Opinion |

The Coronavirus Crisis Is Not a Victory for Liberal Democracy

There’s more than a whiff of wish-fulfillment in the grand, evidence-free conclusions of 'plague era prophets' that the coronavirus crisis will usher in a braver new world

Amit Schejter
Amit Schejter
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A Trump supporter holds a U.S. flag during a protest against COVID-19 restrictions outside the Pennsylvania State Capitol Building in Harrisburg, Penn. May 15, 2020
A Trump supporter holds a U.S. flag during a protest against COVID-19 restrictions outside the Pennsylvania State Capitol Building in Harrisburg, Penn. May 15, 2020Credit: JONATHAN ERNST/ REUTERS
Amit Schejter
Amit Schejter

The coronavirus pandemic and its all-too-visible social and political repercussions have led many observers to rush to grand conclusions, often claiming to see a future somewhat braver new world, when it will be over. One such example was Eva Illouz’s recent "Religion Can No Longer Claim Moral Superiority, and Six Other Lessons From the Coronavirus Crisis."

Illouz, like many of the new prophets, relies on values that she already firmly espoused on the eve of the coronavirus outbreak, such as belief in the values of liberal democracy, fierce opposition to neoliberalism and strong support for green movements, projecting them as a vision for our new post-coronavirus reality. 

Bibi swears in his colossal coalition and readies for a courtroom showdown

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However, flattening our collective conversation to conform to preconceived concepts is simply not enough to explain the crisis, and it certainly won’t enable us to predict what will happen next.

One key argument goes that from now on, our new political agenda will include addressing the full range of natural and ecological disasters. But we can’t really assess whether the global political agenda has actually changed, and whether caring about the environment will become a central theme. Political change is not on the immediate horizon of a single country that has failed in the battle against the pandemic, and the same goes for countries where the battle was more successful. 

The latest public opinion polls actually show a rise in the popularity of leaders who have so far scorned addressing issues like climate change, such as U.S. President Donald Trump and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Paradoxically, it’s definitely possible that the faster a medicine or vaccine for the virus is found, the quicker we’ll return to our former lives, and their warped order of priorities.

Hundreds of people enjoy a day at the beach as temperatures soar and the coronavirus lockdown is eased. Tel Aviv, May 16, 2020Credit: AFP

The second lesson we hear is that the virus isn’t a biological event, but a political one, or in Illouz’s words, "only countries that combine a strong democracy and a welfare state can allow themselves to protect their citizens’ lives." It’s true that the emergence of the virus also had political ramifications, but her conclusions aren’t supported by the facts. 

In reality, there’s no correlation between suppressing human rights and failing to manage coronavirus (see: China), and there’s no correlation either between liberal values and the existence of welfare state policies that bolster success against the virus. The degree of liberal or illiberal democracy is no measure of how well a country has coped with COVID-19.

Sweden, the ideal welfare state and a strong democracy, which Illouz claims "is already being hailed as a model nation," has among the top ten worst death tolls from COVID-19 in the world, and one of the highest death tolls per capita.

It has seen nearly 32 deaths per 100,000 residents, similar to another strong democratic welfare state, Netherlands, while Israel, a weak democracy with no constitution, in the midst of a severe political crisis with an interim government in power for 18 months, which has been privatizing its welfare system left and right for the past decade, has succeeded (so far) in preventing a disaster of historic proportions, with a death rate that is only 10 percent of that suffered by Sweden and the Netherlands.

Memorial in memory of those killed by coronavirus in Sweden. Some handwritten notes express frustration with policies that have led to high death tolls. Stockholm, April 29, 2020Credit: AFP

Trust in government, say the new prophets, has suffered a severe blow. However, if indeed so, how is this reconcilable with the relative ubiquity of civic obedience, the only known tool to reduce the spread of the virus? Have we really lost faith in the people we’re obeying? Are we now blindly, automatically obeying orders?

The answer to this paradox apparently lies, once again, in the complexity of the relationship between a government and its citizens. The government has various representatives. They didn’t all enjoy the same level of trust before the pandemic, and therefore, neither the response to their orders nor faith in their judgment has been uniform during it.

Israelis tend to trust the army, which is why sending soldiers into ultra-Orthodox Bnei Brak and the Arab town of Deir al-Assad, two communities in which their presence is uncommon, still seemed natural and accepted by the majority. In contrast, Israelis have less faith in the education system, so they have been reluctant to send their children back to school.

Illouz offers as "proof" that the pandemic has turned the normal value of labor and production upside down, so that the skills of soccer superstar Cristiano Ronaldo are clearly dispensable (according to viral swipes on social media) right now but cleaners and supermarket cashiers, for instance, are essential workers. 

Protestor outside the Knesset holding a make-shift black Israeli flag with a broken heart protesting the new Israeli government sworn in today. Jerusalem, May 14, 2020Credit: AFP

But in fact, there has been no real reversal of the value of labor and production. The real "discovery" is that what’s rare isn’t necessarily essential. Ronaldo is precious because his skills and abilities are rare. But rarity isn’t the same as necessity, and Ronaldo’s “value” is a mere social construction. 

After all, the plastic and paper that make up protective facemasks are more precious than gold in a viral respiratory pandemic context. But gold’s value has always been determined arbitrarily, on the basis of its beauty and rarity, and by the social construction of its value. When the crisis ends, masses of fans will return to the stadiums to watch Ronaldo, and they’ll be willing to pay a lot of money to do so. While healthcare workers and street cleaners will be recognized in public addresses and ceremonies, it is safe to say that they most probably will continue to be underpaid. 

It seems to me that three conclusions from the pandemic are being ignored in the rush to explain the crisis with hindsight prophecy: 

The first is the acknowledgement of the superiority of science and scientific knowledge even among those for whom it is not usually of much importance. Israel’s former Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, who scorns science and puts intuition or irrational religious faith in its place, has failed and resorted to science and scientists to save the day. President Trump, too, while not attending to the advice of anyone, is surrounded for the first time by scientists, even if for show only.

US President Donald Trump speaks at the White House flanked by Coronavirus Task Force head Deborah Birx and National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases head Anthony Fauci. May 15, 2020Credit: AFP

The crisis also proved that not only is basic scientific knowledge important, and that policy should be derived from scientifically proven models but also that a variety of fields of knowledge are essential for its execution. 

We need medicine, biology, chemistry and physics, but to the same degree, we also need an understanding of society and how it behaves, an understanding of the human psyche, the ability to draw historical analogies and the tools to make moral decisions. 

The second lesson is that we’re living in an era where the ability to distinguish between truth and lies is being tested. Even if in hindsight not every step taken by every country was right, openness, directness and truth-telling were what earned people’s trust, and they are also apparently what allowed those countries to preserve their political and social stability. It’s no accident the leaders of countries like Germany and New Zealand, who avoided manipulation, intimidation and lies, stood out from the crowd.

The third lesson is that we must build a new system of distancing and closeness. Paradoxically, the people from whom we seek to maintain a physical distance are those closest to us. Truths that we built on "together" versus "alone" have been challenged. On one hand, we have the death traps of assisted living facilities, the "together" that failed, and on the other, the distress and isolation of elderly people living alone, which proved to be no less severe.

Police clash with people demonstrating against the measures to curb the spread of the COVID-19 in The Hague, Netherlands on May 5, 2020Credit: AFP

Our home has become a castle of limited value, one that can successfully isolate us only if it’s well-connected to both digital and human networks. Perhaps, as the pandemic subsides, new rules for distancing and closeness will be created, and new tools will be needed to implement them. 

This lesson also applies to relations between peoples and states. Just as globalization brought the virus to our shores, it also allowed Israelis to buy coveted eggs for Passover from Turkey and Portugal when a shortage emerged. It required us to have local factories retool to produce ventilators - and to import swabs, because we can’t always produce everything we need by ourselves. It required us to isolate and shut our borders, while constantly consulting with others and noting their experience. 

We can’t construct any prophecies for the future on these lessons. Indeed this, too, is a lesson we’ve been learning these days, immortalized in the old Danish proverb: "One should always be wary of prophesizing, in particularly regarding the future."

Amit Schejter is dean of the faculty of humanities and social sciences at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev

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