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André Gerrits: ‘Coronavirus is speeding up social developments'

All the world leaders have had to choose an approach during the global Covid-19 crisis. But which approach is the most effective? André Gerrits, Professor of International Studies & Global Politics, who lectures in the BA International Studies, is observing some interesting developments. ‘Democracies aren’t necessarily performing any better than authoritarian regimes.’

What makes this such an interesting time for comparative political science?

‘What makes this such an interesting time is that there’s never before been a situation where all leaders, of all types of regimes, have been faced with the same kind of crisis at the same time. This is why coronavirus is a perfect yardstick for comparing democratic and authoritarian regimes.’

André Gerrits

What do you see as the biggest difference in approach between these types of leadership?

‘We often tend to say intuitively that democracies are better at handling this kind of crisis. But we’re actually seeing a similar pattern in both types of countries. First there’s denial or underestimation, then they realise the extent of the crisis, and then the serious measures are rolled out. You can see this in authoritarian countries like Russia and China, and also in democracies like the Netherlands and Germany. It’s only in absolute dictatorships, like Belarus or in Central Asia, that you find a total denial of the crisis. The factor that seems more likely to predict a difference in approach is the leader’s political personality. For instance, we’ve seen that some authoritarian leaders, such as Xi Jinping and Putin, spent a long time denying that the virus was having an impact on their country, but we’ve also seen this same denial in some democratically elected leaders, such as Bolsonaro, Trump and initially also Boris Johnson. So, authoritarian and democratic regimes don’t always take a different approach. It’s the leader who’s in charge that appears to be more important.’

Although individual leaders may be taking different approaches, are there any developments that are common to all countries?

‘What I find especially interesting is that coronavirus is acting like a kind of accelerator. This crisis is causing political and social developments to speed up. We’re seeing more criticism of globalisation, and also a growing and fiercer reaction against neoliberalism. These are processes that were already taking place before the coronavirus crisis, so coronavirus isn’t actually initiating any new developments, but it will result in acceleration of processes that were already ongoing.’

What other processes are you thinking of here?

‘Even before the crisis, America’s global power was already declining. The fact that the USA hasn’t assumed a leadership role in this crisis means that this power shift from America to China is moving faster. Another trend that we’re seeing is nationalism. This crisis will probably make us even more inclined to look inward, with greater emphasis on our own country and local production. And another process that could speed up now is state surveillance by means of technology.’

With a ‘coronavirus app’, for example?

‘You can already see that new technologies are being used to monitor citizens. A good example is the social credit system in China. The question is whether the coronavirus app, for instance, which can be used to limit the spread of the virus, will be scaled down once the virus has been contained. I somehow doubt it. This means that democracy will be yet further undermined, and the position of individuals in relation to governments and tech giants will be progressively weakened. But once again, this is a development that’s been going on for some time. Coronavirus isn’t creating anything new: it’s just accelerating processes that already existed.’

About International Studies

André Gerrits lectures in the BA International Studies in The Hague, which looks at regional issues from a global perspective. Gerrits: ‘The world is becoming more closely connected and at the same time there are global crises, such as coronavirus and climate change, that need an international approach. Students of International Studies develop a sensitivity for seeing how different parts of the world react to international developments, and what we can learn from that.’

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