Croatia BiH border

The Virus and the State

André Liebich

Now that “de-confinement” is taking place throughout most of Europe we can draw conclusions. Clearly, people are more attached to their security than to their freedoms. Invasive tracing applications, regardless of the assurances given by their promoters, are the most recent demonstration of this fact.

We can only wonder at the speed with which protective measures advocated by the state have been internalized.  We all try to keep our distance from others. We offer no objections to the statement of Dr. Fauci, once an obscure Washington bureaucrat now a respected international expert on Covid-19, who tells us that we shall never shake hands again.  Older people are an object of keen solicitude when they die by the thousands but heaven help them should they dare to show themselves in the street.  We listen respectfully to the “experts” who contradict each other on the subject of masks, on the immunity conferred by having had the virus, or on the efficacy of certain drugs.

The crisis has taught us that people obey their authorities especially when it comes to matters of health. We are willing to accept strict restrictions, such as that of remaining inside for months or, as in France, going out only with a written “attestation” that confirms we are only going nearby and for a matter of utmost necessity.

For a historian the Covid-19 crisis casts light on an otherwise inexplicable aspect of the last days of the third Reich.  Why did the Germans continue to fight in the East knowing that their cause was lost? The answer lies in the fact that German authorities succeeded in convincing the population that the “bacillus,” yes, the virus of bolshevism was going to overpower them.  Without the benefit of social networks which delight in the rising figures – half a million dead and ten million confirmed cases in the world (of the eight thousand million people who inhabit the planet) – the Germans heard of the death of their compatriots and the rape of women at the hands of Soviet hordes.  All, even those who were justifiably skeptical of Hitler’s regime, could not but resist the attack of the Bolshevik virus.

To be sure, the situation today is less dramatic, notwithstanding the alarmist declarations of statesmen who claim that we are at war against Covid-19.  The first reaction is to defend the national territory. We must close borders as the virus is, obviously, coming from abroad. Such measures have not provoked any popular reaction. Governments have understood that in invoking health they could act as they pleased. States that already tended towards dictatorship, such as Hungary, have profited from the occasion offered by the Covid-19 crisis to re-enforce their control over society. Even democratic states have not resisted the temptation to put an end to contestation.  In Spain feminist movements that had the temerity to organize a march on Women’s Day, March 8, have been accused of spreading the virus. In Switzerland, the federal government put to heel the cantons. The providential man of the hour here is the federal minister of the interior, hence of health.  States have learned that health is an even more effective weapon than terrorism to spread fear among the population.  States will remember this lesson.

André Liebich is honorary professor of international history and politics at the Graduate Institute, Geneva. He is a member of the Institute’s Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy. A French version of this article appeared in the Genevan daily, Le Temps.

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