Ill will: Populism and the coronavirus

Sooner or later, the coronavirus will be gone. In the meantime, it will test Europe’s resilience against not just epidemics but misinformation and scapegoating.

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Imagine you were planning to visit friends in Rome this week. So far, there have been only a dozen cases of Covid-19 in the Eternal City. But Italy as a whole has more cases than any country aside from China and South Korea. Most likely, you would choose to stay home, reasoning that, in this instance, your caution is fully justified. After all: you never know how the situation will unfold in the coming weeks.

European governments face a similar dilemma. It’s not in their interest to spread panic among the population. But neither do they want to be – or look – reckless. For the moment, most of them have performed reasonably well: preparing hospitals and procedures for the arrival of the virus; introducing health inspections at airports; and advising their nationals to avoid foreign travel and public gatherings – and to wash their hands. However, if there is a significant rise in new cases of Covid-19 across Europe (as looks highly probable), governments will face growing calls to do more. And there is a real danger that some politicians will exploit the crisis by spreading misinformation and scapegoating specific groups or individuals.

Far-right politicians in France, Germany, Italy, and Spain have already demanded that their governments introduce strict border controls. Rassemblement National’s Marine Le Pen has criticised the “religion of the borderlessness of the leaders of the European Union”, arguing that “a border protects populations, whatever the situation”. The Alternative for Germany’s leader in the Bundestag, Alice Weidel, has blamed the spread of the virus on what she called “the dogma of open borders”.

Such arguments may resonate with many European citizens. After all, they might not know that the World Health Organisation (WHO) has not recommended the closure of borders to contain the spread of the virus at this stage. As Covid-19 has an incubation period of several weeks, it is unrealistic to expect border controls to stop its spread. Equally, such measures would have important repercussions not just for the European economy but also for the morale of the population. They would be disproportionate and divisive.

The internet is full of misinformation about Covid-19: around 40 percent of tweets about the virus have been manipulated – in the sense that they involve “inorganic content” from across social media – according to a report by Blackbird. A misinformed public could start to pressure the government to do more. The government could, in turn, still be tempted to introduce border controls or other disproportionate measures – regardless of whether they make sense – simply to show that it is in control of the situation.

The debate about the coronavirus could become nastier still, especially if political leaders link the spread of the virus to the refugee issue

The WHO is careful not to use the word “pandemic”, as it is trying to put things in perspective: of the almost 90,000 cases reported globally, 90 percent are in China – and most of these in one province. More than 80 percent of the rest were in just four countries. But many Europeans (and US citizens) have already succumbed to panic. Given that European media outlets have published countless articles about the virus, readers might conclude that the situation is graver than the evidence suggests.

This is partly because health has always been a crucial part of people’s threat perceptions. Last September, the European Council Foreign Relations conducted a public opinion poll in the lead-up to parliamentary elections in Poland. The study asked Poles about their biggest fears for the future. Even back then, diseases (76 percent) ranked in second place, just behind the climate change (78 percent) and well ahead of war (56 percent).

Therefore, it’s unsurprising that some politicians are tempted to exploit public hysteria to their advantage. In Poland, where a presidential election is set to take place within two months, the main opposition candidate recently called on the government to “reveal the truth about cases of coronavirus” in the country. One would normally expect this sort of demagogy from the politicians of the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, who are prone to conspiracy theories, but not from their more responsible rivals. The opposition’s approach is no different from Le Pen’s accusation against the French government. The irony is that, according to some research, anxiety makes people more risk-averse and, therefore, more likely to choose the status quo. In other words, an attempt to mobilise voters by resorting to fear is not only irresponsible – it may also be self-defeating.

The debate about the coronavirus could become nastier still, especially if political leaders link the spread of the virus to the refugee issue, which is back on the EU’s agenda. After all, in Poland, it was the leader of PiS, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who argued in 2015 that the country should not accept refugees from the Middle East because they could bring “various types of parasites and protozoa”. Matteo Salvini, leader of Italy’s League, and the Greek government have already made similar claims this year. Salvini has called on Italy’s prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, to resign, arguing that the latter’s decision to rescue migrants at sea has contributed to the spread of disease at home. The Greek government has, in turn, cited the risk of coronavirus infection as a reason to clamp down on asylum seekers on the islands of Lesbos and Chios.

The coronavirus could, therefore, become a tool in Europe’s wider, and gloomier, political battle over migration. The epidemic has bolstered the cause of those who have long opposed refugees – most of them the same parties and politicians who advocate for strict border controls. But if the public debate plays up the perceived link between the virus, borders, and migrants, this will come dangerously close to arguments about national purity and racial superiority. And the scapegoating may not end there. The internet is full of stories about Chinese eating habits as an alleged source of the virus; in reality, there’s a growing consensus among scientists that the origins of Covid-19 must be more complex than that. Nonetheless, the idea plays on rising Sinophobia.

Populism could flourish as the coronavirus spreads. Whether it does so will depend largely on the kind of language politicians and the media use to discuss the virus. It will also depend on how governments perform in their practical management of the crisis, and whether citizens consider their statements on the situation to be credible. As such, governments should base their decisions and messages on the evidence rather than rumours. And they should focus on what is under their control rather than pretend that they can stop the virus at the border. Ultimately, aside from public health, it’s not open borders but an open society that is at stake.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Senior Policy Fellow

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