(Second in a series of articles on the implications of the coronavirus for our times, for human history, and for the fate of the earth.)
The novel coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, has been making its way across the world, conquering one territory after another, since it first emerged in China around three months ago. There are now 185 countries where the virus has taken hold, and most of them, barring a few that took early and concerted measures to mitigate it, are finding it difficult to restrain the advance of the virus within their territories. Much like a world conqueror, the virus respects no borders, recognizes no nation-states, and cares not an iota for sovereignty. This may be one reason why the leaders of many countries, and even Donald J. Trump, an open exponent of the idea ‘America First’, have declared that the wholly unprecedented situation created by the virus concerns all humankind. “Let’s look out for each other,” the WHO’s Director-General said in pronouncing the virus a pandemic, “because we’re in this together, to do the right things with calm and protect the citizens of the world.” Musicians, actors, and major public figures are all part of the choir reassuring the world that “we are all in this together”.
The virus has many other characteristics besides its indifference to nations, ethnicities, and religions, among them the fact that comparatively little is known about it and, most importantly, that it is “invisible”. There is no cure for it yet even if the internet is awash with hundreds of purported remedies. Addressing the nation on March 17, French President Emmanuel Macron declared “nous sommes en guerre”, “We are at war”, adding: “The enemy is there—invisible, elusive—and it is advancing.” Many other politicians have also taken to describing their country as being “at war”, and the WHO’s head has similarly characterized it as an “enemy against humanity.” Since the United States has launched in succession, aside from military engagements that are ordinarily understood as taking a country to war, a number of other “wars”—most prominently, on drugs, cancer, and terror—it is no surprise that it now stands ready to launch a war on the virus. That political elites, whatever their purported ideological differences, think rather alike most of the time is nowhere better demonstrated than in the language deployed to characterize the deadly stealth with which the virus moves and attacks: as Trump said a few days ago, “We have to fight that invisible enemy—unknown, but we are getting to know it a bit better.” The military metaphor comes naturally to nearly every American politician, but a politician such as Biden—a life-long Democrat, the Tweedledee to Trump’s Tweedledum—was not being merely rhetorical when in the Democratic primary debate with Sanders he declared, “We’re at war with a virus.” He has suggested mobilizing the military and calling in the National Guard.
Wars have often proven to produce outcomes worse than “the enemy” that they were meant to eliminate, and much more could be said of all the dangers that lurk in the heady rush to this war. For the present, however, it is enough to dwell on one aspect of this contemporary discourse: when there is an enemy, nationalism is not far behind. “We are all in this together” may be read as an encomium to John Donne’s famous exposition of 1624, Meditation XII of Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, and in particular to these lines: “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is piece of the continent, a part of the main . . . any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.” It is also, as we have seen, the hoary cry being raised by all “right-thinking” and good people as the coronavirus continues to exact its toll. Yesterday hundreds of radio stations over nearly all of Europe simultaneously broadcast the song, “You’ll Never Walk Alone”, in an expression of solidarity and to give those battling the disease in grim loneliness the courage to fight it. And, yet, everywhere the virus has with equal urgency impelled nations to become insular and raise the flag of nationalism.
Let us consider briefly, without any pretense that the subject is exhausted, a few respects in which the global response to the coronavirus pandemic exhibits pronounced nationalist tendencies. It is worth recalling that, during World War II, several nations were competing furiously with each other to develop the atomic bomb. Such achievements are always a matter of national pride, even when, as is the case with nuclear weapons, the achievement is itself nothing short of an obscenity. There is now a global race—among the United States, Germany, China, the European Union, and perhaps some others—to develop a vaccine for the coronavirus. The naïve might well think that such competition is healthy, and it scarcely matters which country first develops a vaccine. All of humanity may be one, but no nation-state has ever acted on anything but the idea that its own population must take precedence over others, especially in times of acute crisis.
If and when a vaccine is developed to combat the virus, there is good reason to believe that the country that develops it will first ensure a supply for its own citizens, and may even attempt to extract advantages for itself before distributing it to other countries. The precedents from the recent past are not reassuring: in 2009, when the swine flu (H1N1) had struck enough countries with sufficient force to warrant its designation by the WHO as a pandemic, an Australian company was the first to develop successfully a single-dose vaccine. The Australian government, a recent academic article notes, “made it clear to the Australian manufacturer CSL that it must fulfill the government’s domestic needs before exporting the vaccine to the United States”, and likewise the US’s Secretary of Health and Human Services stated candidly on 28 October 2009 that only after “all at-risk Americans” had been treated with the vaccine would a donation to other countries be contemplated. Poor nations are invariably the last to receive vaccines—if at all they receive them. There can be no doubt that as the major powers each militarize their national research effort to produce a vaccine to fight COVID-19 that nationalist sentiments will prevail.
Secondly, and most evidently, countries have in quick succession sealed themselves off from other nations, policing borders with the aid of all the technologies of the modern state. The US was first off the mark with the announcement that it would not permit any flights from China. Italy placed a cordon sanitaire around itself, and Germany closed its borders with Austria, Denmark, France, Luxembourg, and Switzerland; and Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic proceeded to close their borders in turn. The European Union as a whole has practically cut off Europe from the rest of the world. Numerous other examples could easily be cited from other parts of the world, and everywhere the justification is the same: freedom of movement must be curtailed if the advance of the virus is to be halted. But the matter is far more complex: the “enemy” is always the other, the foreigner, the alien; the expulsion of the other is also a way of rendering the nation “pure”. Now that the invader is a virus, a hideous calamity that threatens to disfigure the nation, it is all the more necessary to keep the nation whole and hermetically seal it from those who do not belong.
The vigilance with which each nation-state seeks to guard itself from others has yet another, equally vital, dimension. For the last three decades, since the time that the Berlin Wall came down, the Soviet Union was fractured and dissolved, and the Cold War was officially brought to an end with the open acknowledgment that the experiment in communism had failed as well as with the concomitant rush among the countries of what had been the Eastern Bloc to embrace with full-throated enthusiasm the putative virtues of the free market economy, the only allegedly universal principle has been the idea of globalization. It has been drummed into everyone that the world is shrinking, that the fulfillment of human destiny everywhere resides in being good and hearty consumers and giving their acceptance to the idea that electoral democracy is the only viable form of government, and that goods (supposedly like ideas) must be allowed to move across borders without hindrance. Some on the left of the political spectrum who did not share this vision nevertheless had their own version of globalism, adhering to the hope that the demise of the nation-state was at hand and that supra-national organizations such as the United Nations and European Union would help to govern the world. The coronavirus, it may be said, has considerably weakened the hand of those who stand by globalization and given further impetus to nationalism, already on the rise in many countries around the world. The ultra-right nationalist parties in European nations must, I suspect, be loving the coronavirus: the COVID-19 pandemic has, they feel, vindicated them. So much for all the attempts to write the obituary of the nation-state.
First published at abplive.in under the same title, here.