The COVID-19 pandemic is an unprecedented global health crisis. Governments worldwide are struggling to restrain the spread of the novel coronavirus, hoping to “flatten the curve” and avoid a surge of patients needing hospitalization which could overwhelm limited hospital beds and medical supplies. Faced with this challenge, many governments are reaching for greater authority over the movement of their citizens, imposing forced quarantines and border closures, activating emergency powers, and ramping up surveillance. While these measures may be effective as short-term countermeasures against the coronavirus, it is undeniable that, compared to only a few months ago, governments are exerting a far greater degree of control over the everyday lives of people.
Nationalists and xenophobes have taken to blaming the pandemic on foreigners, ethnic and religious minorities, and globalization. These reactionary sentiments have the potential to interact dangerously with governments that are increasingly comfortable with exercising authoritarian emergency powers. If the coronavirus is not successfully managed and millions fall sick and die, it has the potential to traumatize the world, radically reshape global politics, and transform the relationships between citizens and governments.
This worst-case scenario, which I call “pandemic fascism,” is the synthesis of medical authoritarianism, a reactionary fear of the foreign, and the collective trauma of a deadly global pandemic.
Unprecedented Border Closures
Countries across the globe are implementing travel restrictions, limiting the ability of their own citizens to move freely and some cutting off entirely from the outside world. These border closures and internal travel restrictions are on an unprecedented scale.
Canada, Haiti, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia, Trinidad and Tobago, Suriname, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile, Argentina, Spain, Switzerland, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Poland, Hungary, Serbia, Greece, Romania, Ukraine, Latvia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Sudan, Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, Saudia Arabia, Iraq, Yemen, Oman, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Australia, and New Zealand have closed their borders to all foreign nationals.
Hundreds of other countries including the United States have put in place less draconian measures like requiring mandatory quarantine periods for foreign visitors and returning citizens. For example, China, Nepal, Madagascar, Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, Jamaica, Rwanda, Singapore, South Korea, Uruguay, Chile, and Israel have all mandated that those entering the country from abroad remain in quarantine for 14 days.
Other nations have chosen instead to selectively bar travelers from other countries. Jordan, for instance, barred entry from neighboring Israel, the Israeli-occupied West Bank, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria, before adding France, Germany, and Spain to the list.
Although systems of national security surveillance already exist, states are rapidly expanding their abilities to monitor individuals in every waking moment, log their movements, and archive the most intimate details of their lives.
In China, an already pervasive surveillance system is growing to meet the threat of COVID-19. Police officers are donning ‘smart helmets’ equipped with cameras capable of facial recognition and measuring the body temperature of passers-by within a range of five meters. GPS tracking and ubiquitous facial recognition cameras log the movements of citizens, allowing for those who unwittingly come near confirmed coronavirus carriers to be automatically notified. Access to buildings can be restricted if a security camera observes that an entrant has a fever.
Israel implemented a controversial mass surveillance program operated by the Shin Bet security service to track the cell phone location and personal data of persons suspected to be infected and diagnosed with coronavirus, empowering the Health Ministry to send text messages notifying anybody who came into contact with them to self-quarantine. While both legal and arguably justified in the service of public health, this new system of medical surveillance received criticism from privacy advocates. Avner Pinchuk of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel argued that “the danger of COVID-19 is not only the virus itself, but the fear that as part of the efforts to overcome the danger, we will also lose our basic values as a free and democratic society.”
South Korea has used surveillance camera footage, smartphone location data, and even records of credit card purchases to backtrace the movements of coronavirus patients, determine who they were in contact with, and reconstruct chains of transmission.
People under total lockdown in Lombardy, Italy are under location surveillance by the provincial government to ensure that they obey the stay-at-home order and limit their time outside. Lombardy vice president Fabrizio Sala claimed on March 17th that phone location data provided by cell companies showed that 40% of Lombardians were still moving too much.
Blaming the Foreign
Government officials and private individuals are also taking part in the longstanding tradition of blaming foreigners and immigrants for disease. Instead of taking ownership of their crisis management (or lack thereof) leaders are dodging responsibility for failures of public health policy, advancing nationalist policies by using vulnerable groups as scapegoats.
President Donald Trump has taken to calling the coronavirus the “Chinese Virus” amidst a spate of racist attacks on Asian-Americans, and tweeted that the global spread of the coronavirus would be prevented by the completion of his signature wall on the border with Mexico. Sheriff David Clarke, a frequent guest on Fox News, speaker at the 2016 Republican National Convention, and high-profile Trump surrogate suggested that George Soros, a frequently-employed Jewish boogeyman for the far-right, was behind the spread of the coronavirus. Media and political figures in Turkey have claimed that coronavirus is a Zionist plot orchestrated by the state of Israel. Two spokesmen for the Chinese Foreign Ministry insinuated that the virus was brought to China by the United States military and did not, as scientists have concluded, originate in a wet market for wild animal meat in Wuhan.
In each case, blame for the pandemic is not directed towards the virus itself, insufficient public health policies, or overburdened health care systems, but towards alleged foreign threats and traditionally stigmatized groups.
Pandemic Fascism: America First Bruins
On March 25th this year, a new student organization at UCLA named America First Bruins made its social media debut with a joint resolution signed by the Bruin Republicans and five other College Republicans chapters. Alleging that the “Wuhan Virus” is spread by the “continued importation of refugees, guest workers, and foreign students,” the statement calls for President Trump to suspend refugee resettlement, the issuance of F-1 student visas, and the H-1B visa lottery while completing the southern border wall and deploying military assets to seal the northern border with Canada.
America First Bruins is an openly fascist club. I mean this in the truest sense of the word and without hyperbole. The header on its Twitter profile reads, in stylized vaporwave text, “Communists aren’t people.” The club cites Nicholas Fuentes, a holocaust denier, as inspiration. On the subject of ICE raids during the coronavirus pandemic, the club president tweeted “Can ICE just cough on illegals or something?” On the subject of Harvey Weinsein’s 23 year prison sentence for sex crimes, he tweeted “This is proof that women are literal children and should not have full rights.” Responding to the claim that accusing Ben Shapiro, an American Jew, of “dual loyalty” to Israel is antisemitic, he responded: “Jews have no loyalty to Israel? HAH!”
The fact that America First Bruins debuted and the Bruin Republicans openly embraced fascism for the first time amidst the coronavirus pandemic is not a coincidence. The emergency and the nationalist sentiments it produces are fertile ground for fascist organizing. This unprecedented shift in the political culture of the UCLA campus should be understood as a microcosm of an emerging far-right in the politics of American youth, emboldened by the cultural impact of COVID-19.
Fascism and Public Health
Broadly speaking, fascism is an ultranationalist and totalitarian political philosophy which imagines a mythic national rebirth from a state of degeneration, moral decay, and foreign subversion. In fascist rhetoric of the 20th century, foreigners and minorities were often characterized not just as undesirables or political subversives, but as parasites and vectors of disease infecting the body politic.
The German Nationalist Socialist Party, for example, often described Jews as parasites who both leeched off of German society and physically corrupted the German race through miscengination and moral degradation. In this way, previous fascists frequently conflated public health, the body politic, and an ideal of societal purity.
President Trump, importantly, has also used the rhetoric of public health as a way to attack immigrants and marginalized groups. As a candidate for president in 2015, he accused undocumented Mexican immigrants of bringing “tremendous infectious disease” across the border as justification for a border wall and widespread deportations.
The veneer of public health concerns allows fascists to pursue their policy goals of discrimination, exclusion, and genocide without openly admitting that hatred is their motivation. Border closures, travel bans, and immigration restrictions are far more politically viable if ostensibly justified by medical necessity. As a result, fascists like the America First Bruins capitalize eagerly on legitimate anxieties about disease transmission in order to demonize minority groups and expand the national government’s emergency powers.
Now that we’ve laid out the theoretical elements of pandemic fascism — xenophobia and authoritarianism in the name of public health — it is necessary to ask whether or not this actually represents a serious threat. I believe it does.
In March, Politico reported that the U.S. Department of Justice had furtively requested that Congress grant it emergency powers, including the ability to petition a judge to detain someone indefinitely during a declared national emergency. More borders are shut, more emergency powers activated, and more people under tighter surveillance by governments than ever before. Historically, periods of crisis have enabled strongmen and demagogues to play on the public’s fears, seize unprecedented authority under the guise of responding to the emergency, and consolidate their power into permanent and oppressive regimes.
While the COVID-19 pandemic necessitates strong government responses, including restrictions on travel, immigration, and some proactive surveillance, these measures must be balanced with respect for privacy and a serious understanding that, once the outbreak is managed, governments will cede their emergency powers and the balance of power between citizen and state will return to relative normalcy. And, most importantly, people must continue to point out and shame those who weaponize fear of a virus into hatred of minoritized people. If fear is allowed to fester into hate, then the danger of pandemic fascism that lasts long after the spread of COVID-19 has ended may become a reality.