Pandemic a time to reflect on our relationship with government

Pandemic a time to reflect on our relationship with government

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U.S. President Donald Trump answers a question during the coronavirus response daily briefing at the White House in Washington, D.C. (Reuters)

In the midst of a global pandemic that has yet to reach its peak, it might be premature, albeit rather comforting, to reflect on what life might be like in the aftermath of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak — a crisis that has crept up on us and not only destroyed our normal daily routines, but is increasingly robbing many of their health and even their lives.

There is no reason to doubt that humanity will survive this nasty virus. As so many times in history, a remedy will be found, a vaccine developed, and people will return to something akin to their previous way of life. Meanwhile, in the eye of the storm, we are witnessing both the survival instinct manifesting itself in the stockpiling of food, medication and — notoriously — toilet paper, but also endless acts of kindness and community spirit in support of those in most need. Yet it is not just a question of our physical survival, but of how our psyche is going to change in relation to ourselves, to others, to society as a whole and to life in general. In other words, what scars will be left on our personal and collective perceptions following the months of fear, isolation, sickness and loss?

Periods of national and global crisis are always testing times for relations between governments and those they govern. They can bring the two closer together, but they can also tear them apart, straining relations to the point of popular resistance. In the face of the helplessness shown by almost all governments in their initial response to the coronavirus outbreak, the governed need to remind themselves exactly why they entrust their own and their loved ones’ well-being to the decisions and actions of the political elite.

According to 17th-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, we humans abandoned what he termed the “state of nature” — in which we were free of social rules and laws — in favor of a social contract, which is a term closely associated with the French savant Jean-Jacques Rousseau, because the lawless character of the state of nature leads to an existence that is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” In entering into a social arrangement, or contract, we surrendered many of our previous freedoms in return for security and safety. But the current health crisis represents the worst of all worlds, when governments cannot ensure the most precious commodity we have — life itself — and what freedoms we have are compromised even further.

In times of relative calm, the social contract is kept by rulers and the governed alike, with relatively minor challenges that don’t rattle the foundations of the sociopolitical arrangements. Most of us are resigned to accepting another of Rousseau’s maxims: That “man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.” Most of us accept these chains because they are an integral part of a system that ensures our welfare, our access to education and health, the enforcement of law and order, checks upon our external enemies, and, yes, ensures supermarket shelves are stacked with everything we desire. It takes a global crisis like the coronavirus pandemic to expose the fragility of this social contract, straining relations between governments and the governed and leaving mutual trust between the two hanging by a thread.

Should we be surprised by this? Probably not. After all, faced by various similar occurrences, such as wars, tsunamis, earthquakes, refugee crises or mass outbreaks of diseases like Ebola, most governments prove to be unprepared, inept, and led by events rather than controlling them. Citizens in these situations rightly feel cheated and let down, since they have kept their side of the bargain by voting in their governments, or at least abiding by the law and paying their taxes with the simple expectation that their leaders will be their protectors in normal times and their saviors in times of severe predicament, such as the current one.

Yet, when such a threat surfaces, it transpires that those who govern us do not have the capacity to fulfill their side of the bargain. It is the result of inadequate sociopolitical and economic systems controlled by mediocre leaders. Too many of these leaders care more about obtaining and retaining power than developing the qualities required to maintain the welfare of their people in ordinary times, let alone in times of crisis. Sometimes it takes a pandemic to expose their inadequacies and their default mode of denial and obfuscation, followed by the sowing of confusion and the employment of half-baked measures. It is only when the severity of the situation finally dawns on them that the lumbering machinery of big government grinds into top gear; by which time trust has been lost, the food shelves have been cleared and every household has accumulated enough medicines to stock a small pharmacy.

It takes a global crisis like the coronavirus pandemic to expose the fragility of the social contract.

Yossi Mekelberg

Is the populace genuinely surprised by the behavior of those who govern it? It shouldn’t really be. Shortages of hospital beds and lifesaving equipment, not to mention the grim situation faced by countries with no public health service at all, are big issues that never fail to be debated in every single election. Then there is the question of how, when this debacle has passed and most of us have somehow managed to survive it, are we going to treat those in government and what changes in the way we are governed are we going to demand? Will we simply be grateful that we are still here and return to our apathetic shell or will we demand explanations for our rulers’ lack of preparedness, slow reactions and initial contempt for scientific and medical advice?

In the coming months, many of our freedoms will be curtailed in the name of containing and defeating the coronavirus. Hence, until we emerge from our isolation, we might want to reflect on how we would like to be governed in the post-COVID-19 era. How we might obtain more say in the running of our political entities, in setting national and global priorities, and deciding how these should be paid for. Our rude awakening to the life and death issues posed by this pandemic is also an opportunity to take serious heed of Plato’s timeless warning that: “One of the penalties of refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors.”

  • Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg
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