There was a remarkable contrast this morning in two stories standing side by side on the BBC homepage. On the left, US President Donald Trump’s chief of staff Mark Meadows saying “we’re not going to control the pandemic”. On the right, one positive covid-19 case sparking the testing of all 4.7 million people in the Chinese city of Kashgar in the space of just a few days.
The world’s two most powerful countries could not be more polar opposites in how they are handling the pandemic. One has basically given up any serious attempt at preventing the spread of the virus, not even capable of protecting the White House from multiple outbreaks, while the other deploys enormously efficient mass testing at the slightest hint of a covid-19 revival.
Between the United States and China, stands Europe, not as defeatist as the US but nowhere near as effective as China in suppressing covid-19. Across the EU, there is a uniform commitment to tackling Coronavirus, but in just about every country, governments are struggling to contain a resurgence of the virus, unwilling to introduce measures as tough as those of the first lockdown.
Spain is a good example: it had one of the toughest lockdowns in the whole world first time round, and now is responding to a rapidly rising rate of infection with a new state of alarm announced on Sunday, but with the only restrictions being to limit travel between regions and to close bars and restaurants at 11pm. The centre-left government want the State of Alarm to last six months this time: they are planning these limited restrictions to last until a vaccine is ready. No one seriously believes this will crush the spread of covid-19: at most, it’s a containment strategy.
The US Presidential election illuminates a polarisation that is taking place around the politics of covid-19. Trump holds rallies with people packed in together, is regularly seen without a mask, says there’s nothing to fear and that “people are learning to live with it”. Democratic nominee Joe Biden holds rallies with people in their cars, always wears a mask, emphasises caution and responds to Trump by saying “we are dying with it”. Pandemic politics is now at the cutting edge of the culture war: Trump and Biden primarily represent different attitudes to the virus, rather than different policy responses.
Increasingly, it’s clear that the pandemic does not create new trends and tendencies in global politics, it intensifies pre-existing ones. The US was already chaotically divided by culture war politics; China was already a competent rising power able to exercise population control at incredible scale; and Europe was already passive and stuttering. All of these trends have simply been exacerbated, as have the growing tensions in the geo-political order, especially between the US and China. This was the finding of Ben Gummer about pandemics, a former MP who has written a recent history of the Black Death.
Its effect was “to accelerate an evolution that was already taking place,” Gummer finds, “by and large, the great arc of history was unbent by the Great Death.”
The pandemic is not hastening the arrival of a brave new world – it is more like the acceleration of a train crash that was already well under-way.
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