Coping with Coronavirus
by Cornelia Björkquist
The Coronavirus pandemic has forced an important change in terms of public debates and engagements. With human-to-human contact largely suspended throughout much of Europe, the Middle East, parts of Asia and into the Americas there has been a rapid migration to cyberspace. We at the Euro-Gulf Information Centre have joined the throngs and temporarily moved to Zoom where we fight isolation with conversation in our new event series: Coping With Coronavirus. This series is comprised of conferences and lectures, workshops, informations sessions and publications on the topics that matter in Europe and the Arab Gulf. Our premier event, held on 19 March 2020 from 1100h explored coronavirus from an interdisciplinary perspective. The panel consisted of:
Omar Al-Ubaydli — Bahrain Centre for Strategic, International and Energy Studies [DERASAT], Bahrain
Andrea Spinelli Barrile — Slow News, Italy
Yan St-Pierre — Modern Security Consulting Group, [MOSECON] in Berlin
Velina Tchakarova — Austrian Institute for European and Security Policy
Moderated by: Mitchell Belfer — Euro-Gulf Information Centre
The following is a dialogue of the event.
Moderator’s Opening Remarks
Mitchell Belfer—The coronavirus is currently affecting individuals, states and the international community. It is truly a global phenomenon in a way that few would have anticipated, with an ongoing pandemic affecting so many people and sectors. Yesterday was one of the most tragic days we have had so far in Italy, with more than 4000 new, reported, cases and more than 450 people losing their lives. This is a sad time in Italy, Europe and the world. Isolation is producing uncertainty and many people are afraid of what the future has in store. Today’s conference aims to break the isolation, to engage with each other and to meet our colleagues; it is a way to get in touch with experts through direct information – rather than from the overwhelming online information flow – and to deal with the fear by understanding the crisis better.
The event will proceed as follows: our panelists will present their main thoughts, given their expertise, on regarding the impact of the coronavirus which will be followed by an open discussion.
Omar Al-Ubaydli—The coronavirus is indeed a global pandemic. Being an economist based in the Gulf, a major concern in the longer term relates to the economic structure of the global economy. With globalisation steadily increasing since World War II, we have (since then) seen a lot of integration in the global economy—enabling states to be more productive and efficient by exploiting their economies of scale and by linking economies together. Nevertheless, there are some questions about whether this has damaged the working conditions in some of the richer countries. Although it is clear that the overall effect of globalisation has been positive. The fear is that there has been a backlash within the last ten years, especially since the global financial crisis and some more recent episodes regarding Brexit and the shift towards more nationalistic tendencies within states. There is a risk that countries will feel more adversely affected by globalisation as a consequence. Hence, in a shorter term, we might see countries turning more to local production in an attempt to avoid dependence and economic contagion resulting from pandemics or other future crises. This is bad for the global economy, which is already struggling with the climate crisis and other ongoing challenges. This can result in great long term economic consequences, such as an anti-European discourse – which has been seen lately towards Europe’s handling of the coronavirus – together with migration issues.
Andrea Spinelli Barrile—As mentioned before, coronavirus updates are all over the news, on TV and social media. The result is that the common people are out of touch with reality. From my previous experiences working with the Ebola outbreak, I found three important key points. The first is sharing data, which is one of the most important things to start with for the national institutions such as research centres, universities and hospitals etc. Sharing facts helps in understanding the outbreak and provide tools on how to respond to the crisis. The second thing is collaboration between health care systems, NGO’s and common people – which will be the key to find a solution after the outbreak. The third thing is the stigma, which is an important social risk during this pandemic—pointing fingers at one another is destroying society in the same way as terrorism. Terrorism wants to change people’s lives, much like this crisis is changing the way we live. In order to fight this, we need to stay strong, confident and connected to each other. In Africa, the first reaction was to talk about the virus as just an ordinary harmless flu. After seeing how it developed in Europe, the states started to work together by sharing data and educating people. This is an interesting starting point for the outbreak, since it was not done in Europe from the beginning. Only a few days ago, Europe started to share data and facts with each other, which is exactly what we have to continue doing at this moment.
Belfer—Many cyber disinformation campaigns have been launched trying to worsen the situation in European public thinking and in the US. People are exploiting the fear factor. There is an ongoing debate in Africa about preventing European migration, which also shows that this crisis has many dynamics in play.
We will now turn to Yan St-Pierre to continue the discussion.
Yan St-Pierre—Unfortunately terrorism has not stopped due to the isolation and extremism has not disappeared just because there is suddenly a pandemic virus: it has actually sharpened in various ways. Regardless if you’re far right, far left or religiously motivated, the pandemic provides justification for your position. The far right claims that what we are seeing now is the consequence of globalisation and that they were right in that capitalism must change. The coronavirus is argued to be a product of the capitalist world and that now is the time to fight and change it. Parts of the far right scene also see the virus as foreign in nature and claim that borders need to be closed since only the pure people can survive together. According to them, a process should begin to get rid of the ‘impure’ or ‘disruptive’ elements in society. Religiously motivated groups will see this as a punishment from God, or another religious figure, towards the unfaithful. This rhetoric is very strong and justifies years, or decades, of propaganda that ties into a mentality that combines both the dogmatic and the apocalyptical elements with the rational aspects. However, the worst part is not the propaganda itself, but the willingness to believe in it. What is helping extremists movements right now in Germany is the lack of trust in classic institutions. Some people do not trust the information coming from the institutions and choose to trust alternative sources instead. The full fledged crisis of lack of confidence in our institutions and decision makers is now fostering the extremist rhetoric.
Velina Tchakarova—Until now, a bottom-up effects has been outlined. I will move further to the helicopter view of the current events regarding this pandemic outbreak. I have been following the current events asking myself what it will mean for the global system. In mid-February it was quite obvious – due to the lock down in China – that the coronavirus would cause a disruption to the global supply chains. Now, a month later, we can see the ramifications. We will probably witness the next great shock to the global system, only comparable to the global financial crisis in 2007/8, if not even worse in terms of implications. Prior to the outbreak, governments did not take the time to prepare properly and the implementation of restrictive measures happened too late. Now they have to act in a reactionary mode instead, both in Europe and in the US. Another layer above the national governments is the interconnectedness between the socioeconomic systems and globalised networks. The outcome of globalised networks was an unforeseen consequence of globalisation. The disruption of global supply chains due to the outbreak is to be seen as the canary in the global system mine. This time it will not be about the ‘Too big to fail’, but rather the ‘Too many to fail.’ We are now witnessing how these networks are crumbling—even the central banks. There is a lesson to be learned that we did not learn last time. The central banks were saved and yet were also the cause of the crisis. This time people will have to be saved by the central banks to keep the global system alive. If they do not learn this lesson, it is going to be devastating and the outcome will be a complete clash.
Belfer—The question about lessons is an important one. For example, we can see that China had learned from its experiences with SARS to stockpile medical equipment and quickly being able to build temporary hospitals. Are there any economic lesson we should be learning from this experience, given the economic impact that we are feeling right now and that we are likely to continue to feel?
Al-Ubaydli—To be honest, I do not think that there is that much we could have done in terms of preparations. The distinction from the financial crisis is that the clear flaws in the financial system caused and exacerbated the problems. In this case, the basis of the problem is a public health issue; however, in order to stabilise the situation economically we can make sure that we have a stable health infrastructure. We can see that the US is very limited in their capacity to act, still debating over details while the people and business in need of recourses are paying the price. In these times we need stable states that are able to identify and isolate the resources to the ones in need.
Arthur de Liederkerke (audience member)—Disinformation on the spread and impact of the virus is both the work of governments (re: suppressing the true number of casualties or targeting foreign audiences to sow division/confusion), cyber criminals who are leveraging the panic to scam and defraud people (for some groups even targeting hospitals) and unfortunately unscrupulous individuals who are simply crafting and relaying fake news for their two minutes of fame or fun. How do we tackle this disinformation plague going forward?
St-Pierre—Essentially it begins with credibility, which is very often defined when being tested. Right now, institutions and actors around the world are being tested, which will play a big role in their future credibility. Nevertheless, credibility is not built over night – it takes a long time and require a degree of openness. The current time provides the challenges that can help foster credibility. Right now, we get confused by the contradicting advices that we then turn to emotional security. We shift from facts to emotional comfort. Also, if we know the person who provides the disinformation, it will sound more credible to us. In the short term, what the institutions can do is making sure that the messages are in tune with the need for emotional security. As we can see, the toilet paper crisis is an irrational and emotional reaction providing comfort to counter emotional discomfort.
Belfer—What kind of mechanisms can we put into place to help educate individual people in this type of crisis management?
Spinelli Barrile—Liberia learned the lesson of spreading good information after the Ebola outbreak and immediately provided every shop with soap. Their health care system was very fast at informing people on how they should act, such as washing their hands, keeping social distance etc. Congo did not spread the information and now has a new outbreak. However, we should not listen to everything that is said on the 24/7 news channels. The information overload is normal for a media coverage of a crisis. But, in the end, it is the same news over and over again, so we can switch off the TV and limit our news update to two times a day.
Tchakarova—Another layer to the discussion on disinformation campaigns is the systemic level by decision makers and institutions. The Serbian prime minister stated that there is no European solidarity and that China does far more for Serbia (for example). Meanwhile, Serbia remains one of the world’s biggest recipient of European funds, loans and financial support. The trade dispute between US and China results in a disinformation campaign in which China tries to put the blame of the virus on the US. In addition to the earlier mentioned aspects, what we need now is also a very bold leadership. We need our leaders to take responsibility and to be transparent. They have to update the people right from the beginning on what is happening and what measures are taken, so we do not need mediators between us. This can close the vacuum between citizens and the decision makers.
Belfer—Judging by the questions the audience is also concerned with food security, oil prices, socio-political economic questions and what kind of mechanisms that can be put in place. Therefore, we can end this discussion with your final comments on these aspects.
Al-Ubaydli—Regarding the oil prices, the long term path for oil prices is unrelated to the coronavirus crisis. It is related to the same threats as before the outbreak such as global population, shifts to renewable energy, electric cars and the state of the global economy. It just happened that it looked like a dramatic fall out between Saudi Arabia and Russia, coincidentally at the times of the coronavirus. Oil prices are still facing the same threats as they faced during the last years.
Spinelli Barrile—Good news is that five days ago, a coronavirus test was launched. It works like a pregnancy test where you see the result immediately and the lines will show you if you are infected or not. This could be remembered as a turning point [sic. continued, inaudible].
St-Pierre—Many people, both politicians and extremists, are trying to use the situation as an opportunity to capitalise on short term goals. This gives some conspiracy theories legitimacy that they would not normally have. Proper and clear leadership will help us with the overlap of information we are getting at this time.
Tchakarova—Unfortunately, I do not have any good news regarding the current situation as I am expecting another major financial shock with a much quicker speed than last time. The global system is not anti-fragile at all. This time we have more systemic risks in the way the pandemic is spreading, but also in the implications. The tipping point would be if the central banks could no longer mitigate the systemic risks. On a positive note, all the decision makers are right now in a ‘whatever it cost’-mode. They have realised that they have to save their citizens. Their approach is ‘too many to fail,’ whatever it cost and whatever it takes, because they know that otherwise the system will crash.
Belfer—With these final comments we thank our panel and the audience for joining us in this global conference. On a more positive note, I want to end this with two points: First by saying that this will not be our last discussion, as this is part of the collaboration and the sharing of information and ideas. And, it is not all doom and gloom. New energies are being unleashed to try to solve this crisis. All kinds of new startups, from one side of the world to the other, are trying to find vaccines, new types of materials and new technologies etc. They are doing so through the same process of connecting to each other, collaborating and sharing data. Therefore, there are also some things to look forward to. Although this seems to be a dark chapter in globalisation – with the gut reaction to close borders and put up walls – when people start thinking rationally they know that in cyber space you can collaborate irrespective of the challenges that you face in the material world.
On that note, I would like to again thank everyone joining us from Manama, Rome, Berlin, Vienna and everyone that has been listening and paying attention to us today. We will keep you informed and look forward to seeing you at our next ‘Coping with Coronavirus’ session.
24 March 2020