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Coronavirus and the rise of government

The global Covid-19 pandemic has overturned decades of free market ideology with regards to the role of the state in social life

Walid M Abdelnasser , Saturday 18 Apr 2020
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The repercussions of the coronavirus catastrophe, whose dangers increase every day, threatening the life of humanity at a global level, have not been confined to the health domain, despite worldwide consensus acknowledging the seriousness of these dangers for human life on earth. Thinking of those repercussions opened the door for talk about major changes in the march of humanity in the forthcoming future. These changes are expected to constitute unprecedented qualitative breakthroughs beyond prevailing assessments among thinkers, analysts and researchers prior to the eruption of the current crisis.

I will address in this article one of the repercussions of the coronavirus outbreak beyond the medical domain. This repercussion is definitely running contrary to a prevailing trend in the international order over recent decades. It is also incompatible with the wish of several and diverse actors in the world order, as well as with the ideological orientations and biases that have been, in general and to a large extent, on the rise on the worldwide scene over the past few decades. What I mean here is how the need to confront the coronavirus challenge led, in practice, to the sudden rise in the role of governments in an unprecedented manner over the past three decades since the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet bloc in the early 1990s.

This rising role took place even in the countries whose governments have been in the forefront of defending the primacy of the role of the individual, of the private sector and of personal initiative. This trend covered countries ruled by governments characterised by right wing ideological orientations totally opposed to the role of government in the economy and in society at large, and to any form of intervention in the mechanisms of the free market. These governments have consistently in the past adopted, at the national, regional and international levels, the call to leave all matters in the social and human life of peoples to the invisible hand of supply and demand, that will, according to them, correct any imbalances in economic and social life.

These transformations were unexpected prior to the eruption of the coronavirus danger. For long decades — at least since the end of World War II in 1945 — we witnessed Western governments, as well as their cultural, intellectual and media institutions, calling on countries of the global South, which were newly independent at that time, to adopt free market ideology and to avoid the notions of planning, the public sector and centralised decision making, and other concepts related in different ways to variants of leftist thought, particularly socialist thought. In fact, these Western governments reached, in many cases, the level of exerting pressure on Third World countries, trying to intervene in different ways in the internal affairs of these countries, and even in some cases undertaking direct military intervention or orchestrating military coups d’état, in order to force these countries to change their orientations and transform their economic and social systems to ones in line with Western ideological orientations. One should mention here that some mega private economic institutions in the capitalist world, whether national or transnational, contributed as well to the aforementioned Western policies in the South.

The recent transformations did not result from any ideological change, but were rather related to necessities of life in human societies, including Western societies. Such necessities were so overwhelming that they forced governments of these countries, particularly in the case of right-wing governments, to undertake courses of action contrary to their ideological convictions. The quick spread of coronavirus and its increasing impact, which is both uncontrollable and unpredictable, created multiplying casualties among populations all over the world. This left governments in Europe and North America vulnerable to rising criticism from the media as well as from an increasing number of political parties and forces, starting with leftist ones but soon extending to the centre, and even reaching forces on the right. This criticism basically accused governments of negligence and indifference in some cases, or delayed actions in others, as well as abstaining from undertaking their primary responsibilities, namely protection of the lives, health and bare existence of their own peoples.

There is no doubt that one of the important factors that added to the internal pressures in Western countries was what was achieved in China. At the beginning of restrictive measures adopted in China to face coronavirus, several Western politicians, intellectuals, writers and media, particularly on the right-wing, strongly criticised these measures and accused the Chinese government of not respecting human rights in implementing such measures. However, with the passage of time and complications associated with the spread of coronavirus, everyone realised that the Chinese measures led to a positive outcome, as Covid-19 was, to a large extent, contained, and many cases successfully treated, to the extent that new cases in China became confined to tens per day, most of which were international returnees, as compared to thousands per day in the peak of the outbreak.

Amidst accusations of delays in dealing with the dangers associated with coronavirus, Western governments found themselves, after hesitation from some and unjustified minimisation of the danger from others, with no option but to quickly resort to measures that at the qualitative level did not drastically differ from the Chinese ones. With the hope of confronting the new rising danger, some Western governments reached the point of conditioning people into only leaving their homes after having a prior written permission from relevant authorities. In the case of these countries, those who violate these regulations are subject to either fines or imprisonment or both.

Western governments had to intervene to freeze all aspects of life, and not only economic activities, in such conditions of emergency. The only exceptions were outlets selling food; pharmacies; banks; post offices and hospitals and medical centres. Those governments have realised the negative economic and social repercussions of such measures. However, they correctly gave priority to the life and health of their peoples. Among the negative repercussions figure in particular the rise in rates of unemployment. Therefore, many of those governments declared packages of astronomical figures of financial support for economic and social institutions, whether public or private, to avoid a possible drastic rise in unemployment as well as to avoid bankruptcy of such institutions.

*The writer is a commentator.

*A version of this article appears in print in the  16 April, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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