The coronavirus (COVID-19) is a pandemic that is chiseling away at an order that the democratic West had taken for granted since the end of World War Two. That order was based on predictability, on motivation, on ambition and on competence. That order was also based on the market economy anchored on the pursuit of growth and prosperity with a corresponding infrastructure to underpin it.
The 2008-2009 global financial crisis, followed by the near-collapse of the Euro currency punctured the West's self-confidence. The West recovered. But it didn't fundamentally alter how democracies reacted to crises. It was a return to business as usual. Reaction prevailed over preemption and resilience.
And even when the war in Syria happened a decade ago, leading to hundreds of thousands of deaths and millions of refugees – with over one million people arriving in Germany because of Chancellor Angela Merkel's generous open-door policy – democracies, with few exceptions, used the refugee crisis to bunker down. Some borders inside the European Union were closed. European Union leaders still haggle over agreeing a common refugee, migration and asylum policy.
Populist parties and movements have exploited these crises. They used them to promote agendas based on protecting national sovereignty and criticizing globalization. They also used the (borderless) social media to reach wider audiences. The liberal script came under immense pressure.
COVID-19 will test it further.
Because it is a virus that knows no borders, it has punctured Europe's comfort zone. European governments are closing their borders and restricting incoming and outward travel, in addition to citizens being ordered to stay in-doors and all-non-essential enterprises and shops to be closed. Public entertainment and sports events have been banned. The pandemic has also exposed the shortfalls in health systems across most EU countries. They are struggling to manufacture ventilators and supply essential protection clothing for the medical staff.
That is the micro picture.
As for the bigger picture, even though it is very early days to have any certainty about how and when the virus will retreat, a few trends are trickling through the fog of fear and uncertainty about how they will affect the liberal script.
The first is the demand for truth, transparency and clarity. The Chinese and American leaderships are in an unseemly blame game about the virus's origins at a time when the West needs leadership and a strong multilateral response. China has clamped down on any criticism. President Donald Trump has vacillated between self-denial and inconsistency. And Russia is spreading disinformation about the virus.
Then there is Germany's stance. Yes, the government reacted slowly to the virus and only really began taking it seriously when it started to ravage Italy in early March. But since then, as Chancellor at the helm since 2005 and recently considered a lame duck by some after her decision last year not to run again for the country's top job in 2021, Merkel has excelled in reaching out to Germans.
This was never her style. But her nation-wide address on March 18 and her statements defending truth, solidarity, decency combined with the need for very tough restrictions have shown Merkel display a leadership sorely needed across Europe - and on the other side of the Atlantic. As a result of her handling of the crisis, her ratings have shot up. Her conservative bloc is running high in the polls because she is combining truth and facts with calls for patience and support from the population. It is a winning ticket, so far.
In contrast, support for the anti-migration, anti-Islam and Euro-sceptic Alternative for Germany is falling. And so is support for the Green party whose rise in the polls seemed unstoppable until the virus took hold in Germany. For the moment, the polarizing squabbling that characterized German politics over the past few years has abated. Merkel, as well as Olaf Scholz, her finance minister, and Jens Spahn, her health minister, are trusted.
Second, as a corollary to this trend in Germany, in other European countries, citizens are turning to their leaders for reassurance. Populist leaders which are adept at manipulating a crisis, especially since they don't have to take responsibility since they are not in power, are fumbling over how to exploit this mortal crisis.
Not Viktor Orban. Using the coronavirus as an excuse, the Hungarian prime minister has called a state of emergency and the parliament, completely dominated by Orban's Fidesz party, passed a bill on March 30 allowing him to rule by decree. Democracy has all but been suspended in a country that is a member of the EU and NATO. If Orban can exploit the pandemic for his own political goals there's no reason why other leaders won't try the same. Much will depend on how the EU and Merkel react to this blatant challenge of democratic norms.
The third aspect to this crisis is how the state, information technology and artificial intelligence will challenge the liberal script.
Whether in democratic or authoritarian countries, COVID-19 has put the state in the driving seat. Leaders have accumulated considerable powers across the board. Increasingly, with China and South Korea leading the way, in order to contain the virus, the authorities are developing systems to track individuals via various apps.
The clock can't turn back these technological changes. We saw how surveillance and intrusiveness increased after 9/11 in the United States and in EU countries as well. Governments can always justify these strict(er) measures for security reasons.
But if democratic governments want to retain trust, they need to be as transparent and accountable as possible about how they use the network of sensors that can, as the Economist wrote on March 28, "co-ordinate the responses of both individuals and whole populations to a degree unimaginable in any previous pandemic."
But it's also about governments being competent and confident. That means including citizens and civil society to ensure that the liberal script can adapt and can prosper. Locking down the liberal script would have terrible consequences for accountability, for stability and for the West.