The current coronavirus pandemic is a direct consequence of our interconnected world. As people travel across the world in higher volumes and in higher frequencies, the significantly greater the risk that viruses and diseases spread rapidly around the world. In the past three months, we have seen in real-time how an outbreak in Wuhan––a city most in the West had hardly known––has led to thousands of deaths across Europe and the United States.
History has widely demonstrated that the fostering of connections and networks have always brought forth this nightmare. Columbus’ voyage to America, for instance, brought a new world of interconnected, trans-Atlantic trade. It also brought an exchange of diseases such as smallpox that wiped out Native American tribes and, possibly, venereal syphilis that rapidly spread throughout Europe. Even Thucydides commentary of the Peloponnesian War in the 5th century B.C. has a harrowing account of a plague that struck Athens, in which he describes how the disease originated as far away as Ethiopia and ultimately entered Athens via the city’s port in Piraeus. The most destructive pandemic in the last century, the Spanish Flu, rapidly spread across the globe through soldiers fighting in what we now call World War I. Before this pandemic, history had provided us with several precedents as a warning.
Whereas some commentators have seen the present crisis as unpredictable, a ‘Black Swan,’ there is a reason why Nassim Taleb, who coined the phrase, describes it as a White Swan. In a globalized world, the likelihood of a global pandemic becomes nearly certain.
The question then concerns globalizing institutions. Do the institutions that play a significant role in creating such problems also address them?
The answer, so far, largely appears to be no.
In our weekend polls, each of 1,500, in Italy, in Spain and in France, Redfield & Wilton Strategies asked what members of the public in these countries worse hit thought of the European Union’s response to the crisis. Did they find that the EU had helped their country?
Do you think the European Union has helped Italy/Spain/France during this present crisis?
In Italy, a large majority of respondents to our poll thought the EU had not been helpful. In France, nearly half of respondents thought the same. Only in Spain, where opinion towards the EU is very favourable, did a plurality of respondents think the EU had indeed been helpful during this time of crisis.
It is useful to contrast these figures to how respondents responded to our question asking whether, in general, being a member of the European Union has had a positive or negative effect on their countries.
To what extent has being a member of the European Union had a positive or negative effect on Italy/Spain/France?
Comparing these numbers illustrate the extent of dissatisfaction among the European public with the European Union’s response to this pandemic. For instance, whereas only 11% of Spanish respondents thought that the European Union has had a negative effect on their country, 34% thought that the supranational organisation had been not helpful in Spain’s fight against the coronavirus outbreak.
A historical account of the coronavirus will describe, as Thucydides described the plague in the 5th century A.D., how a virus originating in distant China reached northern Italy and then dramatically spread, via the free movement of people, across all of Europe. That historical account will be incomplete, if it does not also describe how individual nation-states resorted to their own measures while institutions designed to bring nations together failed to act.