India, Brazil, Hungary… Regimes that openly profess militant nationalism are among the hardest hit by the pandemic. However, outside these countries, Covid-19 has given rise to nationalistic variants in crisis management policies, with varying degrees of effectiveness

Churchgoers pray in front of the Belem Field Hospital, opened exclusively for COVID-19 patients as a measure to combat the coronavirus pandemic, at the city of Belem, Para state, Brazil, on March 26, 2021. (Photo by TARSO SARRAF / AFP)
Churchgoers pray in front of the Belem Field Hospital, opened exclusively for COVID-19 patients as a measure to combat the coronavirus pandemic, at the city of Belem, Para state, Brazil, on March 26, 2021. (Photo by TARSO SARRAF / AFP)

Unfortunately, no one knows when we will have enough hindsight to assess the cruel pandemic period we are going through. However, lessons are beginning to emerge that would have surprised many when the crisis began a little over a year ago. In particular, we know that the greatest powers have not been spared. The world’s aristocracy has suffered from the virus in proportions often more marked than others, as evidenced by the statistics in the United States, and even those specific to the permanent members of the Security Council…

But there is another striking fact: regimes that openly profess a militant nationalistic faith are among the hardest hit. Just think about it. In the spring of 2021, Narendra Modi’s India is going through one of the most terrible tragedies and is second only to the United States in terms of the number of deaths. The American superpower itself peaked as Donald Trump toyed with nationalistic one-upmanship. Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil also stands out equally tragically. At the same time, the United Kingdom dealt with the crisis amidst a nationalistic atmosphere produced by Boris Johnson’s rhetoric, which made it very difficult to rectify a situation that quickly became catastrophic. On the Old Continent, Viktor Orbán’s Hungary is now the country with the highest number of deaths per capita, increasing by 40% in one week at the end of March, despite a strong vaccination campaign.


An upsurge in nationalistic practices around the world

We should not be fooled by easy explanations: without predicting the future, a careful analysis quickly reveals contradictory trends. First of all, it should be noted that the traditional nationalistic reaction was in fact common to all as soon as it became necessary to create public response policies, even if this was done with varying degrees of modesty. The Covid-19 crisis caused nationalistic practices to erupt almost everywhere: “wars” over masks, tests, vaccines, even tourists. All over the world, national withdrawal was proposed as an emergency solution, triggering the closure of borders at rates and in ways that were specific to individual nations, even when they belonged to the Schengen area.



While everyone knows that the threat is global making individual solutions impossible, no reform or activation of global governance has even been suggested by the ruling powers. The Security Council was even deliberately paralyzed on the subject at the joint initiative of Washington and Beijing. And, when it came to promoting apparently effective forms of cooperation, it soon became obvious that vaccine diplomacy was used as an instrument of influence, particularly by China’s and Russia!


Nationalism as a narrative

One might then turn to another aspect of the subject and consider nationalism as a narrative and a way of interpreting the crisis, the source of a collective imagination that organizes all the resulting mobilizations. Then there is a more complex escalation, in which the United States stands out, as its president was quick to attribute a nationality to the virus, calling it the “Chinese virus” at the time. He was also quick to use the term “enemy” in connection with it, as if to point to a continuity between the old concept of security that can only be national in scope. In doing so, Donald Trump denied the new reality of global security and all the cooperative practices that come with it.

Beyond that, this nationalistic and warlike narrative involved a national effort and the strong idea – shared by Bolsonaro, Johnson and Putin, among others – that each country would pull through thanks to its own genius: copying the dominant models, masks, quarantines, and lockdowns were even denounced as absurd and unpatriotic. Saving the country’s economy became more important: this economic nationalism, which is also part of Trump’s, Orbán’s and Bolsonaro’s criticism of globalization, encourages recklessness in terms of healthcare and was the seed of the disasters that soon followed.

Faced with this situation, the European Union was able, albeit with some difficulty, to devise a rather innovative economic solidarity from July 2020 onwards, which allowed it to exercise greater healthcare precaution in managing its population. On the other hand, no one can deny that this model of economic nationalism was active in China, which nevertheless succeeded in containing the health crisis very quickly: the variable is therefore not as influential as one might have thought.


The dually dysfunctional national-populist variant

A third aspect must therefore be singled out, which has to do with the ideological incarnations of contemporary nationalism and points to the national-populist variant that has little to do with the original nationalism, which emancipated from absolutism and imperial or colonial control (Germani, 1978). A nationalism of identity-based withdrawal that seeks first and foremost to challenge a criticized globalization that is potentially xenophobic and hostile to any form of multi-lateralism. The migrant is then the main suspect, the source of all the evils, abundantly denounced by Trump or Orbán as a “disease carrier”.

The aggressive nature of this rhetoric is, of course, only indirectly related to the counter-performance of healthcare policies. But it refers to a socio-political method of dealing with the crisis that has proven to be dually dysfunctional. On the one hand, it was conceived independently of the institutions and based solely on the substitutive virtues of identity. Like any populist statement, it appealed to “people’s common sense”, to reject regulation and even to the spontaneous symbiosis with attitudes of distrust towards science and all regulation.

On the other hand, the approach was against globalization and flattered a lone soldier, focusing only on the domestic front. In other words, the stance was the exact opposite of Chinese nationalism, authoritarian and statist, turned towards a practice, certainly self-serving but active, of globalization that placed China in a position of greater managerial capacity, enabling it to react effectively to the crisis.


The damage caused by the national-populist variant

This national-populist variant is all the more alarming because it favors alliances that explain its relative popular success, even during the health crisis and despite the obvious counter-performances. Denouncing the illegitimacy and inefficiency of institutions, technocrats and scholars, it values a reference to the people immediately conceived in reference to the nation, even to the purity of identity, thus enshrining a triple advantage. It is easy to create a scapegoat where migrants, foreigners and globalization are intermingled. It is easy to close the borders as a low-cost solution. Finally, it is easy to exempt oneself from any authoritarian management of social behavior and from the duty of complying with “technocratic decisions”.

Religious holidays in India, the dispensation of masks and rules on social distancing proclaimed by Bolsonaro and Trump, Johnson’s denunciation of lockdowns in the fall of 2020: short-term management can only seduce and mobilize support, while uniformly leading to a veritable bloodbath.

This model can be found among the ranks of the extreme national-populist right: like the Rassemblement national in France, which simultaneously denounces the European Union’s “criminal role” and calls for the closure of borders and a stronger fight against immigration, while demanding the lockdowns be lifted. It also feeds these new forms of libertarian expression, mobilizing people against wearing masks, curfews and, more generally, any restrictive regulatory decision.

In contrast, the other variants of nationalism have more positive results. While the “conservative” nationalism found in many European countries, particularly in France, is having some difficulty reconciling itself with globalization, the “emancipatorynationalism, born out of the spirit of non-alignment and the G77 which is still largely present in the South, particularly among certain political and intellectual elites, knows how to adapt to it, to the point of demonstrating a relative resilience in dealing with the pandemic. This nationalistic variant also inspires protesting speeches, such as in Senegal, where President Macky Sall publicly protested against the lack of vaccine aid from the international community.


The effectiveness of the national-authoritarian model and civic nationalism

Above all, beyond the uncertainties that surround the reliability of the figures, the effectiveness of the Chinese or Vietnamese national-authoritarian model should be noted, even if the cost of its methods was very high. Finally, we will focus on the success of the South Korean, Taiwanese, Singaporean, and even Japanese models, which fall under what some have called “civic nationalism” or “post-nationalism” (Sun-song Park, “A Single People and a Shared Nationalism?”, Pouvoirs, vol. 167, 2018). The latter goes beyond strict state and repressive authoritarianism by an active coalescence of a civil society that adapts to globalization and restructures its social behavior accordingly. This new model extends beyond its Asian fiefdom to New Zealand, perhaps even to Germany or Scandinavia.

Thus, several “variants” of a nationalism that never ceases to mutate are formed: some adapt almost perfectly to globalization, proving to be effective in dealing with its challenges. Others, on the contrary, lock themselves in a contentious role, until they are finally crushed or neutralized by the global challenges, leading to human tragedies. This is a good opportunity to meditate on the urgent need for global governance, which we now know does not destroy all forms of national expression.


The opinions expressed on this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official position of their institutions or of AFD.

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