What Does COVID Mean For The Rise Of National Populism?

At the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, when international cooperation was needed most, the world retreated into protectionism. States quickly closed their borders and raced to secure supplies like masks and medical equipment, leaving others to suffer the costs. Multilateral institutions have been almost powerless to help. The vaccination race has deepened the gap between wealthy and poor nations, despite a global commitment to equitable distribution. The pandemic has also created an accelerated process of decoupling from global trade. Foreign Affairs magazine reported last year that states have been using the health emergency to ignore rules from the World Trade Organization and acquire subsidies and contracts for their domestic firms. Now, politicians and journalists are asking what these trends will mean for the future of national populism. Has COVID strengthened these movements? Or does it mark a tipping point?

One of the key trends highlighted amidst the pandemic is the exacerbation of inequalities. Relatively high numbers of Black and Asian minorities and working-class citizens have died or lost their jobs due to COVID-19 in both the United Kingdom and the United States. Billionaires, however, have profited from the pandemic. Statistics released by Swiss bank U.B.S. found that billionaires increased their wealth by 27.5% during the height of the first wave of the pandemic, from April to July 2020. Emergency spending has also contributed to the widening gap, as oligarchs and kleptocrats use crisis-induced borrowing to reward their political allies. According to Foreign Affairs Magazine, in the United States, the relaxed oversight provisions of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act created concerns that the Treasury would ignore fraud and reward political supporters. This feeds populist anger against established powers.

The pandemic has also exacerbated xenophobia, which is being mobilized during this crisis by the likes of Donald Trump, who called the pandemic the “Kung-flu” and the “Chinese virus.” This has fueled an increase in Asian hate crimes and more calls for anti-immigration policies. As another example, Populism and the Politicization of the COVID-19 Crisis in Europe, a collection of articles edited by Giuliano Bobba and Nicholas Hubé, details how the Brexit Party also used the pandemic to radicalize its discourse, leading to a more intense campaign against the “enemies of the people” – that is, organized government and immigrants. Marine Le Pen in France and Matteo Salvini in Italy accused their governments of taking care of migrants to the detriment of natural citizens.

Far-right media and fake newsgroups have also capitalized on this pandemic to spread false claims and information about COVID’s roots and to question science which they distrust. Other groups have mobilized against the use of masks and lockdowns, which they see as restrictions of their freedoms and disruptions to their lives. These trends would seem to suggest that COVID-19 has ushered in a rise in populist sentiments.

While the aforementioned trends are worrying, some remain optimistic that COVID has sparked national populism’s end. These arguments cite Donald Trump in the U.S., Boris Johnson in the United Kingdom, and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil. All three leaders were skeptical of the pandemic at first and were slow to implement the World Health Organization’s advice, with Trump going so far as to dismiss the virus as a hoax and Johnson encouraging a reliance on herd immunity, which the W.H.O. publicly questioned. When the pandemic started to worsen, all three governments told their people not to worry, that they had it under control. In “Old and new order,” published as part of an edited collection of articles titled The World Before and After COVID-19: Intellectual Reflections on Politics, Diplomacy and International Relations, Antonio Nuñez Garcia Sauco accused these leaders of trying to downplay the pandemic by sweetening numbers and figures. While each’s failures to effectively address COVID have been exacerbated by deep-running failures in the public welfare and health care systems, as well as structural inequalities which existed before they came into power, Trump’s, Johnson’s, and Bolsonaro’s early dismissals of science and distrust of liberal institutions have not aided the problem. Their inadequate responses have encouraged growing frustration and political dissent amongst their populations. For Trump, this dissent contributed to his loss in the 2020 election.

Why did these national populist governments struggle to deal with this crisis? Pandemics require a quick and immediate global response. COVID-19 does not respect borders, so to address it, there must be global cooperation. This requires working with international institutions and trusting science, both of which national populist leaders tend to be dismissive of. According to Robert Patman in an April 2020 article published by Newsroom, national populists see the world as divided into nation-states. This makes it difficult for them to predict and respond to situations that do not respect sovereignty.

However, global security threats are becoming increasingly international. Climate change, terrorism, and cybersecurity threats also require global responses, which national populism has proven that it is unequipped to deal with. Therefore, if COVID itself does not bring an end to national populism, there is hope that the increasing need for multilateral, transboundary action will.

While COVID-19 has eroded public support for national populist leaders, due to their slow and inadequate response to that pandemic, it has also exacerbated global trends which increase demand for populist leadership. Rising socioeconomic inequality, distrust, and racism, and xenophobia are escalating anti-immigrant feeling, and these feelings are being cultivated by the fake news and anti-vax conspiracy theorists which have proliferated with the rise of social media. To combat the demand for populist agendas, we need to better distribute wealth and vaccines and make a concerted global effort to counter racism, xenophobia, and anti-vax conspiracists. This effort must be spearheaded by the wealthy countries which have been able to vaccinate their populations.

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