On March 24 the White House reported Trump’s declaration that “There’s tremendous hope as we look forward and we begin to see the light at the end of the tunnel” regarding the wildfire spread of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Then he tweeted it on April 6 — in capital letters, of course. But to those of us who served in Vietnam during that futile war the tunnel-light phrase is particularly evocative, as it was used by at least one of the incompetent military commanders who followed each other in woeful sequence during the years in which so many thousands of civilians were killed, along with Vietnamese, U.S. and allied troops who died for nothing. Washington Post columnist Karen Tumulty wrote that “As every person of Trump’s generation should know, there is probably no phrase in modern history that so evokes a U.S. government that is not being straight with its people” — and Trump’s tweet was especially repulsive because it was from a draft-dodger who avoided serving in a war in which 58,193 U.S. military personnel lost their lives.
Trump’s gyrations, arrogance and downright lies are reminiscent of many of the U.S. politicians and military commanders who sought to deceive their people and the world during the Vietnam war and convince them that in spite of the chaos there would be sunshine when all the killing had stopped. But there wasn’t, of course; and now we wonder whether there will be any sunshine after Covid-19 stops killing.
Governments have demonstrated varying levels of competence in dealing with the pandemic as it affects their countries, and it is evident that there are major differences between approaches by world leaders. We can only regret that there are several who have proved decidedly ineffective, to the point of being criminally incompetent, such as batty Bolsonaro of Brazil, whose actions have been strongly criticised by Human Rights Watch. For example, he called Covid-19 “a sniffle” and decreed that churches are exempt from assembly regulations, thereby encouraging virus-spreading in large gatherings of stupid but innocent people. While we can scoff at him for being an idiot, it is far from amusing that he has thereby sentenced countless of his country-folk to death.
Bolsonaro’s dictatorial disposition is replicated on the other side of the world, in India where prime minister Modi rules supreme. As the New York Times observed on April 12, he and his representatives have seized on the pandemic to encourage a “spree of anti-Muslim attacks” across the country, where “no other group has been demonized more than the country’s 200 million Muslims, minorities in a Hindu-dominated land of 1.3 billion people. From the crackdown, on Kashmir a Muslim majority area, to a new citizenship law that blatantly discriminates against Muslims, this past year has been one low point after another for Indian Muslims living under an increasingly bold Hindu nationalist government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and propelled by majoritarian policies.”
The virus wreaks death through dictatorship around the world, including in Europe where it is reported from Hungary that “the country’s parliament is set to adopt a new law that will give the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban a legal mandate to rule by decree, without any sunset clause and without parliamentary oversight.” In Poland it is intended to push on with the presidential elections scheduled for May 10. The ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party is the final decider about proceeding with the election, and President Andrzej Duda of PiS is leading in polls, but the fear is that an extended crisis will weaken his chances, so on April 15 the ruling party “proposed changing the constitution to extend President Duda’s term by two years because of threats related to the coronavirus pandemic.”
It’s all part of the pattern of Poland’s determined move to the far right, one of the facets of which, as noted by The Economist, was that in early April “the European Court of Justice (ECJ) took a modest step towards stopping a European Union member from sliding into autocracy. Ever since it won power in 2015, Poland’s populist Law and Justice party (PiS) has been trying to get control of the country’s courts, while independent judges appeal to the EU to block it. On April 9 the ECJ ordered Poland to suspend immediately the disciplinary chamber of its Supreme Court, a body that can punish judges, and to freeze a new law restricting judicial independence. The European court said these violated EU treaties guaranteeing the rule of law.”
A commentator in the Financial Times is of the opinion that the election will be held because “a compliant president, willing to rubber stamp its unconstitutional moves, is essential to PiS’ mode of government,” which is part of a depressing swing in so many allegedly “democratic” countries where despots are in the ascendant and there is darkness in the halls of power.
Unfortunately the president of the world’s supposedly greatest democracy, the United States, is setting an example of authoritarianism that is eagerly embraced by such as the vulgar thug Duterte in the Philippines. Curiously, however, although he and Trump are in favour of viciously penalising supposed malefactors, their views on containing the virus by restricting movement are very different. Duterte decreed there be an “Enhanced Community Quarantine, which placed Manila and the entire island of Luzon on lockdown on March 16, suspending domestic and international travel.” But Duterte’s enforcement of “strictness” is somewhat more robust than in most other countries, as shown by his statement that “My orders to the police and military . . . if there is trouble or the situation arises where your life is on the line, shoot them dead. Understand? Dead. I’ll send you to the grave . . . Don’t test the government.”
Trump can’t yet go this far, and unlike Duterte he has publicly supported demonstrations against lockdowns in some states. It is astonishing that the U.S. President has endorsed and even fulsomely approved of blatantly illegal action by groups of protestors who are violently opposed to the common-sense of movement restriction.
On April 17 the Guardian reported that “while protesters in Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky and other states claim to speak for ordinary citizens, many are also supported by street-fighting right-wing groups like the Proud Boys, conservative armed militia groups, religious fundamentalists, anti-vaccination groups and other elements of the radical right.” Some of the protestors were armed, and many carried pro-Trump slogans, which is not surprising because Trump declared that “These are people expressing their views. I see where they are and I see the way they’re working. They seem to be very responsible people to me, but they’ve been treated a little bit rough.”
It is barely credible that the leader of any country would refer to mobs who defy the law of the land as “responsible”. When Trump does so his message is that a country’s laws are in the hands of their leaders, which will ring pleasantly in the ears of such as Modi, Orban and Duterte. The pandemic is being used to destroy democracy, and even when it’s all over it will be impossible to restore it in the countries where it has disappeared.