I don’t recall any other year comparable to 2020. If I go back in my memory, at the time of events even years like 1989 appear to have felt less intense with regards to the global revolutionary impact. But that’s just me comparing on a very subjective level. In any case, the changes, the tectonic shifts that we have witnessed in 2020 are beyond anything that we might have imagined. And there is one experience from events such as those unfolding in 1989 which will be true for 2000, too: In many ways I only understood the local, regional, and global consequences of the end of the Cold War only gradually, throughout many subsequent years. Like when I analysed the development of peacekeeping since its beginning in 1946. You can read about it here. When I analysed facts and figures related to United Nations Peacekeeping Operations, a new dimension of my understanding of how deeply 1989 had influenced global development opened up. I’m not saying I wasn’t aware of it before. Neither that analysing aspects of peacekeeping completed my understanding of what happened in 1989. It just opened my eyes about the complexity of the impact of that year. Studying it as comprehensive as possible takes a lifetime of historians, sociologists, political analysists, and so on. And on Peacekeeping, 2020 had a huge impact, whilst the entire topic itself literally went on the backburner of public perception. As always, when things get us out of our comfort zone into fear, we tend to neglect, or forget, those who really suffer.
On a similar impact level like 1989, I also do not forget 2001, with its September 11th. The same tectonic shifting is true here.
And it will be true for 2020. Yet, we feel the impact in ways very much different to those events 36 years ago, and may be also compared to 19 years ago, except those who suffered from the terror attack directly in New York City. 2020, the foundations of what we have become used to, they are shattered in their core on a global level. The measures implemented to fight the pandemic, the lockdowns, the social distancing, the constant news about ups and downs in the fight, hope, despair, the experience of depression and helplessness, it creates one huge yarnball of fear in our stomachs all over the world. The dimension of change in private lives, economics, and societies, they are endless. I guess “Home Office” is the topic which comes to most minds in high-tech countries. But that is just for starters.
Of course, the pandemic and its impact does not stand on its own. The crisis of democracy which we see continuing to unfold in menacing ways, it adds to confusion, polarization, and fear. But still, this is just the surface of the entire development. The crisis response that we could witness with all its faults and all its successes cannot be looked at in isolation. The pandemic has an impact on everything else which is ongoing. Which at times gives space to discussions such as: Would we have done the same under different circumstances, when it comes to fighting Covid-19? And this is tricky, because I do not want to contribute to any speculation that the crisis response has been used as a pretext for something that has been motivated differently, perhaps mischieveously. This is a pathway quickly leading into the most horrible type of discourse where people begin to de-legitimize any crisis response and also attempt to minimize the threat that is stemming from this global pandemic. A taxi-driver in Belgrade who brought me to the airport told me: “Covid is a machination of the pharma-industry. It has been created as a myth in order to sell vaccines. Wait for it, in April Covid is gone.” The insanity of this simple circular logic is almost ridiculous, but how do regular people feel when historians, sociologists, politicians, epidemiologists, and all else, struggle with giving an answer on something which is only beginning to be understood, whilst the explosive and utterly pervasive impact of it affects the lives of billions of people in life-threatening ways? How to mentally deal with explaining circumstances when you are loosing your job because an economy is melting down? Add the conspiracy-theorists, the fearmongers, the deniers, the liars, whatever. It just increases the desire of many people to find an explanation and to re-direct their fear.
A surgical analysis of what happened as the crisis unfolded will require years. As history is not an exact science, the conclusions will be expressed in untold and diverse, certainly at times contradicting assessments. We will see heated discussions for decades to come.
But what is it what we can see right now? It is very clear that the Covid pandemic did not happen as an isolated crisis but it did unfold at a time when other tectonic tensions were there, or materializing, at the same time. The development has become so interdependent that effects of various crises had a chaotic and hardly predictable impact on other crises. It is all a huge, a gigantic mess. Which reinforces fear. Nobody understands. The wish to blame someone, or something, it is a consequence of rage and fear towards something invisible. People feeling the pain from depression and helplessnes, they want to “smash”, but what?
Some other crises unfolding before and throughout 2020 that have not gone away, and which require more attention than we may have been able to give to them, are:
The Covid pandemic has not just made global warming going away. It has superseded any discussion about it, and it has helped radical deniers of global warming to get away with chopping off previous achievements on environmental protection.
The crisis of legitimacy of the Western system of peace and security, which is in existence since more than 75 years, it has been building up for quite some time, was becoming scarily visible and menacing from 2016 onwards, and further unfolded during the same time when we were hit by the pandemic. Even more: The requirements necessary fighting a pandemic, and even the assessment of the dangers stemming from Covid-19, that all was taken hostage in ways still numbing my mind. The casualties of instrumentalising a pandemic for political fights, including ripping down institutions, they are real. At the time of this writing the United States is going through an unprecendetend challenge of the electoral system, with protagonists of this attack entirely neglecting the pandemic. I don’t want to speculate about numbers, but saying that many thousands, or tens of thousands of people could have been rescued, it is a given. Who will hold those accountable who have, with a clear and insane mind, done that, whilst they swore an oath to protect their citizens, rather than themselves, their riches, their families, and servile friends?
The global economic competition like between China and the United States, or Europe, was in existence before the pandemic. Economic consequences of the pandemic are affecting individual citizens, households, communities, societies. How do we cooperate in a world with limited resources, in which 2020 witnessed an impact which could be partially mitigated in rich countries, but not at all in poor countries? What does the pandemic mean in terms of fueling selfishness of economy? How did the economies send shockwaves into governing the pandemic, and how did the pandemic influence global competition? What will we see in 2021 and beyond? In essence, all these questions create uncertainty and fear. Which create selfishness.
The migration crisis was there, and has not gone away. Not only because of the global warming, or previoulsy existing instability and war. The shockwaves of the pandemic do add. Attempts to curb illegal migration, efforts to influence migration by means of supporting capacity development and economic and security perspectives for populations in threatened regions or on entire continents, it was there before. But how will this play out as we move on through the pandemic and it’s consequences? Will we continue with helping, or have we become used to locking down things, because we are experiencing this even by ourselves. Will this be used for building visible or invisible walls?
Autocratic governments controlling the population were in existence before and it did not stop because of the Covid pandemic. How will selfishness, fueled by the fearmongers of nationalism and xenophobia, influence policy on jointness, with some nations perhaps continuing to be willing to share, and others not? Will we be able to find strength for an new attempt to act collectively, instead of dividing and putting “My Country First”? Which, by the way, is a perfect example for lying straight into the faces of people, because in reality all these actors mean “Me First”.
I sometimes feel like the pandemic was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Obviously the Covid pandemic created interdependent effects in other major lines of global or regional political and societal development. Tectonic shifts happen only after a long building up of tension between tectonic plates which is mostly not seen and measurable only by using sophisticated technology. But the event triggering the cascade of effects that we feel in a gigantic earthquake, it can be comparatively small. A rupture in a small area can stand on its own when there is no build-up of larger tension. But beware: The tension may be there. In that case, hell is breaking loose once the weakest part of the chain is breaking and the chain reaction of events is unfolding in explosive succession. That is also how I look at the pandemic. It set off something way larger, and perhaps way more catastrophic.
Amongst many effects that came as a consequence of Covid-crisis-management I am also looking at two:
(1) The reoccurrence of borders in the European Union and the erosion of something that could be considered a core achievement inside the European Union, meaning the so-called Schengen Space. Millions of travellers in Europe have witnessed something that was always part of contingency planning in case of crisis management: The temporary re-instating of border control inside the Schengen Area. I believe it was never anticipated to happen on the scale as it did in spring 2020. When finally road travel under severe restrictions was possible again, I traveled devoid highways from South-East-Europe to Germany, with border control and temporary police checkpoints becoming semi-permanent. We all remember the eerily absence of the noise of aircrafts. For people like me, travel is the only way connecting me with my friends and family all over the world. Others felt it during holidays, some behaved, others didn’t. But once we got through the first lockdown and had to handle the first wave of anger about the possibility of new lockdowns springing up again, we also got used to it. So, with this Christmas bringing new lockdown measures, what will be the future of an interconnected world where the border-free Schengen Zone once was a hallmark achievement of the European Union? I am not sure the situation will go back to something called a “status quo ante“, the status like it was before. People who are critical to the vast arranging of border checks are already using an argument that the crisis has been used to erode achievements long held in the EU, and taking rights away, in order to control more. These opinions are inevitable, and may be at this moment is is hard to tell who is right and who is wrong. But it will require a sustained effort of political representatives, civil society, and all of us ourselves, to participate in this discourse. The silence of the lambs always has led to catastrophes, and more recently we saw this in well-established democracies who considered themselves to be the bedrock of the modern Western world.
(2) Connected to it is the velocity with which Covid crisis response mechanisms also severely affected individual rights of freedom of movement or freedom of expression of opinion and freedom to demonstrate. Even more, we are facing a holiday season where States regulate how many people from different households can meet inside their homes. I would, frankly, never had imagined that I am facing a situation where my brothers and I have to think about how to organise Christmas, because if the three of us including a few children and partners meet, we will exceed the permissible number of people gathering in one large house. These restrictions are new and subject to learning and regulation by legislators, but also by the courts. We have seen courts already doing what they have to do: Correcting measures of the executive, where excessive. Because we don’t have blueprints. We make mistakes, having the best intentions, but we make many. So it is a normal procedure that courts will contribute to acceptable application of law. At the same time, law is evolving as well. And like in the first example, the steering democratic discourse will require a sustained effort of political representatives, civil society, and all of us, ourselves. A discourse ensuring that the rule of law prevails.
Taken together, for me the two case-studies are examples for potential regression. Signature achievements being taken away, hopefully only temporarily. But it happens during a time where the Covid-pandemic, as I mapped out, does not stand on its own. It happens during a time of newly incensed nationalism, conservatism, renewed right-wing extremism, fascism on the rise, autocratic attacks on democracy and the rule of law intensifying. It comes at a time of effects that go beyond re-emergence of borders, and infringements on human rights which require rigid scrutiny. Motivations mingle: We see governments (like mine) attempting to act as responsible as possible with temporary restrictions. We see tendencies of xenophobia, attacks on minority rights, erosion of inalienable human and individual rights, and efforts to reverse hard-fought achievements in domains such as the right of women, or the rigths to which the LGBTQ-community is entitled. It is a wild mix of “retro” banding together, and I am certainly not saying they are motivated by the crisis coming with the pandemic, but all these developments fuel each other, and not to the best of humankind.
I can not help but feeling afraid. Whilst I fully appreciate the necessity to infringe on basic rights under extraordinary circumstances of threats, I also fear that we may have opened pandora’s box. The other day I had a coffee with a friend over a long (and socially-distanced) walk in the park. We were reflecting on the fatigue which we all sometimes feel. Like, “What difference do we make with our work and our passion?”. We both agreed that much of this fatigue comes from the depression which holds many people in their grip after now almost one full and grueling year of how individual life has been affected.
I have no other answer than that we need to continue. Human perception is always attracted by everything scary and negative. My experience is that, at the same time, we can also see, and focus on, how the best human attitudes have been shaped: Kindness, respect, nurturing relationships with different means, intensifying communication with loved ones, taking care the best way possible for lonely people. I’m not rambling at the end, I am just arguing that there is a need to focus on positive developments. Not only because it protects our mental health. More importantly because it truly makes a difference without which we would become silent lambs in the face of fear, anger, rage, and fearmongering. These four lead to isolation. There is no need for being isolated, or feeling so. I have had more contacts with friends and loved ones than I ever had before. Much of it, of course, with modern means of communication. But it has, very clearly, grounded me in a circle of people who I support, and who support me.