“Close the borders? Today every country in Europe is doing it, but when the Lega [party] supported it, they said it was ‘racist’”, Matteo Salvini posted on his hyper-active Twitter page this month. (This is the guy who’s compared African migrants to ‘slaves’ and called Roma women ‘dirty gypsies’.)
The Italian far-right leader makes a good but frightening point. Before coronavirus, hardline border closures were not on most political agendas. Now they’ve swept across the world, despite World Health Organisation warnings that they probably won’t work. And not everyone is upset about this.
Largely buried in the breathless churn of pandemic news is a startling fact. Some of the impacts of coronavirus are giving the far-right, ultra-conservative and other anti-democratic movements that openDemocracy has been tracking for years plenty of cause for good cheer.
They’re celebrating how borders are closing. How women are ‘returning’ to ‘traditional’ roles at home. How crucial democratic debates are indefinitely postponed. Far from shutting down, they’re looking for ways to play this crisis to their advantage now – and for a long time to come.
‘Close the borders? Now everyone’s doing it’
What do they want? Back in February, opportunistic far-right leaders pounced on COVID-19 with a chorus of unfounded blame directed at immigrants. Salvini claimed that African migrants were bringing it to Italy. Aurélia Beigneux, an MEP from France’s National Rally, argued that more open borders “obviously allow the exponential spread of this type of virus”.
Now, as Salvini noted, many of these closures have happened, at least temporarily. As the European Union’s external borders closed this month, following similar moves internationally, the nationalists’ tune has become triumphant. Donald Trump tweeted: “THIS IS WHY WE NEED BORDERS!”
Hard-liners are also relishing increased police powers and public presences under coronavirus lockdowns. "Now you want more law enforcement,” Salvini celebrated on Twitter. “Until yesterday you wrote ACAB [All Cops Are Bastards]... today you want them under your houses.”
“For an authoritarian state, this coronavirus is paradise,” warned an unnamed Western diplomat in Moscow, where police are now deploying controversial facial-recognition tools to catch people violating movement restrictions.
Neo-Nazis are warming to the crisis too. “Now is the time to push when things are already teetering on the edge”, argued a recent Telegram post, openly discussing how to use it to recruit people to violent white supremacy.
“In quarantine, we’re all tradwives”
Donald Trump’s religious conservative supporters have found reasons to delight in coronavirus restrictions, too. Many are celebrating the ‘return’ of women to their homes and to ‘traditional’ gendered roles.
“It’s just the way God intended it to be”, argued Lori Alexander, author of a Christian conservative blog that teaches women to “be sober, love and obey their husbands”, and who has defended Trump’s behaviour and “nasty tweets” by arguing “God works through sinful, fallen man”.
About the COVID-19 crisis she celebrated on Facebook: “The virus is clearly showing the great value there is to having mothers at home.”
“In quarantine, we’re all tradwives”, added Amber Athey, Washington editor of the right-wing Spectator magazine, encouraging more women to take up “homemaking skills” like cleaning and sewing. “Hopefully,” she says, some of these “traditional values” will stick with us beyond this emergency.
“Let’s stay at home and have a baby!” cheered the Italian ultra-conservative ProVita & Famiglia group. (This group co-hosted the controversial World Congress of Families summit in Veronal last year, which brought international religious conservatives together with many of their far-right allies).
“It’s just the way God intended it to be... The virus is clearly showing the great value there is to having mothers at home.”
For these ‘traditional values’ movements there is, of course, no space in families for LGBTIQ people, or for anyone who lives outside strict gender roles. And in recent years their views have been increasingly echoed by authoritarians and far-right populists across the world.
In Verona last year, Salvini mocked feminists and promised to “fight the theory of gender until it changes.” Brazil’s openly sexist President Jair Bolsonaro once told a congresswoman: "I would never rape you because you do not deserve it". In Russia this month, Vladimir Putin promised: “As long as I’m president [gay marriage] will not happen. There will be Dad and Mum.”
Today’s crisis is giving these ‘traditionalists’ new optimism – and power. Take for example how they’ve celebrated the delay of crucial women’s rights debates. “Coronavirus may have just saved countless preborn babies in Maryland,” read one headline after an abortion rights bill was withdrawn.
“They wanted to legalise death and death came to visit them,” tweeted a conservative politician in Argentina, where the coronavirus crisis has stalled historic promises from the president to legalise abortion.
Anti-choice activists were similarly “thrilled” that an abortion referendum in Gibraltar was postponed. And in the US and the UK, some are demanding that governments “halt abortions to free up resources for coronavirus”.
Conservatives are also seizing the initiative by providing services that are suddenly in high demand. In the US, the Home School Legal Defense Association (which has lobbied for years against same-sex marriage as well as any public regulation of homeschooling) has recently launched a ‘quick start’ guide to homeschooling during the coronavirus crisis.
Its online academy, taught by “Bible-believing Christians”, doesn’t appear to offer any form of sex and relationships education, and teaches students biology from an anti-evolution “Young Earth Creationist view”. Unsurprisingly, its new quick start guide points includes links to free online curricula that appear to include no mention whatsoever of LGBT people or women’s rights.
“It really isn’t the end of the world,” says a blogpost on the website of a linked ‘parental rights’ campaign, which also opposes smacking bans and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Under current COVID-19 restrictions, the website cheers, “family has once again become the centre of everything”.
A global ‘corona-coup’
Across the world, we’re seeing sudden and sweeping restrictions on democratic freedoms. Our movements are increasingly controlled. Public gatherings have been banned; states of emergency declared; legislative debates postponed and a growing number of parliaments suspended.
Globally governments are ramping up digital surveillance. Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has just won new dictatorial powers, to indefinitely ignore laws and suspend elections and referenda. In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu enacted an emergency decree preventing parliament from convening, in what the Haaretz newspaper has dubbed a “corona-coup.”
In northern Italy, where I live, COVID-19’s human cost has already been heartbreaking. It’s captured by daily updates about infections, deaths and unforgettable images of overflow facilities at hospitals. Rows of cots on the floor; people covered by shiny emergency blankets.
So much energy is necessarily focused on the frontline public health response. And yet the fight for our futures has already begun.
Too much of our increasingly restrictive, fearful present reflects the way that far-right movements would like the world to be. We can be sure that they will try to make some of these changes permanent. Already, they’re looking for ways to exploit the current crisis and its fallout to their advantage.
But there’s also reason for hope. In a crisis, people’s minds can get changed quickly; progress can be fast. We’re already seeing swift momentum on a range of issues – from tackling misinformation online to introducing universal basic incomes – in ways that seemed impossible months ago.
Tech giants previously unwilling to act on misinformation have sprung into action, banning fake news and giving the WHO free ads. There’s much more to be done, of course, while we must also be wary of corporations controlling what we can say. But it shows that where there is a will, there is a way.
Much more is possible, too. We may see anti-science movements recede or fracture. In Italy, Beppe Grillo, the anti-vaxx founder of the Five Star Movement (M5S) party, has already publicly backed the quest for a coronavirus vaccine. Some anti-abortion activists have also warned about democracies becoming police states with our civil liberties restricted.
Voters may demand more resources for public health systems. Facts might matter again. There is huge potential for this crisis to produce sea-changes in our commitments to equality and universal human rights, too. If nothing else, this crisis shows how essential it is to protect and care for others.
“The only way to beat [COVID-19] is to leave no one behind,” explained WHO executive director Michael Ryan. “We cannot forget migrants. We cannot forget undocumented workers. We cannot forget prisoners in prisons”.
How this crisis reshapes our world is not a foregone conclusion. It depends on us. But we can’t let those who want to shut down and disempower us gain the upper hand. Who seizes this moment will write the future.
Watch the full online discussion hosted by the openDemocracy team on Thursday 2 April 2020 about some of the biggest threats and opportunities of our time, affecting rights and democracies around the world – and what we can do now to start building a more just and equal future for all of us.