power elites and their global acolytes are shown that the whole essence of the state and governance seem to have been traded off on the altars of attainment of a lean and mean state.
The initially negligent handling of the virus both in Wuhan and shortly afterwards in Europe with the original epicentre Ischgl in Austria, a super amusement park for ski and party enthusiasts, and northern Italy with its Chinese dominated textile industries, revealed the structural weaknesses of the modern liberal Nation State. In the early stages of the pandemic, systemic differences played no role. The Chinese Communist Party tried, albeit with little success, to hush up the issue of COVID-19 and the danger of the rapidly spreading epidemic. Nonetheless the Chinese Communist Party actually demonstrated its firm control over the State by effectively locking up Wuhan. The result is the relatively fewer number of deaths in China, even if controversial as per Western propaganda, the fact is that the within China spread was curtailed contrary to what is currently happening in America.
For their part, the state institutions in Europe responsible for epidemics and pandemics ignored very early warnings from epidemiologists (e.g. from Iceland), so that many hundreds of ski tourists from Ischgl were able to spread the virus unhindered in Europe and the business in Ischgl, driven by greed, entertainment and ignorance, continued with the approval of state authorities, although disaster was already looming (see the Ischgl Protocol, Spiegel of 28 March 2020). In northern Italy however, tens of thousands of Chinese formal and informal contract workers and locals quite often working under appalling conditions and traditional Italian family structures were a fertile ground for the virus. In Africa, a region notorious for its demonstrable lack of strategic thinking and or planning by those in control, powered by infrastructural deficit, managerial deficit and incompetence and buoyed by copycatism, the nightmare scenario as predicted by the World Bank looks more possible than impossible. Of course, the saving grace could also be nature as to the inherent characteristics of COVID-19 that are not fully known as at today.
The emergency brake in Wuhan as well as in Europe and with considerable delay in the hit hard USA meanwhile shows the Janus-faced nature and character of the neo-liberal Nation State, which is more or less legitimized according to the respective political system. In cases of doubt, uncertainties and crises the Nation State tries to enforce its monopoly on the use of force to combat the pandemic without regard to losses and utilising threat and applications of coercive measures, in the belief or better, in the hope of somehow getting the pandemic under control. The Chinese government however, is facing a crisis of credibility, and the liberal Western democracies are operating within the narrow framework of rule of law and more general frame of the respective constitution. Against the backdrop of the COVID-19 Pandemic however, with its imponderables and uncertainties associated with the pandemic it is a tightrope walk. Against this backdrop this crisis once again reveals the fact that the modern liberal democratic legitimised Nation State cannot guarantee its existence which relies on premise / requirement the Nation State itself cannot guarantee. The rifts within the EU amplifies this since they were torn open with unprecedented breadth, in a peace and social project that was unparalleled in a globalising world, but which now threatens the supporting pillars and thus the project as a whole is at stake.
Common interests, solidity and solidarity were yesterday; isolation, exclusion, blame, envy, populism, fascist, hatred, racist movements and the tendency to suspend rights that have been fought for and securitised increasingly dominate the scene today.
The Nation State is thus supposed to make it possible to resolve a global crisis, the effects of which cannot yet be really assessed and estimated, carried by an (almost) invisible enemy. Authoritarianism, garnished with carrot and stick, is ready to maintain the currently existing power structure. This task was taken over by the state as the leading crisis manager, which also willingly assumes this task, provides hundreds of billions of euros and dollars and pretends to do so solely in the interest of the community and the common good.
As important as the Nation State’s superstructure is for the functioning of society, the economy and the state, the survival of a free political and social system depends on the capability of the great majority of people of self-control and its implementation at everyday life. The COVID-19 pandemic clearly highlights this difficult dialectical relationship. People are still following the guidelines and not yet questioning the structural changes behind the pandemic, which are creating a political-economic milestone where the pendulum could swing positively in the direction of a new transnational social contract in favour of a new adjustment: More “stateness”, in which provision to satisfy basic needs in the areas of health, security, education, participation, responsibility and infrastructure are given their rightful place.
In addition, new paradigm of social relationship within neighbourhoods and the communities, between the youth and the elders, is the decisive recipe in resolving such a crisis. No doubt: future pandemics will inevitably occur, and existing challenges such as climate change and a new world order committed to peace and distributive justice have to be addressed.
But the unexpected impact of the pandemic can also turn the other way round, into repression, resistance, envy, hate, uprising and new uncertainties within a fragmented world society which would mean the future would not bode well. While the first set of battles in this war will be to beat the corona virus and its threat to social relations the consequent economic spinoffs are mammoth. Meanwhile the global economy is hugely dependent on a China whose economy is projected to contract by as much as 6.5{ea8c11308c9c5919903708965b7b7a67d75ff567d88a1bebc318ff793fd0b309}. The impending global economic crises will hit the poor countries most, in short it will hit Africa the hardest. It is suggested that half of the population in Africa may lose their jobs!! The increase in social inequalities globally would be mind boggling and current prognosis suggests that it would be worse than 2008 and thus triggering another round of nationalism, parochialism, violence and resource-based wars. Would the rich countries act jointly and severally with a view to protecting our global commons? Or will they play the Ostrich game? Or worse still take a Trumpian weltanschauung? Is this good the opportunity to press the reset button? How can we boost the recovery with sustainability and gender focus? Can we have a better and stronger post Covid-19 society?
The leadership in Africa in particular may well seize the opportunity to reconfigure security architecture as a fundamental imperative. As an outflow from that it could develop a sustainable resource mobilization framework to plug into internal and external resources for social sectors such as health and education among others. The international community with its ostensibly well intentioned need to go into debt forgiveness would hopefully not make it a blanket one size fits all case but would go on a country by country basis and making it conditional based on supervised investment in the social sectors.
Perhaps the scariest of all possibilities is that we may wrestle Covid 19 to the ground for now and what if it chooses to make another global tour de force? How come in spite of experiences with bird flu, Ebola etc nothing in our repertoire prepared us sufficiently for a true pandemic? Is it not time to rethink the Nation State and its entire security architecture?
The approach of thinking globally and acting locally, born quite some time ago, has not lost its appeal as a valid recipe. It won’t resolve all challenges but it would support the better understanding of a world structure where unity, diversity and interdependency are two sides of a coin.
Only then human kind would be in a position to develop a more just, sustainable and decent environment and life. Anything else would lead to a breakdown of any comprehensible order and dehumanised societies.
*Ayodele Aderinwale lives in Lagos, Nigeria and Heinrich Bergstresser lives in Cologne, Germany.
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