Day 57: Nationalism and the pandemic

20/05/2020

Day 57

The conversations, experiences and debates generated in these months of the pandemic will probably become a genre – Corona Lit or some such. Some early material is already making its way to the publishers. Fang Fang, an award-winning writer from China kept an online diary about her life in Wuhan during the lockdown. As much as her diary has been insightful, it has also created divides among people on the authenticity and appropriateness of her material. From a few young voices asking “What kind of person keeps a diary on the internet,”  to view that the criticism to Fang’s diary “represented nationalist sentiment rather than the views of the city’s people”.

Across the world there might be many more people who continue to write through the lockdowns of their cities and what they lived through. The collective picture from these writings will be an alternative picture of the world than what we have known from the media reports. A personal yet as important a commentary of what our world turned into, during these days. Fang’s diary made me look at the volume of notes I have made through the lockdown. A comment from an independent political analyst, Wu Qiang, caught my attention. It is worth dwelling on her articulation of the effect of this pandemic. She observes – “the coronavirus pandemic had created a schism, with nationalism at its core.” 

Concluding the World Health Assembly’s 73rd session today, the WHO passed a resolution to conduct an independent enquiry into the rise and spread of Covid-19. It was supported by a remarkable majority of members. It is interesting to see WHO taking an independent stand and not yielding to intimidation and threats of withdrawing support by the US. International institutions, the non-finance one, will probably turn a corner after 2020. The concluding remarks of WHO’s Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus reveals a resolve that is likely to stay with his organization. But it seems to stand in exactly the opposite direction, in its intent, from what shape of global dynamics in these months since Covid-19 began. He said,

“COVID-19 has robbed us of people we love. It’s robbed us of lives and livelihoods; it’s shaken the foundations of our world; it threatens to tear at the fabric of international cooperation. But it’s also reminded us that for all our differences, we are one human race, and we are stronger together.”

With rising nationalism this is an aspiration that will have nations throwing all that they can, not to break up its desire for international cooperation, but to have their own agenda and interest not get affected by the agency’s ideas of altruism. For the national governments a lot is at stake that cannot be preserved by international cooperation. For instance, India’s ruling political party gains much by cries of a self reliant (aatma nirbhar) India and gets to capitalise on pandemic-triggered precariousness amongst its electorate. It does not stand to gain much or have much to say if for instance India supplies huge shipments of PPE to countries in need. Nationalism is a drug for all seasons, all occasions. 

Similarly, the MAGA type electorate in the US has much to rejoice if the US withdraws support to the WHO and keeps its millions of dollars for itself. There is much to show for with this nationalist interest signalling move. It does not seem surprising why the Covid-19 narrative in the US has been consistently about pinning the blame on China and labelling itself as victims. 

Our collective incapability of a deeper engagement with the idea of nationalism that attempts to go beyond the provincial, will determine the post-pandemic world’s order. If we lend to the narrow notions of national interests even as we stare at a highly interconnected and complex phenomenon as  Covid-19, then the post-pandemic world is likely to look worse than what we were as the virus began testing us. 

In thinking about nationalism, it may be useful to consider Gellner’s (Nations and Nationalism) assertion that nationalism is a function of modernity. In its evolution, nationalism underwent a rupture from its conventional idea, because of modernity. The idea of nationalism is a product of modernity and not vice versa. The success of nationalism is not due to its intellectual power but because of its function within a modern social order.
Triggered by the pandemic, social order in many nations is undergoing a rupture. It is in this rupture and change, that there lies a possibility of emergence of new forms of nationalism that will align with the aspiration that WHO’s Director General closed the World Health Assembly with. 

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