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COVID-19 and nationalism

Karina V Korostelina

The decade leading up to the current biomedical and economic crises was marked by a strong resurgence in global nationalist sentiment: a highly decentralized multinational movement sometimes referred to as right-wing populism. In some ways, the crisis has served to reinforce the trend toward nationalist identity, while in others its effects may well be to undermine "go it alone” nationalism by strengthening broader regional, civilizational, and even human identities. This chapter analyzes the factors that are most likely to determine one set of outcomes or the other and describes roles that can conflict resolvers may play in fostering more inclusive senses of political identity.


The rise of nationalism during the current COVID-19 pandemic was noted by many academics, journalists, and political commentators. Most of them also discuss the increase in discriminatory policies and exclusion of various groups based on their citizenship status or ethnic/religious origin. Based on the analysis of the dynamics of nationalism on the global, national, and identity group levels, this paper posits that COVID-19 will create deeper disagreements and provoke tensions between globalists and nationalists on the global and national levels. With the pandemic exacerbating the criticism of international organizations and anti-EU sentiments, the societies become more divided in their vision of international cooperation. While a majority of people support the temporary closure of borders within their countries, the processes of reopening could provoke more tensions and exclusions. New restrictions on civil liberties and rising unemployment can empower right-wing and mainstream conservative parties in democratic societies and promote the expansion of surveillance in authoritarian ones. Discriminatory and exclusionary policies toward minorities and immigrants could become the most important long-term effect of the current crisis.

Nationalism and pandemics

The academic literature on the relations between pandemics and nationalisms is surprisingly scarce, given that several recent waves of such viral infections as SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome), and Ebola and Zika viruses (Madhav et al., 2018)1 have occurred. Some studies emphasize the effects of nationalism on health policies during pandemics in a single country. As Sung-Won describes in his analysis of the SARS pandemic in China, nationalism had a significant impact on political decision-making as well as on the design and implementation of health policies, justifying tough regulatory measures and securitization of the public health by the need to restore national pride and to secure China's national interests. At the same time, in order to unite the entire nation and increase loyalty to the state, the propaganda department posited the SARS pandemic as a national crisis. Balasega-ram and Schnur (2006)2 also discuss the rising national mobilization and rhetoric of nationalism in China during the SARS pandemic. Similarly, the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic- the deadliest in Iran's twentieth-century history - had provoked the rise of Iranian nationalism and a break with the western institutions responsible for public health*.

Several studies have explored the links between nation-building, nationalism, and pandemics. Some stress the interrelations between the efforts to control disease and the rise of the modern state and nationalism (Harrison, 2004),3 while others focus on the social and cultural construction of disease as a tool justifying the power of a state (Hays, 2009),4 the impact of pandemics on national institutions (Spinney, 2017)5 and the growing divisions between globalists and nationalists with the rise of pandemics (Van Toom, 2020).6 In his overview of global nationalism in the time of CO VID, Bieber (2020)7 discusses the recent trajectory of nationalism, analyzing the interrelationship between nationalism, growing authoritarianism, and deglobalization, as well as increase in biases and fear. Similarly, Fukuyama (2020)8 opines that the COVID-19 pandemic will contribute to the growing nationalism, isolationism, xenophobia, and attacks on the liberal world.

In this case, as in others, the analysis of ongoing social processes is complicated by incomplete data, constantly changing environments, and a prevalence of politically charged interpretations. The systemic approach is a useful tool for researching complex, multilevel phenomena such as nationalism, because it helps to find knowledge gaps in a situation of rapidly changing social reality and to define areas of ambiguity for better understanding of future impacts. The study of nationalism as a system requires analysis on several levels: (1) the transformation of nationalism within the wider system of international relations, globalization, and anti-globalization processes; (2) current dynamics of the doctrine within national borders; and (3) the transformation of such subsystems as immigration policies, discrimination against minorities, and other patterns of exclusion.

Anti-globalism and COVID-19

The anti-globalism of the last decade differs from the "economic justice” anti-globalization movement of the 1990s and 2000s, as it is: (1) right-wing and conservative in its nature, (2) a mix of cultural and economic discontents, emphasizing dangers of cultural and racial mixing, and (3) channeling the disappointment with "cosmopolitan” elites through presentation of immigrants and other undeserving groups as a threat (Voelz, 2017).9 It is a response to the neoliberal approach to globalization that was promoted by center-left parties across North America and Europe and that eventually cost them a good share of votes. The new reality of the global pandemic increases the primacy of the state, challenging neoliberal policies and positioning global cooperation and international movement of population as causal factors that allow the rapid spread of COVID-19 across national boundaries. As the states have secured medical supplies for their citizens and raised barriers to international trade, the role of the free market as a regulator of economic needs has decreased in salience.

A majority of studies present anti-globalism as a form of political populism that unites the horizontal cultural dimension of xenophobia with its vertical anti-elitist dimensions. This sort of conservative populism positions elites as biased in favor of outgroups, promotes nativism and an exclusive national identity, and elevates the role of the state in ensuring the security of its citizens through protectionist economic policies and opposition to immigration (Alberta, 2017; Brubaker, 2017; Hoover, 2019; Mudde 2017; Oliver and Rahn, 2016).10 Other authors assert that the phenomenon represents a transition within fascism from a supremacist to a separatist ideology (Bessner and Sparke 2017; Giroux, 2018; Judis, 2016).11 A growing number of scholars analyzes anti-globalism as a form of paleoconservatism that describes how the managerial state undermined and homogenized traditional and bourgeois worldviews in the institutions of Western society. Paleoconservatism promotes restrictions on immigration, reduces foreign commitments and democracy promotion, and scales back foreign aid (Beiner, 2018; Drolet and Williams 2019; O'Meara 2013).12

The CO VID-19 pandemic intensified these voices of anti-globalism, giving them an opportunity to use the rapid spread of a disease as a reason to restrict cross-border initiatives and programs, criticize transnational governance structures, and restate nationalism by introducing national "health strategies.” Over 70 countries employed "medical nationalism” (Youde, 2020)13 that prioritizes national needs, securitizes public health, puts restrictions on the export of medical supplies and medications, and downplays international cooperation. The effects of such policies are manifold. The slow response of the EU countries and the imposed limits on the export of protective medical equipment to Italy strongly contributed to the Euro-criticism that was already boosted by Brexit (Boffey, 2020).14 As a result, polls found that 42% of Italians wanted to exit the European Union and that 59% saw the EU as meaningless (Amaro, 2020).15 However, in Germany, by contrast, 59% saw globalization as advantageous to their country (Poushter and Schumacher, 2020).16

The internal divide within the EU, resulting from international policies related to the pandemic, is echoed by the political divide within the United States. According to the April 2020 polls (Poushter and Schumacher, 2020), Americans are about evenly divided in positive or negative view of globalization (47% vs. 44%). Similarly, Americans are split in their view of post-outbreak international cooperation: with 34% expecting no change in the extent to which countries cooperate with one another, 35% expecting countries to increase their focus on cooperation, and 29% expecting more focus on countries’ own national interest (Mordecai 2020).17 Americans also are divided in their assessment of the World Health Organization, with 62% of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents positively assessing its job in handling the pandemic and 70% of Republicans and GOP leaner's viewing it negatively (Moncus and Connaughton, 2020).18 The withdrawal of the United States from the WHO and the rising role of China in international organizations can change the meaning and the functioning of international cooperation, moving away from the core of North Atlantic collaboration. Thus, in Germany, people increasingly want their country to cooperate with China rather than the United States (36% and 37%, respectively, in 2020 compared with 50% vs. 24% in 2019) (Poushter and Schumacher, 2020).

Nationalism within national borders

Nationalism and particularism are seen by right-wing parties as cures for the social troubles related to globalization. Nationalism is one of the major mechanisms of national identity formation through the processes of statebuilding (Gelner 1983; Hobsbawm, 1990)19 and supports the manipulations of national ideas by political and social elites to obtain and legitimize state power (Brubaker, 2017).20 Nationalism is rooted in such mechanisms of the formation of national identity as the communal imagination and politicization of history (Anderson, 1991 ; Smith, 2011 ).21 Both processes of nationalism - the construction and the employment of national identity - are used by far-right parties to promote exclusionary nationalism (Bieber 2020a) and ethnic concept of national identity (Korostelina, 2007).22

The COVID-19 pandemic has provided these parties a fresh opportunity to go beyond the usual populist themes of fighting corruption and an alien elite, threats of immigration and Islam, and loss of jobs to foreign countries. However, as Mudde (2020) analyzes, the response of populist and far-right leaders to COVID-19 differs significantly across countries: the United States, Brazil, and Mexico tend to underplay the seriousness of the medical crisis and to provide slow responses; the Netherlands and India have advocated for immediate lockdown policies, and Hungary and Israel are establishing emergency policies that sideline established political institutions. Nevertheless, despite the differences in the timing or a form of the response, these elites use the claim of citizens protection from the pandemics to prioritize national interests. At least 91% of the world's population lives in countries with restrictions on people arriving from other countries who are neither citizens nor residents, and 39% live in countries with completely closed borders (Connor, 2020).23

Many scholars and political commentators recently expressed the concern that the closure of the borders and suppression of civil liberties will continue well beyond the COVID-19 pandemics and contribute to protectionism, isolationism, and exclusive nationalism (e.g., Allen, et al. 2020; Fukuyama 2020).24 Some tendencies in public opinion show the preference of national interests and the agreement with the restrictions. For example, 95% of Americans supported restricting international travel to the United States (Pew Research Center 2020a).2S The survey conducted in the UK in April 2020 shows the clear preference of the public to address the CO VID-19 within the country (80% of respondents) rather than providing help to developing countries (17%) and poor countries (15%) (YouGov 2020).26

However, as Bieber (2020) aptly stated, while the continuous global spread of the pandemic can sustain border restrictions aimed at travelers from the Global South, it is unlikely that both the governments and national populations will support such measures in the long term. The main concern is that the narrative of restoring civil liberties and lifting the lockdown will be hijacked by the right-wing and mainstream conservative parties, while progressive political forces fail to promptly respond to this tendency, losing control over the democratic processes (Youngs, 2020).27 The recent polls show that concerns over COVID-19 in 27 countries are declining (from 63% in April to 47% in June), while concerns over unemployment are on the rise (from 35% in April to 42% in June), with the highest level of concerns demonstrated in Italy (66%), Spain (65%) and South Korea (63%) (Gebrekal, 2020).2S The process of the border opening also can exacerbate ethnic and international tensions. For example, the exclusion of Serbia from the list of open borders with Montenegro based on the number of COVID-19 cases sparked an angry response in Serbia (AP 2020)?’

Immigration and minorities

The policies of the emergency response to the pandemic have targeted several groups of populations, including minorities, migrants within a country, and potential immigrants and asylum seekers. The fear of deadly virus together with economic crisis and lockdown-related depression and anxiety contributed to the vicious cycle of “frustration-aggression,” scapegoating, and dehumanization. First, together with the linking of the virus to China by politicians and public officials in multiple countries including the United States, Italy, and Brazil, the frustration of the lockdown and increased unemployment resulted in verbal and physical assaults, and discrimination against individuals of Chinese origin or Asians in general (Human Rights Watch, 2O2O).30 The COVED-19 pandemic also increased discrimination and attacks on groups that were blamed for the disease and labeled as “spreaders” or “supercarriers,” for example, Muslims in India, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and Middle East, and Roma in Central Europe (Human Rights Watch, 2020).

Second, the public health emergency situation has justified drastic measures against some migrants within the country. For example, in the United States, the Department of Homeland Security returned illegal and undocumented migrants to their countries of origin without due process based on "the authority to rapidly return individuals that could potentially be infected with COVID-19” (CBR 2020).31 U.S. public opinion also reflected the exclusion of and establishment of rigid social boundaries vis-a-vis immigrants: while 68% of U.S. adults supported federal medical care for undocumented immigrants ill with the coronavirus, only 37% approved economic aid to undocumented immigrants who had lost their job due to the outbreak (Krogstad and Lopez, 2020).

Third, some nations have banned entry by asylum seekers, including Hungary, where Viktor Orban linked COVED-19 to immigrants, the United States, which turned away potential asylum seekers at its southern border, Canada, which stopped hearings for asylum seekers entering by land from the United States, and Greece, which suspended new applications for asylum (Connor, 2020). Claiming to protect 525,000 jobs for Americans, "prioritizing getting them back into the labor supply and getting them to work and standing on their own two feet again,” President Trump announced the executive order of suspension of immigration and new temporary work visas till the end of 2020 amid the coronavirus pandemic (Hackman, 2020).32 In Denmark, the inability to execute the naturalization law that requires a handshake with the official granting citizenship, has resulted in a temporal deferral of naturalization (Bieber, 2020).

Concluding remarks

The emergency responses to the CO VID-19 pandemic have brought sweeping changes across the globe, deepening disagreements, and provoking conflicts between globalists and nationalists. Together with the increasing criticism of international organizations, societies become more divided in their visions of the future of international cooperation, sharpening the tensions between globalists and nationalists. The anti-EU sentiments in some countries may also grow, unless Germany takes advantage of its new EU Presidency and contributes to the development of a strengthened and more dynamic EU.

While the closing of national borders has a short-term effect, the processes of reopening can promote more exclusions and exacerbate already existing conflicts between ethnic and national groups. In democratic societies, the public frustration related to limited civil liberties, lockdowns, and rising unemployment can give a boost to the right-wing and mainstream conservative parties if progressive political forces do not produce an effective response. In more authoritarian societies, the expansion of surveillance can continue well beyond the pandemics.

The process of blaming migrants or minorities for disease is well-described in academic literature and is linked to increasing discriminatory and exclusionary policies. Thus, the cumulative bias against minorities and immigrants as well as their marginalization and inequality could remain well beyond the pandemic’s recession. The limitation on immigration and temporary work visas can remain for a long time, adding to the populist rhetoric of protecting jobs from immigrants.

Can these tendencies be reversed? Quite possibly, but to reverse them will require new thinking and strategic action on the part of globalists. Instead of assuming, with theorists such as Habermas and Fukayama, that the triumph of liberalism is inevitable, the advocates of global solutions should engage in deep debates with the proponents of right-wing ideology, understanding that the current popularity of their views reflects unsatisfied needs for economic security and communal solidarity as well as a retrograde tribalism. How can cosmopolitan progressives offer to satisfy these legitimate needs? Clearly, not simply by pledging allegiance to existing global elites or abstract universalist ideals. Globalism needs to be reconceptualized in ways that demonstrate the efficacy of transnational ideas and institutions to solve local problems ranging from the precarious existence of many workers, farmers, and entrepreneurs to the cultural insecurities produced by rapid modernization.

Many people turned to right-wing nationalists because nobody else seemed to be listening to their complaints. Fortunately, a rethinking of globalist assumptions and methods of discourse with this problem in mind has already begun (see, for example, Joseph E. Stiglitz, 2017).33 Theorists now understand that globalization is not simply a euphemism for free trade. Mass support for transnational concepts and practices regarding human rights, social equality, religious freedom, and economic development exists, so long as it is understood that the relationship of global trends to local norms is a matter requiring negotiation rather than being decided by fiat. Local communities must have a meaningful voice in such negotiations, and conflict resolution specialists have a vital role to play in making sure that all stakeholder voices are heard. Through such efforts, it may then become clear that globalization and local empowerment are not diametrical opposites but potential partners in the betterment of communal life.


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7 A new global covenant?

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