COVID-19 – often instrumentalised

by Karl-Jürgen Müller

Actually, the case would be quite simple: COVID-19 is a disease caused by a newly emerged coronavirus, which might also lead to death. A few months after the first appearance of this virus, the medical science already knows a great deal about the virus and its effects, but many questions are  still open, also about the extend of possible diseases associated with an infection. Therefore, it is very advisable to keep the risk of infection as low as possible.
 
The core task of the state is to protect the health and lives of its citizens as best as possible and to organise the necessary measures to avoid contamination either by itself or by support of others. The question how to accomplish this goal best, has to be continuously discussed and decided according to the circumstances.
 
In doing so, it is quite possible – for a limited time – that other basic rights might be restricted in favour of the right to health and life. However, means and ways have always to be found, in order to allow every citizen to exercise all his fundamental rights as comprehensively as possible. How this can be achieved – this as well has to be discussed and decided upon, over and again, depending on the circumstances.

Public debate is important

Even those who oppose the state measures aimed at the containment of the corona pandemic, must not be denied their seriousness and the concern in this matter. The state measures have had and still have very drastic consequences in part. Today and also in the past months,  nobody was able to say with absolute certainty: I know the right solution to our problem. The fact that today many critical voices are dismissed as “conspiracy theories” or worse is not appropriate and does not help the cause, but is often motivated by political interests.
 
It is favorable that government measures to protect citizens from illness with COVID-19 and to provide for a sufficient medical care of those who fell ill, be publicly discussed, even controversially. Ideally would be to have a continuous debate and communication completely oriented towards the facts, ever and again aiming at the best solution possible.
 
Is that what the situation is like in our countries?

Change of mood

The matter is doubtful. On 27 May 2020, the programme Zapp of Norddeutscher Rundfunk (NDR) reported the results of a representative poll conducted by the opinion research institute infratest dimap. The survey took place in regular intervals since mid-march and a significant result of the latest one (18–22 May 2020) was the following: “Every fifth person in Germany entitled to vote believes that ‘politics and the media deliberately exaggerate the danger of the coronavirus to deceive the public’.”The percentage of those, who have this opinion, varies strongly, depending on political orientation. So 54 % of German AfD supporters affirm the statement. The proportion changes depending on the media used: with persons, actively “using the social media platforms”, it is 31%. How is this to be explained? Are these people that suspicious of the state, because they are better informed than others? Or does this show how strongly one’s own ‘Weltanschauung? and political orientationshape the opinions on COVID-19 and on the government measures?
 
On 29 May 2020, the NZZ online headlined: “In the networks, many used to show solidarity with their fellow men – now insults are increasing.” Concerning the investigation it says: “The Sotomo1 research centre has examined the emotions, kind of actors and risk perceptions in the digital debate during the corona crisis. Some 930,000 online comments were used, published [...] from 3 March to 25 May on Twitter and on the Swiss online news platforms 20 minutes view online, Watson, SRF News and Nau, accessible free of charge.” The NZZ online report says: “When around mid-April it became clear that Switzerland will probably be able to survive the first wave of infection of the coronavirus without a disaster, the dominance of comments with expressions of solidarity […] somewhat decreased. Even the previously very pronounced praising of one’s fellows, the hospital staff, the scientists and the Federal Council declined. Since the first relaxations of measurements, insults and accusations have become more dominant.
 
The comments examined here include angry comments, curses, expressions of frustration and accusatory words, of which ‘brainless’ and ‘stupid’ are two rather harmless ones. Then anger rises to become the second most important emotion and continues to increase slightly.“
 
How can this be explained? Are there sound reasons for this change of mood? Or do we witness the result of propaganda? Propaganda that by now has crossed the boundaries of the so-called alternative media and reached the mainstream?

Ideologies, politics, interests …
and maybe some irrational things

Today, it is true to say that COVID-19 - like many other issues – is being used – one might also say: abused – in order to pursue an ideological and political agenda and/or substantial (not per se unjustified) material interests that existed before the disease occurred.
 
Therefore all voices commenting the government measures taken until now to combat the corona pandemic shall be asked about their motives and objectives: “With your printed products, websites, social networks and public statements you have spoken on the subject of corona. Do you want to contribute in a constructive way to solve our country’s problems in many small steps, together with all other relevant forces (reform approach)? Or do you think that our political, economic and social system is so ailing that only a radical change of system and a total disempowerment of the hitherto powerful can help (revolution)? Or do you have completely different, not openly declared motives and goals?” These questions might be exaggerated indeed – but they are meant to be challenging.

More globalisation, more global governance,
more conflicts, more poverty…

There are also forces for whom COVID-19 is an occasion to speak up strongly for more global governance than even before. These forces have done this before COVID-19 … and they are doing it again now. In the “Neue Zürcher Zeitung” of 23 May 2020, even Richard N. Haass, president of the US Council on Foreign Relations, took up the widespread criticism of globalisation in view of COVID-19. Nevertheless, he argued for more globalisation. “Globalisation is not a problem to be solved by governments, but a reality we have to deal with. Anyone who stands up for comprehensive deglobalisation not only opt for the wrong remedy, but also for something that surpasses the diagnosed disease.” The neo-liberal model of globalisation has not yet been shelved, although there are also powerful voices, which run in another direction. On 25 May 2020, for example, the same newspaper quoted the designated new Chief Economist of the World Bank, Harvard Professor Carmen Reinhart, as saying that the corona crisis is the “coffin nail of globalisation”. Corresponding, the newspaper titled another article in the same issue with “politicians recollect on the nation state”.
 
New cold warriors in the NATO countries and “NATO thinkers” elsewhere in the world see the corona pandemic as another opportunity to put Russia and China in the dock. The silver lining of hope that with a disease which threatens all peoples equally, more cohesion and mutual help will take root between all states and peoples has initially proved to be an illusion on the political level. On the contrary, in the shadow of the corona pandemic, many a further peace-threatening decision is being taken. This includes the announced cancellation of the Treaty on Open Skies by the US government2 as well as the impending development in the Middle East following the new formation of government in Israel. The arms race will also continue.
 
It must also to be feared that the painstaking progress in combating hunger in the world will fade to nothing. Many countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America are particularly strong affected by the social and economic consequences of the corona pandemic.

… and more digitisation?

Not least, the impression that COVID-19 will be misused as some kind of 9/11 for the digitisation of schools is solidifying. Anyone who watched the ARD television programme “Hart aber fair” (firm but fair) on 25 May 2020 had to be shocked at how massive and one-sided public propaganda is now being made for the digitisation of schools and how the many solid critical voices on this issue are disregarded.

What will happen to the EU?

Particularly interesting for us in Europe is a look at the EU. What are the plans? “Man only accepts changes under the pressure of necessity.”3 Jean Monnet, one of the most important power brokers at the beginning of supranationalisation in Europe at the end of the forties and the beginning of the fifties, formulated this sentence, thereby expressing that “crises” should be a key driver in the gradual supranationalisation of the politics of European states. In mid-March, when the European nation states adopted their first measures against the Corona pandemic, the EU was plunged into a crisis. Many people, some recommending, some refusing – spoke of a “renationalisation of politics”. The EU has no contractual powers in the area of health policy. National policy had and wanted to decide. Now, however, more, even more EU is emerging. Not in the area of health policy, but in financial policy. Keywords are the resumed debate on euro bonds for highly indebted EU states, specifically the joint plan by Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron to grant the EU Commission a credit line of 500 billion euros as money for economic stimulus programmes of the EU states affected by COVID-19, which these countries do not have to repay. It is not only the critics of the programme who see this as a major step towards the “communitarisation” of the financial policy of the EU states and thus towards the undermining of national budget law.
  Furthermore, it is said quite openly that the investments which are to be initiated with the planned 500 billion euro stimulus packages4 should be part of the “European Green Deal”. The economic structure in the EU states is to change radically, government controlled. In the television programme ARD-Extra of 22 May, (see article “Lockdown” and the “new normal”) the influential German CDU politician Wolfgang Schäuble called this “new normality”.
  However, the strong reactions to the verdict of the German Federal Constitutional Court on 5 May 2020 on the government bond purchase programme of the European Central Bank (ECB) also show how “nervous” the EU has become. The highest German court had ruled against a verdict of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) of 11 December 2018 and classified the verdict of the ECJ in part as “absolutely incomprehensible” and encroaching (“ultra vires”).

More direct democracy is better

Werner Wüthrich’s analysis of Switzerland’s history and present “Politics during crisis – crisis in politics?” in Current Concerns No. 10/11 of 26 May 2020 is confirmed ex negativo when looking across borders. To take steps to expand the possibilities of direct democratic political culture and political decision-making therefore is not a bad advice to the citizens in the neighbouring countries of the Confederation. This would make it more likely to keep the feet on the ground and to keep oriented on the issue at stake.  •
 


1  Sotomo is an opinion research institute based in Zurich. Further information can be found on the institute’s website, sotomo.ch/site/.
2Treaty on Open Skies, Open Skies refers to a treaty from 1992 between NATO and former Warsaw Pact states which allows participating nations to cross each other’s territories on specified routes and take pictures (photo, Radar and since 2006 also infrared). This confidence-building measure is intended to secure peace and prevent conflicts. On 21 May 2020, Robert O’Brien, President Donald Trump’s National Security Advisor, announced that the United States would withdraw from the treaty.
3  Roussel, Eric. Jean Monnet, Fayard 1996, p. 68
4 The current plan of the EU Commission provides that even 750 billion euros should be spent on stimulating economic growth, 250 billion as loans to the recipient nations. It is not yet certain whether the plan can be implemented. There is also contradiction within the governments of the EU states themselves.

 

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