By Punsara Amarasinghe and Eshan Jayawardane
At this moment the world has indeed been witnessing a plague which looms before humanity as an unmitigated disaster beyond continents, races, religions and all the other so-called social and economic boundaries including the global North-South division. The deplorable conditions in Europe currently portray a nightmare where the congenial lifestyle of Europeans has come to a virtual end. From a vantage point, the state emergency and the other strict regulations implemented in Europe has raised some questions among liberal intellectuals and leftists to challenge the legitimacy of key pillars of Western democracy. On the other hand, Coronavirus serves to justify the legitimize the measurements adopted by European states that had been till now unthinkable in Western democratic societies.
The locking down of Italy appears to be a realization of a nightmare which shunned the whole sets of civil liberty enjoyed by a nation which is known for Western democratic ideals. Furthermore, the constitution of Italy remains vague in curtailing the civil liberties of the citizens except Article 78 which stands for the right to wage the war. In some circumstances, this article has been implicitly regarded as a legal justification to curtail the constitutional rights when circumstances urge to do so.Nevertheless, the executive decree adopted by Italy amid the crisis is akin to a totalitarian regime and ironically Italian political philosopher Giorgio Agamben, the one who developed “State of Exception” as a coherent theory criticized the growing tendency to use state of exception as a normal governing paradigm.
The salient question appears amid this pandemic is that whether we are anymore living in a world where the so-called revered democratic values can uphold in a time of crisis beyond human control. It is blatantly evident that when China was confronting the virus threat by locking down whole Wuhan as the place where the virus emerged, the reaction arose from the leading world news agencies took a rather cynical attitude towards China. China was depicted by most of the news agencies like a state adopting a draconian method to curtail the civil liberties of the citizens. On the other hand, such claims were always bolstered with China’s problematic history of making strict measurements to its citizens. However, the rapid intensity of Corona across Europe, in particular in Italy finally compelled European states to declare a state of emergency and strict regulations to prevent the epidemic from reaching a catastrophic stage regardless of undermining the civil liberties. Achille Mbembe, the political theorist who coined the phrase Necropolitics described his whole concept as an approach analysing how people can be exposed to death or right to enslave the whole society. Yet, the situation we are facing now is another inclusion for the whole concept as it has shown how liberal democratic rights can perish before purely a non-political incident such as Coronavirus.
The other notable factor that virus unveiled to the world is the nakedness of the European Union’s solidarity. The deceptive mantra propagated by EU as a symbol of regional harmony has been challenged in this situation as no European state responded to Italy’s appeal regarding health assistance, that blows all the sanguine hopes on EU paving the path to boosting nationalist rhetoric. The populist propaganda in central Europe had already begun to spread their ultra-nationalist projects even before the outbreak of Corona and the imposition of the state of emergency, locking down of countries and its borders amid the current pandemic have accelerated the populist praise on authoritative governments. The way how Italian plea for medical assistance was spurned by fellow European governments has simply marred its image on solidarity as a hoax by creating a vacuum for altruism. Moreover, the state obsession on protecting borders has shown its futility with the intensity of spreading the virus. The new equilibrium emerged after the outbreak of Corona has shown the impossibility of using state sovereignty as a precautionary method in dealing with a pandemic.
From a cynical standpoint, one can define the virus as a beneficial infection that would purge the already chaotic world order as it causes to get rid of the ageing population and also the fear created by the rapid spread of the virus has sabotaged the nightlife and the intrinsic nightlife of Europeans. But such a morbid fascination will not have a long life in making a realistic assessment of the repercussions which are likely to arise near future. Mainly, it seems to be inevitable to witness a global recession as an offshoot of the virus. Secondly, the xenophobic sentiments sprang during the Corona outbreak has exacerbated the tension between China and West revealing the unending difference based on civilizational habits. It is a fact beyond a conjuncture that Coronavirus became a global issue in the backdrop of a tough trade war between the USA and China. This geopolitical tension has played a catalytic role since the outbreak of the Coronavirus until it reached a level of a global pandemic. The Sinophobia arose from Coronavirus depicting China as the scapegoat has already created an unpleasant situation globally and this hostility towards China is likely to continue even after the extinction of the pandemic.
The grim circumstances brought by COVID-19 or Corona have disoriented the concepts such as sovereignty, solidarity and civil liberties by creating a path for the globalized state of exception. Perhaps, from a sheer existentialist perspective, we can take the whole situation as an undeniable reality and wait.
Punsara Amarasinghe is a visiting research fellow at Center for global legal studies at University of Wisconsin Madison in the USA. He is a PhD researcher at Institute of Law and Politics at Scuola Superiore Sant Anna in Pisa, Italy and previously held one-year research fellowship at Department of International Law, Faculty of Law at Higher School of Economics in Moscow, Russia. Eshan Jayawardane is an independent researcher lives in New Zealand and he holds MA in International Relations from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India.