During the current global crisis, many have made an appeal for more cooperation. Common ground has been found quite well in small communities such as families and neighbourhoods and previous dividing lines have been forgotten. Videos of people exercising on their balconies together with people from nearby houses and helping their quarantined neighbours with shopping have been published around the world. Fortunately, this spirit of cooperation and understanding has also taken over entire countries. In Finland and Germany, for example, people have generally been understanding about the strict restrictions and major political or social confrontations have been avoided.

Unfortunately, in many countries, cooperation has not become reality. The pressure from the pandemic has either exaggerated the pre-existing dividing lines between groups or created new demarcations that divide people. As international scientists, experts and decision makers use every opportunity to emphasise the need for cooperation in stopping the global pandemic, it seems illogical that conflict is constantly growing in some countries. However, it is easy to begin to understand the situation by following domestic events: in Finland, too, the government itself, the opposition and the people have occasionally voiced sharp criticism on how the situation has been managed. Of course, criticism is a sign of a healthy democracy and, overall, Finland has been successful in its cooperation-orientated approach to crisis management – an example of which is the political parties’ unanimous decision to implement the Emergency Powers Act.

The crisis exacerbates existing confrontations

Finland has managed to avoid growing confrontation thanks to the nation still being relatively cohesive, both politically, culturally, and economically. If we look at a society in which differences between the opposition and the government, members of different political parties, or sociological groups such as religions or social classes are large and established we are likely to see a situation where the interests of different groups compete with each other. This exacerbates existing dividing lines or creates an entirely new confrontation. 

In media, the United States has been the most visible example of pre-corona polarization worsening during the pandemic. The confrontation and lack of cooperation between Democrats and Republicans that preceded Donald Trump’s presidency, and that has worsened during it, has continued with serious consequences during the corona crisis. Both parties have tried to praise their own efforts and take advantage of the other party’s mistakes in an attempt to promote their own political goals and gain support. This political competition threatens to divert resources from crisis management and strip credibility of the country’s corona strategy and the threat posed by the disease. The problem is made worse if a politically divided nation refuses to follow even the good anti-corona measures from the leaders they criticize. In that case, political confrontation becomes a direct threat to people’s health.

In difficult times, confrontation does not only arise between those in power and the opposition. Just like there can be disagreements between the government and the opposition, there may also be competing interpretations within the government or the ruling party about the severity of the situation and the medicine needed to combat the disease. In a united, open-minded, and dialogue-capable party or government these disagreements seldom escalate into major disputes that threaten the group’s unity. Instead, intragroup disagreements become a problem for the management of COVID-19 mainly when there have been pre-existing problems within the group. In Kenya, an emerging power struggle within the ruling party that preceded the coronavirus outbreak has since ramped up and President Uhuru Kenyatta has dropped several members from the party. Purging those who have been critical of the country’s corona policy has laid the groundwork for a new political power struggle in a country where dividing lines – both in party politics and in everyday life – have previously been primarily ethnic.

Social and cultural divisions

When talking about polarization, attention is often limited to divisions that follow political party support or ideological lines, even though, especially in exceptional circumstances, other social and cultural groups are becoming increasingly important divisions in societies. For example, discourse between the elderly and young people in media has occasionally taken a negative tone as young people feel they have been forced to make disproportionate concessions in their social and economic lives to safeguard the well-being of the most vulnerable elderly. Indeed, it is true that the important early years of many young people’s careers have been abruptly cut short because of layoffs or the increased difficulty of finding a job after graduation.

Of course, when groups of people become hostile towards each other, there are often political motives at work on the background. With its some 1,000 confirmed infections, Sri Lanka has been praised for its rapid response and measures in slowing the spread of the disease. At the same time, the country’s Muslim minority has criticized the government for the mandatory cremation policy that goes against the traditions of Islam and which they view as an unfair restriction on the Muslim minority without clear evidence of any benefits. Muslim activists have argued that behind the growing hostility against Muslims in Sri Lanka there is a long-term increase in anti-Islam opinions which the country’s government is now tapping into to make Muslims the scapegoat for the spread of coronavirus and simultaneously increase the ruling party’s support in the upcoming elections.

It is worrying that the situation in Sri Lanka is not an exception. In many other countries, minorities have become the subject of a lot of suspicion. Like in many African countries, Europeans in Mozambique are facing xenophobia as the locals suspect them to be spreaders of the disease. Still, one does not have to look very far to find similar examples, because also in Europe – as in virtually everywhere – Chinese people were viewed with much suspicion especially in the early stages of the pandemic.

China has proven to be a handy scapegoat for entire countries in their attempts to grow national solidarity for the fight against a hard-to-beat invisible pandemic. Any mistakes made in the fight against coronavirus by one’s own country, government, political party, and social groups become less threatening for the ingroup cohesion when they can be blamed on an outgroup and there is no seeming need for ingroup critique. Indeed, the divided United States, under Trump’s leadership, has tried to create an image of a “Chinese disease” and thus build a sense of togetherness within the US. The attempt has not been particularly successful, but had it been, it would cause a lot of problems. Mika Aaltola, the director of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, and numerous other experts of international politics have warned of possible global polarization caused by the COVID-19 pandemic that would likely cause major changes in the world economy and international relations. There is a risk that the accusations made during the corona crisis will ruin possibilities for international cooperation for years to come. 

Polarization has long been one of the main concerns of those interested in politics and society, for good reason. At its worst, polarization leads to civil wars, but even before that, it causes a lot of damage and suffering. During a global pandemic, the world needs coordinated cooperation from all parts of society to ensure efficient protection, treatment, and recovery. Confrontation should simply not be allowed to grow. Dialogue between citizens, political parties and states is now more important than ever and we need to find leaders who are capable of it. Only then can we beat coronavirus and maintain cooperation at all levels. The alternative is that the corona pandemic leads to a polarization pandemic which could be even more deadly than its predecessor.

Sources:

Carothers & O’Donohue: Polarization and the Pandemic. Carnegie Endowment 28.4.2020.
Aaltola: Kulkutauti tulee harvoin yksin. Ilta-Sanomat 2.5.2020.
Aaltola: Pandemia ei yhdistä, vaan erottaa ja kiilaa. Ilta-Sanomat 28.3.2020.
Quarkoo & Kleinfeld: Can the Coronavirus Heal Polarization? Carnegie Endowment 1.5.2020.
Qazi: Muslims face extra threat as coronavirus stirs hate. Al Jazeera 11.5.2020.

Alex Aaltola 
The author works as Demo Finland’s Programme Assistant.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Demo Finland.