Implications for the international order, democracy and privacy

By J. Peter Burgess, AXA Chair in the Geopolitics of Risk

The COVID-19 crisis has proven to be particularly destructive because it has consequences along multiple axes. It is a sanitary crisis at its origin, but quickly devolved into a social, economic, cultural, ethnic, political and geopolitical crisis. In the US, for example, data shows that the African American community has been disproportionately affected by the health crisis. In Chicago, for example, where the population is 30% African American, that ethnic group accounted for 72% of deaths in the city. Lower average incomes are part of the explanation but there are other factors such as the prevalence of pre-existing health conditions and higher unemployment rates in these communities, which means less access to healthcare. In addition to sanitary vulnerabilities, social, cultural, economic and even racial vulnerabilities have become visible. On a global scale, the complex character of the crisis puts severe pressure on the international system, particularly on the Bretton Woods organizations set up at the end of the Second World War to protect against trans-national instability. Questions have now been raised about the viability of the World Health Organization, and the International Monetary Fund and World Bank are confronting challenges that they were simply not designed to deal with. As European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen expressed early in the crisis the European Union is also facing an existential moment. It continues to struggle to maintain a common position. Italians have felt excluded from much of the European project, while Germany and the Netherlands have been reluctant to share the economic burden because it would increase public debt. The crisis has also sharpened international tensions, not only between the US and China, but also with Russia, and between the EU and US. There has been an increase in isolationism and a continued weakening of trust between countries. The only genuinely good news currently comes from countries with women leaders, including Germany, Finland, Norway, New Zealand and Taiwan. There is a lesson in this: what has worked well in the pandemic for these leaders has been a combination of scientific rigor and empathy. The full impact of this crisis has not yet been seen in many developing countries. There is reason to be concerned about Southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. As the pandemic continues to hit these countries hard, it is causing significant damage. The pandemic exposes the otherwise invisible inequalities in health infrastructure. Brazil, for example, has an average of 2.2 hospital beds for every 1,000 citizens. In sub-Saharan Africa, that figure is 1.2, and in India just 0.7. That compares with around 6 hospital beds in the EU. If India ends up with the same infection rate as elsewhere – France, for example – the death toll could increase to anywhere between 300,000 and a million. This is first and foremost a serious humanitarian issue. But also holds significant implications for stability, global trade, migration and international investment. We need to start thinking about how we can absorb this crisis as it reaches the developing world.

“History has taught us that democracies generally are not undermined by revolutions or coups, but by more invisible factors. That seems to be what we are observing now.”

One preliminary lesson of the crisis is the insight that the world’s most prominent democracies are also, arguably, the ones that are most vulnerable. History has taught us that democracies generally are not undermined by revolutions or coups, but by more invisible factors. That seems to be what we are observing now. In recent years, we have seen a weakening of human rights, the central pillar of democratic societies. We have seen an increasing stigmatization of minorities, and of people with certain health conditions. No fewer than seven European countries are currently requesting exemptions from the European Convention on Human Rights under a clause that allows such exemptions in emergency situations. Lockdown itself represents a significant restriction in freedoms, one which Europeans have taken more or less in stride, compared to their American counterparts for whom it is far from self-evident. The pandemic and the emergency measures that have surrounded have also encouraged the rise of authoritarianism in Europe, particularly of Hungary and Poland, where regimes are using confinement as a reason to curtail political rights. The weakening of civil protections can also be seen in the treatment of health workers who have been exposed to far more dangers than ordinarily would be tolerated. China has used personal tracking devices very successfully to tackle the pandemic. Protections of personal health data are similarly weakened in ways that would not have been unacceptable not so long ago.

J. Peter Burgess is a philosopher and political scientist. He is director of the AXA Chair in the Geopolitics of Risk at the ENS in France.


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