Analysis, Latest on coronavirus outbreak

ANALYSIS - COVID-19 pandemic as global political crisis

Amid crisis, US failed not only its rivals like Iran, but also allies such as Italy by ignoring their calls for help

Ali Balci and Tuncay Kardas   | 24.03.2020
ANALYSIS - COVID-19 pandemic as global political crisis


The world has been under the effect of the new type of coronavirus for the last couple of months. While more than 17,100 people have lost their lives, over 392,300 people were directly affected by the virus. Besides its influences on human life and health sector, it is necessary to mention that this outbreak, which has turned into a pandemic, would also have a lot of consequences in terms of politics.

It is one of the important findings of the social sciences that such unexpected events that upset the lives of masses overwhelm the established forms of policymaking and enable the transition to new political discourses and practices. In this article, we aim to assess what kind of outcomes the COVID-19 outbreak would give birth in the political field in both short and medium terms. It is possible to classify these assessments; after first examining how COVID-19 outbreak affects general/normal ways of doing politics, we set the analysis in three phases: Specific state example, regional orders, global power struggle.

New normal: Techno-politics

COVID-19 epidemic not only threatens human health but also undermines social and political patterns. Firstly, COVID-19 has a characteristic to inhibit politics. The most important reason for this is the conflict between the traditional logic of politics, which discriminates between friends and enemies, and health-based techno-politics. This dispute also influences the decision-making dynamics. The social-economic decisions about the future of a country are now left to the private-technical information regimes and representatives. COVID-19 outbreak has demonstrated that the political reflexes introduced at first are dramatically dysfunctional and a new style of politics which prioritizes technology/technical information replaces it. It is one of the most striking examples of how a scientific report in Britain forced a right-wing populist power to take a stand. In the U.K., Boris Johnson's government initially adopted the policy of “spreading the virus” using initiative and taking political risk, but quickly switched to a policy of “suppressing” the virus based on a new report of scientists from Imperial College. It is remarkable in this sense that the policy on the virus outbreak in Turkey, which has not made this mistake, has been left to the skills of a science board since the beginning. Another important example in this sense is how the successful crisis management of the minister of health, a physician, has made the current political power more acceptable even in the eyes of the opponents.

Secondly, civil society and solidarity politics all over the world are being replaced by policies of strict controls, which make hillbilly and social isolation a priority. This is also a development closely related to the political technique. Indeed, the introduction of politics into a techno-political form not only pushes the average citizen further out of the corporate politics, but also challenges preliminary assumptions about the functioning and nature of the state. This new form makes the state that holds devices of controlling health-technical regimes even more advantageous to the individual. The society, which is trying to find its way between the faltering economic structure and the volatile political practices, is becoming more confused. Society can find no other way than to surrender itself to this language and politics of health, which is emerging as a new ideological device. This new form is radical and jarring. Because unlike certain ideological devices, it appears in ways that do not cling to the culture/tradition, or even to the possibilities of “reproduction”, such as the fetish of consumption. For example, it is not only the restrictions on mosque and Friday prayers, but the fact that congregational worship and other social practices will likely not take place during the upcoming Ramadan as a result.

Thirdly, there is a leap in social formation and communication shifting to more virtual realms. The mediocrity, which ideology “calls” the individual as the subject, is disappearing. The fact that the school, the most important medium of social reproduction, is shifting to the digital space by changing form and content, heralding a radical change. While this is a trend we have been experiencing for a long time, with the recent global COVID-19 epidemic, the traditional mechanisms of socialization that have taken the individual (from teacher-student relationship to Sunday shopping) are seriously shaken. Another consequence of this new state is that it is easier to control individual opportunities and initiatives in one direction. With the coronavirus epidemic crisis, the increase of (false) communication and the shift to (urgent/alarmist) sectoral language with virtual communication, which liberal capitalism has blessed as “the possibility of freedom from the state”, make the future of social movements more pessimistic.

The future of the European Union

The European Union is one of the regional blocs that suffer the most from the epidemic. It continues to display an inability to use the “common good” and “public benefit” in crises, one of its most fundamental claims since the Cold War. Recently, with the rise of the radical right in Europe, identity politics has gained a considerable momentum and far-right parties have become the partners in power, either directly or by likening mainstream parties to themselves.

In addition to breaking down the identity of the Union, it can be said that the first political trend that COVID-19 will displace is the far-right identity politics. However, the disruption of identity politics, in addition to the U.K. example and other examples we have mentioned, does not mean that the union will save the future. Because techno-politics, which replaces identity politics, also prefers the closure of territorial and social borders. The fact that each country makes its own health issue a priority eliminates the political-economic integrity and solidarity that are the most important engine of the EU. In short, the EU, which has been destroyed by the identity politics, continues to be destroyed by the new isolationist dynamics of techno-politics, even if identity politics loses its position.

Disaster in Iran

Some countries’ experiences give significant clues about the direction of the world politics. Especially, the COVID-19 experience in Iran has characteristics worthy of note. China, just like Iran, has an authoritative regime type. On the other hand, remarkable differences between Iran and China have occurred during the crisis. In the COVID-19 epidemic, Iran, which has a theocratic form of government, engaged in identity politics and lied to its people, paving the way for a major disaster. As a result of this religious-identity politics, Iran has not interfered for long, for example, with people from Qom, nor has it delayed in taking the necessary measures to combat the new type of coronavirus outbreak. China, on the other hand, used its authoritarianism as a means of settlement politics at the time of crisis and prevented the spread of the virus with rapid, on-the-spot measures.

Therefore, it turned out that authoritarian governments, which operate through technical devices instead of authoritarian governments built through identity, intervene in crises much more effectively.

Another fact demonstrated by the Iranian experience is that the U.S. does not ease Iranian embargoes despite all the calls from the world, and may even consider military intervention in Iran in the process. This shows more clearly how the new politics of hegemony imposed by the U.S. President Donald Trump would take shape at a time of crisis. The new image of the U.S., which relentlessly maintains its embargo policy on Iran, which is experiencing a major health crisis as a country, gives no confidence to anyone. There is an image of an opportunistic hegemon who does not accept any humanitarian perspective as a reference, using even a deep health crisis as a leverage against opponents . With this approach, the image of the U.S., which does not trust even its allies, has been strengthened. It should not be forgotten that in this global health crisis, the U.S. failed not only its rivals like Iran but also an allies like Italy by ignoring their calls for help. Ironically, China rushed to Italy's aid, which gives some details about China's new hegemony politics.

U.S. and its displeased allies

The U.S. has for some time entered into a new nationalist foreign policy line with the Trump administration, with the motto “sharing costs” assigning responsibility to its allies in the face of international problems. The first consequence of this new form of governance is that the cost of being allied with the U.S. has increased. Until the recent crisis, the U.S. allies had not yet been able to test what gains they had in return from sharing costs. The first serious test took place in the face of the COVID-19 outbreak, and the U.S. preferred to close its borders to them rather than supporting its allies (for example, in the face of Italy's dramatic calls for help). The “normality” of the American order, seeking a solution in greater isolation, has now vanished in the eyes of its allies. Moreover, the enormous incompetence and the indifferent approach to solving the COVID-19 crisis in his home country has greatly undermined the U.S.'s ability and legitimacy to be a superpower. How sustainable is the costly alliance of the U.S., which, despite its advanced technology and kits to test for COVID-19 disease, is incapable of supplying itself and its allies?

The experience of the COVID-19 pandemic also signals a new hardening in China-U.S. global competition. In response to China’s deporting of U.S. journalists one by one, Trump’s America persistently describes the virus as a “Chinese virus,” preferring to take positions both inside and outside. However, even during the Cold War, the U.S. and the Soviet Union were able to set aside global competition and develop a common policy against problems such as smallpox. The experience of a new type of coronavirus outbreak therefore shows that in this new era, the competition between the great powers can be brutal and without exception. The rivalry of these two great powers, who are expected to carry out cooperation with global responsibility consciousness firsthand in times of crisis, is damaging to the whole world.

Financial superiority of China

China appears to have snatched from America its role as the “compassionate” leading country that benefits the public on a global scale. It has also managed to make Wuhan forget the responsibility of having hidden the outbreak, which began in November 2019, for months.

Well, how does it do this?

As the crisis of COVID-19 epidemic emerged, China had two important advantages, diplomatic and financial. Firstly, the advantage of experience gained by having experienced the epidemic and stopping it to a considerable extent. It reaches out to tens of countries through diplomatic channels and video conferences, making critical information sharing in the fight against the epidemic and conveying its experiences.

The second is the advantage of providing financial and technical information to countries struggling with the epidemic after being out of the vortex of the epidemic. China has already begun delivering disease testing kits to a wide geography plagued by the epidemic. Moreover, it does this as a donation through Ali Baba, one of the most important global trade networks. It also skillfully advertises tens of thousands of masks, ventilators and test kit assistance it has made to many countries in Africa, and especially in Italy.

Of course, through these new political techniques, China's crisis management will have serious repercussions in the world politics. China, which solved the COVID-19 epidemic by leaning on maximum technology, is imposing its own model to the whole world as the epidemic becomes acute. Many of the normally frightening instruments, such as the mapping of names caught with Covid-19 disease and the elimination of the possibility of contact with non-infected people, are now becoming the mechanisms the world desires to prevent the spread of the epidemic.

In addition to this material superiority, it is not yet clear whether China will be able to seize the moral-psychological superiority in the world politics. On the other hand, it is necessary to note that it has put great effort in this regard. It spreads propaganda that the virus was brought to China from outside, and it is an opportunity for its opponents to manage the crisis inexorably. Not only does the EU and especially the U.S. help the world, but it also makes it easier for China to do anything other than stand in its own way and wait.

*Ali Balci is a political scientist at Sakarya University in Turkey's Black Sea region. Tuncay Kardas is director of the Middle East Institute of Sakarya University

*Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu Agency

*Translated by Merve Dastan in Ankara

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