6th Jun 2023


Waking up after corona. How will the world look?

  • Waking up from the first wave of Covid-19, the world doesn't look like a safer, more stable place (Photo: Matthew Tempest)

A Dutch friend of mine visited Venice last week. He wanted to see the city without the usual crowd of tourists.

A Venetian waiter was happy to welcome him to his terrace until he learned that my friend was Dutch. Kindness turned into grimness.

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The Dutch government's unwillingness to help Italy and Spain after the corona crisis was met with much resentment.

This resentment turned into anger when the Dutch finance minister, Wopke Hoekstra, asked why northern European countries had built buffers, and southern European countries did not. The front page of the magazine Elsevier, depicting working 'North Europeans' and lazy cocktail-sipping 'Southerners', was nothing short of insulting and went viral in Italy.

"It runs deep, very deep," said my Dutch friend.

In sum, with the corona crisis in Europe, many wondered what the world would look like after the crisis.

Some predicted that everything would be different. The crisis would make people realise that there is more than standing together in a traffic jam while going to work and that family, friends and neighbours are more important than money.

Geopolitically, the crisis would make us realise that viruses have no national borders and do not distinguish between colour, religion or nationality. In short, the pandemic would finally reverse the upward trend of nationalism and polarisation.

However, as we gradually wake up from the crisis in Europe, existing trends appear to have intensified, rather than reversed.

For example, the media are investing even further in online news, working from home (for those who can) is ever-more the new normal, and online meetings will continue to replace face-to-face ones.

At the same time, we also realise that online education and online conferences and online meetings are less productive than the traditional way of meeting in person. A good example is the fact that the European Council decided to return to sitting around the conference table in person in July - because it was so far simply impossible to reach consensus online.

The corona crisis thus appears to be more of a trend-accelerator than a trend-changer.

This also seems to apply to world politics.

The pandemic soon turned out to be like salt being rubbed into existing wounds. After earlier, condescending, statements during the financial crisis of 2008-2009, the Dutch statements now were an extra hard slap in the face of the Italians.

China too reacted furiously when US president Donald Trump insisted on calling the corona virus the "China virus".

In addition, the US withdrew from the World Health Organisation because it was said to be "too Chinese". The pre-existing tensions between the United States and China have escalated to such an extent during the crisis that Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi warned of another Cold War. Meanwhile, dozens died in a military clash between Indian and Chinese soldiers.

And in a recent report, Europol predicts that the corona crisis will also intensify terrorism, whether it be jihadism or extreme right and left-wing terrorism.

Another phenomenon that occurred during the lockdown is no less disturbing. Several authoritarian regimes abused the worldwide focus on the pandemic to silently push their illiberal agenda.

China decided to take over the 'security' of Hong Kong. Turkey and Russia sent troops and weapons to Libya in a battle for power and oil. Egypt arrested more activists and announced it would not rule out a military raid on Libya. The Hungarian government tightened its grip on the media and the opposition. Congo sentenced an opposition leader to 20 years of hard labour. The Belarusian president arrested his rival candidate. And so on, and so forth.

Perhaps even more important than the salt being rubbed into wounds and politics of authoritarian leaders is that something has changed in people's minds.

New fear...other people

Where we had been living for 20 years with fear of terrorism and fear that our savings could suddenly go up in smoke, a new fear has now emerged: fear of contamination.

It is this new fear that made people snitch on neighbours, or shout at other people if they were standing to close to each other.

It was most discomforting to see how quickly our societies turned into some kind of spontaneous police state.

It was the same fear that European countries made close their borders and kept face masks, intended for other countries, for themselves. And the same fear urged some people in Africa and South America to shoo away Europeans because they may have been infected.

A fourth fear flared up with the protests on Black Lives Matter: the fear of identity loss.

The more than justified anger about deep-seated racism, today and in the past, risks of turning into an accusation of racism and privilege against anyone who is white.

It is true, of course, that most white people do not realise how often dark-skinned people deal with racism. And most of them don't know how deeply frustrating and discouraging racism is. So, yes, this must change urgently and thoroughly.

But that doesn't make all white people racists or even privileged. This kind of generalisation creates a new polarisation in which the legitimate demand for recognition becomes a demand for repentance - which will only strengthen the white supremacists.

In short, after the first wave of the coronavirus in Europe and Asia, we have not woken up in a more open, safe and stable world.

The polarisation within Europe, between China and the United States, but also within individual countries has not become smaller, but bigger. Moreover, this polarisation is fuelled by old and new fears. The corona virus turned the existing trend of polarisation into a very dangerous trend.

Which is, unfortunately, not new. A recent study shows that 100 years ago, the Nazi party clearly got more votes in regions of Germany that were relatively more-affected by the Spanish flu.

Let this be a warning to those who think that after the lockdown the worst lies behind us.


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