Prior to the global COVID-19 outbreak, the rise of nationalism had started to reshape global politics; nationalism in political discourse has strengthened across the world, especially Europe through the successful rise of nationalist and populist political parties in Italy, Austria, Hungary, France, and Germany. Nationalist rhetoric has become normatively acceptable, from US President Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again”, to Brexit, and what others might label “populist” government positions driven by political parties of countries such as South Africa, China, and India.
Nationalism is a political ideology that puts much emphasis on one being patriotic to their own national identity and the nation state, thus playing on one’s personal and emotional perception in understanding supreme loyalty to their nationality or country that encompasses race, culture, religious beliefs, location, historical background, food and way of life (Kohn, 1944; Hayes, 1926). The current rising force of nationalism emerges from the resistance of globalisation and the fear of foreign nationals or migration that threatens a utopic vision or in many cases – hope – for what life should mean for those sharing a nationality.
In Asia, the nationalist policies and positioning of the Japanese and Indian leaders are also on the rise. With Prime Minister Abe being accused of pushing a right-wing agenda in Japan through the objective of amending Article 9 of the post-war Japanese constitution – returning Japan to its former glory (a position similar to that of Trump’s “Make America Great Again”), and intimidating the media. While in India, Prime Minister Modi has come under fire for his anti-Muslim rhetoric, pushing legislation that discriminates against anti-Muslim immigrants, arresting political activists and his recent repealing of a constitutional provision that allowed for some form of autonomy to Jammu and Kashmir, the country’s only Muslim majority states in what might be seen as an effort to drive his Hindu nationalism agenda.
Instances of COVID-19 exacerbating race relations
A concerning issue that arises from the outbreak of the pandemic, outside of the health and economic disruptions, is the racism and anti-Asian sentiment that has been experienced and witnessed around the world. While racial tensions continue to be affected around the world, for some people the emergence of the virus from China validated their pre-existing stereotypical and ignorant ways of thinking towards people who are different from them. The notion that people are different, and others are superior, and/or civilized than others has been further exacerbated by the outbreak, this is evident through the anti-Asian sentiments as well as the racism around the world.
President Donald Trump as well as the Deputy Prime Minister of Japan, Taro Aso, have accused China of the outbreak and coined the virus as the “Chinese Virus”. This has further strained the relations between the two major economies (US and China) and has also culminated in the erosion of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) credibility. This has affected the standing of its leader, Director-General (DG), Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. Governments around the world, particularly African countries, have come out in defense of the DG, who has also expressed that he has been called by racial slurs.
Africans in China have also seen widespread racism within the country. Chinese people have come out to accuse African people for the resurgence of the virus in China. This has led to African governments calling the Chinese government to account for the allegation and act decisively against the said discrimination. It would be interesting to see the longer-term ramifications of these incidences on the Sino-Africa relations, however because of the upper hand China holds, it is unlikely that these will have any significant impact on Sino-African relations post COVID-19. The recent Extraordinary China-Africa Summit on Solidarity Against Covid-19 is an example of “friendship renewal” as well as showing of support and solidarity between China and African states.
Professor Eddy Maloka, CEO of the African Peer Review Mechanism, argues that post-COVID-19, the world will largely be experiencing a weaponisation of racial profiling especially towards Asian people and people of color as it has already been noted in some parts of China. Learning from our recent history, racial profiling has been a controversial issue in the US, where the world saw the travel ban which was directed predominantly at Muslim countries which was later coined the “Muslim ban”. This is anticipated to be exacerbated by targeted screening and quarantining of specific nationalities.
Anticipated electoral trends post-crisis period
While trying to anticipate the challenges as well as trends that might emerge post-COVID-19, it is also important to appreciate the impact of the virus during the ongoing outbreak. The responses to COVID-19 will play a crucial role in the upcoming elections of several states. One of the countries that has been lauded for its well-structured response to the outbreak is New Zealand, and the country is set to go to the polls. Analysts are already arguing that the current Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, who inspired patriotism and collectivism towards her government’s response to the pandemic will convincingly win the national elections.
Governments around the world have seen criticism from their electorates. The USA recently witnessed widespread protests that inspired a global wave of solidarity protests, including a resurgence of protests against statues. Spain also saw a wave of protests calling for the removal of the entire government in response to the stringent government regulations. This also shows the importance of a collective approach to crisis and governmental issues which in this case evoked some form of patriotism and support, working together to reach a set goal. For instance, South Africa, while it got criticism from the official opposition, the Democratic Alliance, the collective and collaborative approach by the government gave initial legitimacy to the lockdown and support from everyday citizens because of the consultations that were undertaken. However, several court challenges risk undermining the support and ultimate national legitimacy of the government’s actions.
The Death of Multilateralism?
During this pandemic, the world has witnessed vaccine nationalism, with several governments such as the U.S, India and Russia wanting to secure priority access to doses of the COVID-19 vaccine. Although the global community has agreed that the vaccine should be accessible to every citizen, again Russia, India and the US refused to join the Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator, a collaborative initiative of the WHO in finding a vaccine.
The recent suspension of funds to the WHO by the US government and subsequent announcement of the withdrawal from the WHO (harking back to the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the 2016 Paris Climate Agreement, highlights the gravity of that administration’s scepticism to multilateralism) and senior Japan officials dubbing the WHO as the Chinese Health Organization is a serious indictment to multilateralism. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has called for the investigation of the origin of the virus, prompting a Chinese media editor to respond by calling Australia a “gum stuck to the bottom of China’s shoe". However, the call for the investigation was declined at the recent WHO virtual summit, where governments agreed on establishing a partial inquiry into the handling of the pandemic by the WHO.
The same trend can be picked up from the recent criticism of the World Trade Organization (WTO) by President Trump and his allies such as European Union and Japan. In 2018, Trump called the WTO “the single worst trade deal ever made.” While multilateralism is at a crossroad, states seem to cast doubt on the effectiveness as well as robustness of global institutions in times of crises and opt to look inwards rather than looking at a collective approach.
The rise of disease diplomacy and health in global politics
The recent outbreak will prompt governments to reprioritise certain issues to be more prepared for the next pandemic. Prof Maloka, notes that disease diplomacy, which academics and analysts alike believe is triggered by global outbreaks, is the increasing focus on the international health regime and international health norms, will be on the rise. As previously noted, the recent virtual 73rd WHO meeting resolved to a partial investigation, this might result in the revision of the International Health Regime (IHR) and the reconfiguration of the WHO. Perhaps the outcome of the inquiry will give the body more teeth and jurisdiction.
While these multilateral institutions still have relevance, the rise of the inwards looking approach and the immediate declining of a collaborative effort against the global pandemic by global powers, which has resulted in a vaccine race, highlights how nationalism is taking center stage.
Kagiso Mkonza is a Master of Arts’ candidate in Political Science and International Relations at the University of Johannesburg. Mr Mkonza is very passionate about writing, foreign policy, international relations and political analysis. He recently completed his Honours in International Relation focused on South Africa’s voting behaviour in the United Nations Security Council. Mr Mkonza has 2 years’ experience in communications, research and public policy.
Kohn, H. 1944. The Idea of Nationalism. The Macmillan Company. New York.
Hayes, C.J.H. 1926. Essays on Nationalism. The Macmillan Company. New York.