An open society is much more fragile than it may seem. In the name of Corona, we are currently deeply harming the very fabric of what makes countries have high degrees of wellbeing, freedom and resilience. What’s more, while we are voluntarily doing this damage to our own society’s long-term hard-fought rights and institutions, we are causing millions of direct victims every day.
In many regions of the world, after three generations of political stability and democratic success, the lessons from the past are easily forgotten. In Western Europe, many young adults have never met anyone who has lived in a totalitarian regime. They never knew their great-grandparents who suffered through World War 2. It should therefore not have come as surprise when many of my students of international relations hardly blinked when the military was put onto the streets to control the Spanish population. But it did come as surprise to me.
Using armed forces to lock up people in their own homes was such an obvious red line, one so in direct conflict with an open society’s principles, that I was astounded by the lack of any serious push-back. Neither politicians, nor media nor my own students seemed overly concerned. We have a mortal enemy named “Corona” and suspending a few democratic principles in that fight is seen as completely normal and justified. I have lost count of the number of times that people have indignantly asked me “if I hadn’t heard about completely overwhelmed hospitals where doctors have to make terrible decisions about who lives and who dies?” “What else are we supposed to do?” “Who cares about individual rights at a time like this, when we face an existential crisis?”
The truth is that the world is not in existential danger when it comes to Corona. The world is, however, facing an existential danger when it comes to good governance, open society and individual freedoms. The actions that governments- supported by a fearful populace and an outrageously compliant media- are taking now will have a deeply destructive impact on the resilience, social health and freedoms that previous generations have fought so hard for. My father lived through Nazi occupation in the Netherlands in the 1940s. My grandmother was born on a ship on the Black Sea while her mother was fleeing communist oppression in Russia and her father fought it on the battlefield and died doing so.
Both my father and my grandmother died peacefully in an open and free society and were deeply grateful for that. Both would be horrified by what is happening right now.
Before analysing the long-lasting damage to our governance arrangements, however, it is helpful to first look at the nature of Corona and the millions of direct victims that our reaction to it is causing.
Corona Characteristics: Not an Existential Threat
Corona is a serious global health challenge. That may sound like an understatement in current circumstances, but it is not: Corona is a serious global health challenge, not more and not less.
Not only have tens of thousands of people already died from it with many more likely to follow, it also raises important questions about the state of our health care systems and the insufficient resources it has received in neoliberal governance models. Any decent society should strive to grant every person a long and fulfilling life with a peaceful, harmonious and natural end. That does not mean, however, that we should not look at statistics and facts.
At the moment of writing, on March 30th, Covid-19 has claimed about 10% of the fatalities that the flu causes annually around the world, namely anywhere between 250 thousand and 500 thousand out of over three million serious illnesses. Even though there is no scientific consensus yet on the exact characteristics of Covid-19, it seems likely that it is deadlier and, possibly, more contagious than the flu. Especially since it is new, and we do not have vaccines or built-up immune systems yet, it should be a priority from a medical perspective.
On the other hand, it crucially displays patterns similar to other viruses: it mainly targets elderly people or those with a compromised immune system, just like the flu and many other diseases do. Both are particularly dangerous to the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions or compromised immune systems. Initial data from China suggest very low risks for healthy young people, but a roughly 8% fatality rate for people over 80. That also means, by the way, that it is by no means an automatic death sentence for the elderly: those of 80 and above have a 92% chance to recover after contracting the virus.
The above observations are exactly what one would expect from health scares in general, for obvious reasons. Most of those who die of corona right now were already more vulnerable to the “usual” health threats we are familiar with. In the end, Corona may potentially, possibly, lead to a larger number of fatalities than the flu but, if so, it is still unlikely to be of a completely different magnitude. Just like the flu and all other health challenges we face, there is no evidence that Corona is an existential threat to our world. The fact that it is currently causing overwhelmed ICUs is a serious problem but does not change this general observation.
In many ways, the crisis is overwhelmed ICUs rather than the broader pattern of Corona. These are not the same thing. Having conversations about how we treat Corona patients as opposed to other medical emergencies- how in so many countries the healthcare system is underfunded, under-appreciated and thus underprepared; how it can be that countries’ statistics diverge in mortality rates, etc.- would be sensible and important. But we cannot afford to forget about the bigger picture. Every year roughly a hundred million people die. This is always a tragedy for those involved and a Covid-19 victim is not necessarily more tragic than all those other cases. The dark reality is that we are currently causing many more fatalities because of our reaction to this new virus than Corona itself is responsible for.
There are still many unknowns with respect to Corona and there will be for quite a while longer. A curious fact, for example, seems to be that it disproportionately targets men; experts do not know why that is. There are also indications that Corona may be much more widespread already, with millions being infected. If that’s the case, it will be even more similar to the flu, with much lower fatality rates than currently thought.
Having unknowns, however, does not grant us a licence to just randomly make up predictions or go with worst-case scenario modelling. All the claims about millions of victims are just as credible as a prediction that the numbers will stay similar or below that of the flu: there is no legitimate basis for either. We simply do not know. Certain countries display different data than others and they are almost always incomplete. What will happen in India and the United States over the next few weeks should give a better indication. Computer modelling depends on accurate data and variables, something medical experts do not yet have at their disposal right now.
Millions of Victims, Right Now
While media provide us with panicked and often hysteric updates on daily corona victims and projected victims, there is little to no attention being paid to the millions of victims our overreaction is causing right here, right now. There are the anecdotal cases of elderly homes being neglected in the current chaos, family members no longer being able to care for those in need and other such examples. These are desperately underreported in the media as they do not fit the current narrative that the only relevant enemy is Corona and that we cannot be distracted or question ourselves at this time of existential struggle.
Less restrictive- and therefore less harmful- measures implemented by states in the US, Sweden and some other countries have been dismissed as “sick experiments.” The question is, however, whether the real experiment here is locking up an entire population and shutting down entire countries.
Once you start making a complete list of our overreaction’s victims, it turns out be near endless. The list starts with the relatively minor (but not insignificant) issues: hundreds of millions of children’s development being held back by being locked inside and not having access to schooling; lonely elderly as they can no longer have their daily social visits; and entire families facing horrendously difficult days, weeks and months by being locked up in small apartments.
Then the list moves on to the more dramatic cases: homeless people without any serious support mechanism, people being fired from their jobs, small shop owners, street musicians, immigrants working in informal sectors, etc., all losing their livelihoods without any clear prospect on how to manage and get on with life. Because let’s be clear: despite false claims to the contrary, there is no way whatsoever that governments can compensate the whole of their respective societies for this economic catastrophe. There is no such thing as a magic governmental money tree. Millions of people in Europe alone will be significantly worse off, some of whom are already in dire straits, not knowing how they can buy food or medicine for their families. Those already vulnerable groups are now pushed off a cliff; no one seems to be particularly concerned about that.
Then the list moves on to genuinely tragic victims. Right now, especially in the developing world, millions of people are facing direct starvation, extreme poverty and/or deep social deprivation. The tens of millions of people worldwide who have recently lost their jobs are often from already marginalised and vulnerable communities. Through the world’s self-inflicted economic collapse and basic shutdown of globalisation, those dependent on the neoliberal mechanisms so eagerly set up by the developed world are now left to fend for themselves. As a consequence, many have already lost access to basic medical facilities, essential medicine and other such necessities. This will only get worse when the full scale of the economic damage becomes apparent. It would be easy to give a long list of anecdotal evidence and global trends that show this to be the case, but the exact numbers and cost will only become apparent in the next few years. “Tens of millions” would likely be lowballing the real figure if past (much more minor) economic disruptions are anything to go by.
Very few leaders currently have the political courage to swim against the global stream of panic and mass hysteria. It is likely that they will never have to pay a serious political price for refusing to do so, despite their actions causing so much harm and suffering to completely innocent victims. With respect to the complicit media, it will likely be something similar to what happened after the initial years of the destructive “War on Terror”: some self-reflective editorial in a few years from now, acknowledging journalistic failure and promises of not repeating the same mistakes ever again.
The Governance Problem: The End of the End of History
Beyond the short-term destruction we are wreaking on the most vulnerable of our global society, the other damage inflicted right now is perhaps less visible but just as potentially harmful: liberal, free, open societies are under threat in a way not seen since the darkest days of the 20th century. In 1992 Francis Fukuyama wrote the hugely influential “The End of History and the Last Man”, arguing that the future would be one of open, liberal democracies spanning the world without further need for warfare or major ideological clashes. This vision seems further away than ever now.
The “War on Terror” already showed the flaws in Fukuyama’s premise, not least because it made apparent how fragile democracy truly is: governments jumped at the occasion to strengthen their power vis-à-vis citizens and limit individual freedoms. This was mostly done out all in the open and with full consent of a citizenry fearful of invisible (and for the most part non-existing) terrorists about to strike their towns and villages. Without any conspiracy, the balance between authorities and their populations radically altered. It bears repeating that this occurred based on a false premise: that the liberal world was in an existential fight against a mostly invisible enemy. Of course, terrorism did happen, but it was never a statistical threat in the way it was presented.
Many of the laws and measures created during those days have never been reversed. Governments tend to hold on to power whenever they can. There is no conspiracy behind this, it is simply the way human systems function. In hindsight, governmental overreach from then seems peanuts compared to what is happening now. In many ways, the “War on Terror” now feels like an early test-case for what democratic authorities can get away with. It softened the ground, as it were.
The current Corona crisis has led to governmental powers unheard of in modern times, at least in liberal democracies. The most basic observation to illustrate this is the one mentioned in the introduction above: since India joined, billions of people are now confined to their homes by governmental decree, with the military patrolling the streets to enforce this. Police can dole out disproportionately heavy punishment without any clarity about the rights of defendants or limits on authority overreach. All of this occurred without any serious democratic or social debate, and without as much as a critical Op-Ed in newspapers. Most of society seemed to vaguely agree that it was necessary and therefore it simply happened.
The message? “Our government can lock us up arbitrarily, without due political or legal process”. This is neither normal nor in line with fundamental liberal principles. Governments should only take such measures in the most extreme cases when society’s very survival is on the line, for example during wartime. That is what emergencies laws were made for. Corona is not such a case.
There is more than enforced lockdown, of course. Many of the more permanent War on Terror habits have continued ever since and are now being accelerated. For years authorities have been pushing the boundaries of data tracking of mobile phones and computers without user consent. They often did so in collaboration with internet providers and carriers. Now, during the current crisis, authorities are using these established powers and actively monitor the enforcement of rules by looking at such data in real-time. It is a very grey- one could argue pitch black- area of privacy and individual rights. And yet, hardly anyone is blinking. If a leader had any totalitarian agenda, they’d be living the dream right now.
The fact that all of this has happened without any serious debate makes it much worse. Surely in-between locking people up at home and not doing anything at all to fight Corona, an open society can find a sensible middle ground? Yet any attempts at conversation about this have been either aggressively shut down or simply ignored in most democratic countries.
It is instructive to observe the pattern here, a pattern that has been eerily similar across nations. The fact that the crisis started in China obviously set the tone. A totalitarian regime can take much more drastic measures without foregoing its foundational principles. The Chinese governance model certainly has advantages. But the way democratic countries like Spain have adopted these measures within a liberal governance system is both fascinating and frightening.
It starts with reasonable words about how no drastic measures are needed. Focus on the rational basics; wash hands, don’t cough in each other’s faces, cancel some mass events, provide hospitals with further resources. Infections and fatalities go up, with a media going berserk and populist opposition parties saying the government has blood on its hands. Governments start taking stricter measures, including closing bars and possibly schools. They warn that people need to behave responsibly and self-quarantine. Infections and fatalities go up even further. Media and population enter mass psychosis. Opposition parties and newspaper demand tougher action. Repeated claims are being made about how people are irresponsible, still go for walks in the parks (“genocidal maniacs!”) and do not deserve the freedom to self-incarcerate. Governments go all in: “Hey, if people cannot be trusted to imprison themselves, then we need our brave armed forces to do it for them”. Lockdown and military on the streets.
This is a playbook that we have seen throughout history, with a number of common themes coming together to create the perfect circumstances for totalitarianism, even if that is not anyone’s original purpose:
- (1) Creation of an enemy: A threat, real or imagined, is blown out of all proportions, leading to a social consensus where other perspectives are no longer allowed. That supposed truth is that we’re in an existential crisis, in a war against an enemy, and no measure is unacceptable in fighting this threat.
- (2) Disregard of facts: Hard facts and data or broad scientific consensus that show reality no longer matter; society is in a state of fear, transcending rational thought and basic cognitive functions and moving into the realm of blissful panic.
- (3) Filtered Analysis: Selective experts rule the roost. Experts who say anything in conflict with points (1) or (2) are discarded or ridiculed.
- (4) Authority Worshipping: Governments are celebrated as saviours, unless they don’t accept the dominant narrative. They are a beacon of hope in dark times.
- (5) Self-censorship: Society turns on itself. People focus on anecdotal stories about irresponsible behaviour and start checking on the behaviour of neighbours: people who are seen to break the new rules get reported. Dissent is not accepted.
- (6) Oppressive Unity: In parallel to (E) above, society becomes self-congratulatory about all those who follow the dominant narrative. People demand solidarity, unity and loyalty, and applaud each other for falling in line. Claims are made about how beautiful it is to see society come together like that. The underlying message: if you don’t fall in line, you are a traitor to the cause.
- (7) Hero-worshipping: society rallies behind those on the frontlines. During war this is the military, in the case of Corona it is the medical profession. Any suggestion that there are more than medical concerns is seen as disrespectful to those brave men and women.
- (8) Extreme measures: With society still distrusting itself, it opens the doors to authorities to step in. Military lockdown it is.
- (9) Illiberalism: Democracy gets suspended. Not necessarily formally or permanently, but there is no significant parliamentary oversight or open discussion about whether the government is taking the right approach during this crisis. The only criticism comes from those so fearful or so politically cynical that they attack the government for not doing enough.
- (10) Media Complicity: “Manufactured consent” as analysed by Herman and Chomsky has been on full display. Without any direct conspiracy behind them, media have played their part in reinforcing “social consensus” and ignoring any attempts to provide alternative conversations. Scare story after scare story gets published. Outrageous claims about potential future victims being reported daily. Politicians who don’t follow the dominant narrative get mercilessly mocked and scolded.
Open society, even when it returns to relative normality afterwards, will have damaged its own fragile foundations. Another step will have been taken to normalise illiberal and totalitarian behaviour. Step (9) above is key:
If a democratic society decides to give government these authoritarian powers, the minimum requirement would have been due process in order not to break the essential rules of the game. Just like the War on Terror set-up society for the Corona escalation, future totalitarian tendencies will have a much easier time to establish themselves from now on. Once a precedent is set, it is easy to repeat. Moreover, many of the laws and measures passed will never be rescinded at all, lingering during normal times like, say, a dormant virus.
In a few months’ time, curves will have flattened out. The data are clear about limited timelines per country, regardless of the nature of action taken. This has also been the case of past virus outbreaks. We will let children out to play in the park. People will relax. Journalists will start reporting stories in more objective ways and start noticing the economic and humanitarian damage we inflicted. A wider range of experts will be heard once again.
Parliaments will rediscover their purpose, namely that of holding the government accountable. National leaders will lose their saviour status and turn human again. Self-reflection will start taking place, especially when the full scale of the destruction becomes visible. Media might even start publishing some soul-searching Op-Eds about how they got it wrong, although that usually takes a bit longer and a change of editor-in-chief.
But two things will not happen: firstly, the victims of our madness will not be compensated, even those who lived to see the summer. They might get a bit of financial support, but don’t hold your breath: recession will not allow any governmental largesse. Secondly, the precedent of totalitarianism cannot be erased from history.
Even when in a year’s time the world will have gone back to relative normality, freedom will be structurally damaged by what happened during the first half of 2020. No, democracies will not become a dictatorship overnight. The fact that Hungary has just done exactly that does not mean other countries will necessarily follow suit. Its prime minister, Viktor Orbán, had been on a collision course with democracy for much longer. Emmanuel Macron or Pedro Sanchez do not harbour any such ambitions as far as we can tell. But they certainly have just taken a step closer.
Even France and Spain are on a path that was already visible during the age of the War on Terror and that will now have been traversed much further down the totalitarian rabbit hole. It will start with governments facing significant public debt and budget shortfalls because of the financial devastation inflicted upon themselves. Without a magic money tree, drastic economic measures will be imposed, further weakening an already vulnerable middle class and tilting the balance against democratic oversight. A weak middle class inevitably leads to democratic fragility.
The dormant virus of governmental control and oppressive social dogma will linger in us. It will make us slightly weaker during the best of times. Then, all of a sudden, seemingly out of nowhere during another crisis, it will strike again. With our weakened social immune system unable to resist, it will further lay to rest any dreams of an “end of history”.
History’s Judgement: It Can Still Be (Mostly) Positive
Years from now, when the current fear and panic seem a distant chapter of the early 21st century, books will be written about the damage that bad policies caused and the harm they did to global governance systems. Analysis will show how politicians were able- and in certain cases almost forced- to do so by terrified and hysteric populations. By then, it will be a post-mortem. Millions of people will have unnecessarily died, many more will have been left to live in tragic circumstances, and open and free societies will be severely weakened. By how much will depend on our reaction right now.
Can we look beyond overwhelmed ICUs and stop the extreme measures being implemented? Can we have conversations about the bigger picture rather than a morbid obsession with Corona statistics? Will we understand that we- rather than any virus- are currently our own worst enemy?
Let us not give future authors unnecessary tragedy to write about. Let them tell a story of initial weakness that then transformed into rational strength and social resilience. Let them write about how humanity recognised that our deepest anxieties are not as powerful as our ambitions for an open, strong and free society. Let them write about our embrace of reality, with all its hardships and magnificence in equal measure.