Only a few panicked days stand between Donald Trump, the self-declared “wartime president,” and Donald Trump, the pre-pandemic president who saw concern over the fast-spreading virus as the latest political “hoax.”
Critics are certain that the U.S. president’s lethargy in the face of one of the most serious public health threats to sweep the globe will cost lives, and his administration is now scrambling to prepare for a war that’s already underway.
The coronavirus crisis in the West, however, is still in its opening salvo, and even without Trump’s initial indifference, will constitute a severe challenge to his authority and that of most democratic governments — at home and on the world stage.
The days following March 11 — when the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic — will be remembered for underscoring the extent of that challenge.
There was no better illustration of the waning trust in Western leaders, governments and institutions than people’s behaviour as the crisis came concretely closer to home: the run on supplies after March 11, the run on rumour and conspiracy theories — and the run on guns in the United States.
And with people themselves seemingly planning for war, no wonder political leaders from the U.S. to the U.K. to France and beyond came to invoke war metaphors, too.
But those metaphors are of limited value when the virus is an invisible enemy, and yet one that has managed to strike at the heart of governments around the world. It has sent civil servants home in the hundreds of thousands, suspended parliaments, felled ministers and even infiltrated the lives of leaders themselves — from Spain’s deputy prime minister to Canada’s prime minister (both of whom went into self-isolation after their wives fell ill) to the U.K. health minister who actually tested positive for the virus.
Royalty isn’t immune either: Prince Albert of Monaco has tested positive. Even Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip moved residences for Easter a week early as a precaution.
At a time when governments are crucially needed — when public health is at high risk and major economies hang in the balance — they are forced to rule remotely, with parliaments only to be exceptionally recalled, if at all.
Further, there is a yet-unchecked impression of an unsettling lack of control that flies in the face of any call for calm: jammed phone lines, jammed airports, empty shelves, stubborn shortages of masks, sanitizer, ventilators (and yes, toilet paper).
Then there is the necessary but unsettling undoing of the way we live: the suspension of flights, the cancellation of the NBA season and Eurovision, the virtual closure of the U.S.-Canada border, our necessary and for now, indefinite, banishment to our homes.
Along with that there is the formidable aggregate of uncertainties the crisis has created: about money, mortgages, homes, children, elderly parents, schooling, work, health and the future.
All that, and the damned virus continues to spread.
At stake isn’t only the health and welfare of citizens or the future of sitting governments — but also the smooth functioning of our democracies — and, some might even say, the global order.
“The coronavirus is the West’s big test,” Judy Dempsey, senior fellow at Carnegie Europe, wrote in a Carnegie analysis.
“Just consider the lack of ventilators in countries as wealthy as France and Germany. The coronavirus has exposed the basic lack of resilience.”
With a hand tied behind their backs, governments must martial and deploy their resources, communication ability, legal and fiscal firepower, carefully skirting the line of doing what’s best for the population without abusing personal rights or succumbing to the lure of grabbing power.
They must balance their concerns for corporations suffering the ill-effects of a derailed economy with the well-placed worry about those individuals who won’t be able to pay the rent.
There’s also the challenge of actually voting. Just in this week alone, Ohio postponed its primary because of concerns over coronavirus.
There is a lot of handwringing over how all of this will affect the November election in the U.S. What about other elections planned later this year?
It is still early going. But Western leaders are still finding their way around navigating this crisis, and none have really demonstrated the ability to find the words necessary to soothe rattled nerves and contain the crisis of confidence while fighting the coronavirus.
In the days following the declaration of the pandemic, many of those leaders resorted to declarations of war.
Last week, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson warned that citizens would “lose loved ones” but he refrained from taking drastic action, drawing criticism. This week, he shuttered schools indefinitely, appointing a “coronavirus war cabinet” and in what he called his “wartime government.”
French President Emmanuel Macron echoed that language, calling the battle a “health war.” In serviceable yet bland speeches, he introduced border closures and a national lockdown. Police fined 4,000 people for violating it on the first day.
France also delayed scheduled municipal elections and stopped planned economic reforms. This week, a French military transport plane normally used in war zones was used to transport critically ill patients from eastern France for treatment at a military hospital.
“Never has France had to take such decisions, albeit temporary, in time of peace,” Macron said in a speech Monday.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel had been blunt last week, predicting up to two-thirds of the country’s population would be stricken by COVID-19.
On Wednesday, she exceptionally addressed her country in a televised speech for the first and only time in her 15 years as chancellor, shortly after Germany introduced measures to close its borders to non-EU citizens and shutter its public spaces.
She said it was Germany’s biggest challenge since the Second World War.
But there’s been no real “only-thing-we-have-to-fear-is-fear-itself” moment: U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt’s statement in a 1933 post-election speech when the Depression was at its worst.
It seems no different on the world stage, where China appears to have a monopoly on good news, announcing Wednesday that for the first time since the crisis hit, there were no new cases reported. With the worst of the crisis behind it (for now), China is also taking the lead internationally on exporting its know-how for combatting the virus.
A piece in the Foreign Affairs magazine suggests China’s leadership now could have far-reaching implications for the global order.
Despite its own major missteps where the virus is concerned, the authors write, “Beijing understands that if it is seen as leading, and Washington is seen as unable or unwilling to do so, this perception could fundamentally alter the United States’ position in global politics and the contest for leadership in the 21st century,”
As the death toll rose in Italy and other European countries and the U.S., so did the criticism — from the media, political opponents and ordinary citizens.
Much of it is directed inward. In Canada: Why wasn’t the U.S. border closed sooner? In the U.S.: Why aren’t more people being tested? In Italy: Why is the EU failing to better support its members?
And what of the war metaphor? Words matter. But actions by governments must match the words. In the words of an economic columnist in the Guardian newspaper, Johnson’s response thus far is “laughable,” and Britain is “charging into battle armed only with a peashooter.”
But by virtue of the task’s proportions, it will all begin to feel like a war effort. On Friday, as he spoke about putting manufacturers to work to mass produce medical supplies, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said: “There are people talking about historical echoes, whether it was wartime or the Great Depression. We’re focused on what we need to do right now.”
Governments already hampered by social isolation and illness are now obligated to fire on all pistons like they have never before: to deploy legal and fiscal power in ways unseen since the world wars, with the help of those institutions and leaders so criticized in “peacetime.”
Under trying conditions, they must demonstrate the effectiveness of governments and institutions that in recent years have been under siege by the disillusioned. Missteps are to be expected but depending on how this all unfolds, they may be unforgivable.
The days following March 11 could be the start of a rehabilitating moment for liberal democratic governments. This could also be a very dangerous moment — and disturbingly warlike.