New York – “We are at war,” declares French President Emmanuel Macron. U.S. President Donald Trump promises “the end of our historic battle with the invisible enemy.” We must brace for our “Pearl Harbor moment,” warns U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams.
They are not alone. Many political leaders are hoping that the din of war rhetoric will drown out public discussion of their failures in preparing for the COVID-19 pandemic. But, as we know from real wars, propaganda tends to increase body counts.
In the United Kingdom, Prime Minister Boris Johnson — who, aping Trump, initially downplayed the threat, only to find himself battling COVID-19 personally in an intensive care unit — has been (yet again) trying to encourage comparisons with Winston Churchill. Even Germany’s more reserved leader, Chancellor Angela Merkel, has called the pandemic the greatest challenge her country has faced since World War II.
Meanwhile, in Russia, hospitals were prepared as if for “world war,” and President Vladimir Putin is referred to as the “supreme commander.” In China, President Xi Jinping has effectively declared victory over the virus, while state media have extolled him for commanding the “people’s war” against COVID-19.
It is not just leaders who have fed this narrative. From every podium and newscast, similar metaphors echo. Health care workers are warriors and heroes, standing on the “frontlines” of the fight against an “invisible enemy.” Other essential workers, such as grocery-store clerks and delivery couriers, are also hailed as heroes, though “unsung” until now.
But calling workers heroes sets them up to become martyrs. And, indeed, many health care workers have been asked to go “into battle” without the most basic protective equipment, such as gowns and masks.
Similar risks are visible at the global level. Yes, war metaphors can help convey the gravity of the situation, and, as leaders such as Macron and Merkel seem to hope, help to galvanize international cooperation. But they can also shift the focus from saving lives to outdoing rivals.
Trump is a case in point. Proclaiming himself a “wartime president,” he has shirked responsibility for his administration’s delayed and inept response, bickered with China, and suspended U.S. funding allocated to the World Health Organization after accusing it of “promoting Chinese ‘disinformation’ about the virus.” As he prepares to face American voters in November, competition with China — not the fight against COVID-19 — has become a central feature of his reelection campaign.
Meanwhile, by declaring victory at home and donating provisions to countries that are still “at war,” Xi is attempting to burnish China’s reputation and boost its soft power, even though it was Chinese authorities’ inept early response to the outbreak that allowed the virus to spread globally. Similarly, when the situation in Russia seemed less dire than in Western Europe and the United States, Putin bragged about it and dispatched nine military planes with medical equipment to Italy and one to the U.S.
Putin also hailed China’s “consistent and effective actions” to manage the outbreak. For him, the fight against COVID-19 is another manifestation of the ideological competition between authoritarian China and the democratic West.
A Chinese victory is in Putin’s interest — not least because, just before the pandemic hit, Russia’s parliament suddenly (though not unexpectedly) passed legislation that would enable Putin to circumvent constitutional term limits and stay in power through 2036, rather than 2024. Predictably, Russia’s highest court assented to the proposed changes. But, with the outbreak raging, the April 22 referendum has been postponed. In fact, for the first time since 1941, when Nazi troops stood near Moscow, public spaces are closed and people’s movements are controlled.
The crisis could give Putin an excuse to cancel the referendum altogether, leaving the constitutional changes in place. But, to avoid a backlash, he must prove his mettle as a leader now. Images of war will be central to this effort.
Memories of World War II are particularly potent for Russians. The Red Army’s liberation of most of Europe is a constant source of national pride, and Russia’s loss of 20 million people in the “Great Patriotic War” — more than any other country — makes that victory something sacred. Every May since 1945, a massive military parade has been held in Red Square to commemorate it.
This year, Red Square will stand empty. Instead of flaunting the weapons and tanks that he has been amassing, Putin will attempt to distract public attention from Russia’s insufficient hospitals and laboratories. The inconvenient truth is that, on the 75th anniversary of the Soviet victory over Nazism, Putin’s Russia may be losing a war to a virus.
Russia now has roughly 87,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases and less than a thousand deaths. That is far fewer than France, Germany, the U.K., or the U.S., but the number is growing rapidly — and may reflect significant underreporting of infections. The Kremlin often hides the truth to save face. The 1986 Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe — about which the Soviet authorities obscured information for weeks — is but one tragic example.
In fact, Chernobyl — which marked the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union — is most likely on Putin’s mind today, especially because he initially downplayed the pandemic and delegated the response to regional authorities. Now, during his regular appearances to discuss the crisis, he works hard to appear informed and in charge.
Russian officials advocate “WWII-style” cooperation in the pandemic. On April 25, Putin and Trump signed a joint statement on the 75th anniversary of the meeting of Soviet and American troops at the Elbe River, signifying the inevitable defeat of the Nazi regime. Today, however, Putin’s real objective is not only to defeat the “enemy.” The Kremlin wants to portray Russia as a global savior, providing aid, producing effective tests, and, most important, developing a vaccine.
Putin is keen to project such an image. Vaccine development, he declares, is occurring at “full speed.” If Russia succeeds, the logic goes, no public referendum on his leadership will ever be needed, and his international reputation will be guaranteed. But, so far, the gap between Putin’s confidence that Russia is outfighting the West in the “coronavirus war” and the growing number of COVID-19 cases and deaths only highlights his detachment from ordinary Russians. A favorite internet meme now is a picture of the crowned president captioned “Coronavirus.”
The COVID-19 virus is a large-scale threat demanding extraordinary action. But it is not Nazi Germany, and “beating” another country is not the same as managing the outbreak. We should be wary of leaders who suggest otherwise.
Nina L. Khrushcheva is a professor of international affairs at The New School. Her latest book (with Jeffrey Tayler) is “In Putin’s Footsteps: Searching for the Soul of an Empire Across Russia’s Eleven Time Zones.” Project Syndicate, 2020. www.project-syndicate.org
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