Many influential voices have pointed out, with different degrees of optimism, that the COVID-19 pandemic might finally have ushered in the final days of neoliberalism. However, if we understand neoliberalism as a set of practices and institutional mechanisms that shield market relations from popular deliberation, we reach a different conclusion. In these terms, neoliberalism is not dying. If emergency measures are aimed more at safeguarding the profits of banks and large corporations than securing wages and welfare programmes, then this crisis is in fact an opportunity to increase wealth inequality, and not to address it as a problem.
Does the pandemic state of exception pave the way for further undemocratization—and if so, is this process happening on a global scale, or are there meaningful differences between regional developments? Are there identifiable patterns regarding a specifically authoritarian-populist, way of dealing with the pandemic and the resulting social and economic crisis? What is, in short, the specifically authoritarian dimension of the world´s responses to the pandemic?
Even though the current crisis astonished most of us, it also came as no surprise. During the last decade, we have witnessed a densification of what Alex Demirovic calls “crises of denormalization”, i.e. crises that profoundly undermine the hegemonic neoliberal security dispositive. From the financial crisis in 2008–9, through to Europe´s so-called “migrant crisis” (in fact, a momentary collapse of Europe´s inhumane border regime), up to the climate crisis, world capitalism seems ever more prone to destroying its economic, social, and natural basis, and less and less capable of dealing with the consequences.
While governments across southern Africa have been imposing State of Emergency-type COVID-19 regulations, a number of ‘people’s coalitions’ have emerged in several countries, including community structures, trade unions, informal workers’ organizations, civics, social movements, rural groups, and national and provincial NGOs across all social sectors.
Turkey has been experiencing difficult times in the last several years. On the one hand, after the failed coup attempt in 2016, authoritarian politics have intensified at the hands of the AKP (Justice and Development Party) government that has been in power since 2002. On the other, the economy entered into a currency and debt crisis in 2018 and suffers under excessive current account deficits and household indebtedness. Correspondingly, social polarization and the erosion of democratic norms have been growing in tandem with financial fragility and high unemployment rates.
After 75 days of hard lockdown, the Philippines has had the longest community quarantine in the world to date. The lockdown, or enhanced community quarantine, although initially declared to last from 15 March until 15 April, has been extended twice: first for one more month up to 15 May, and then for two more weeks until 30 May. Starting in June, the country declared its intention to slowly open up again.
In the midst of the global COVID-19 response, governments around the world continue to curtail some fundamental civil rights to curb the unprecedented spread of the disease and limit its impact. As of May 2020, 84 countries have officially declared a state of emergency due to COVID-19. Others have not officially declared a state of emergency but have still suspended or restricted certain civil and political rights for temporary purposes in the name of public health; COVID-19 has prompted authoritarian tendencies amongst a variety of different types of governments—including many liberal democracies.
In May 2020, while the world continued to grapple with ways of dealing with the pandemic, UN Secretary General António Guterres spoke about the “tsunami of hate” targeting specific communities in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis. One such maelstrom, targeting the Muslim community, was seen taking place in India, with allegations of ‘corona jihad’ becoming widespread during the first phase of the COVID-19 lockdown in the country.
Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s current president, is known internationally for his far-right stances. He supports loosening gun control and frequently rants against human rights and “political correctness”. His motto of “God above all” pleases the more fundamentalist sectors of his evangelical base and he promotes a particular idea of the “good citizen”, often represented by a white middle-class Christian family man. His government employs a neoliberal economic agenda and is completely dismissive of environmental concerns. He was elected on a “tough on crime” platform full of false promises on how to solve the crime and violence problem in Brazil. His racist and sexist positions are well-known and add to the conservative positions of his government.
The mandatory lockdown and social distancing decreed by the National Government of the Argentine Republic in Decree No. 297/2020 has been the policy designed to mitigate the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. This way of addressing the crisis in a timely and initially efficient manner, in contrast to other countries in the region, gained Argentina international recognition. Simultaneously, the new President of the Nation, Alberto Fernández from the Justicialist Party, (Partido Justicialista, PJ)—also known as the Peronist movement—managed to get a very high level of support from the population by promoting this set of measures to deal with the pandemic. This entailed health, social, and economic measures to protect the most vulnerable sectors and workers.