(The opinions expressed here are those of the author, a columnist for Reuters.)
By Peter Apps
LONDON, March 12 (Reuters) - The week started with coronavirus prompting Saudi Arabia and Russia to tear up the rule book on oil exports to start a savage price war. Wednesday night saw President Donald Trump go even further in announcing a ban on transatlantic travel from mainland Europe for non-Americans. While the ban is initially intended to last a month, the knock-on effects on a globe already increasingly obsessed by borders and restrictions on trade and movement will last much longer.
Trump wasn’t the only world leader to use the virus to isolate his country from the world in a way unthinkable as late as last week. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced Israel was introducing a 14-day quarantine for all new arrivals within its borders, including Israelis. Foreigners unable to quarantine themselves will simply be turned away. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi also introduced some of the most draconian restrictions on foreign arrivals of any other country, cancelling swathes of visas.
As evidenced by Trump’s broadcast, these decisions are as political as they are medical. While many other Western leaders have been anxious to keep normal life going as long as possible, Trump, Netanyahu and Modi are playing to their political bases with their actions.
They contrast with, for example, the savage domestic restrictions on internal travel and interactions imposed in Italy. No one expects curbs on Italian businesses, travel and social interaction to last beyond this crisis – they are the product of the unexpected ferocity of the outbreak, particularly the way it has overwhelmed Italian hospitals. In India, Israel and Trump’s United States, however, the international movement restrictions are very much part of a broader political picture, including a domestic environment increasingly antagonistic to foreigners.
This process now has been supercharged by the virus. For Israel, cutting itself off from the outside world ahead of Easter will reduce the colossal challenges that period would have brought. But it also plays into the agenda of Netanyahu’s Orthodox and right-wing political allies, who have long favoured a country that excludes outsiders such as Palestinians. India has seen huge unrest over new citizenship laws seen as unambiguously prejudiced against Muslims, including deadly recent riots many accuse the government of fuelling.
The spectacle of the virus plays incredibly easily into narratives that paint “abroad” and “foreigners” as a source of danger. One major factor in the reduction in international travel is people’s understandable reluctance to be detained and quarantined by foreign authorities, justifiably or otherwise. It’s hardly a coincidence that the leaders most comfortable in the crisis are those with fewest scruples about using such rhetoric at home.
Disingenuous although many of Trump’s criticisms of the EU were – the United States now clearly has its own domestic coronavirus outbreak, and significant problems tackling it – some of the greatest long-term questions now remain in mainland Europe. Borders to Italy remain closed, and it’s unclear to what extent its neighbours will ever truly allow or welcome a return of free movement across them – particularly if mass migration resumes across the Mediterranean. Turkey’s decision to allow Syrian migrants to head into mainland Europe threatens another bout of 2015’s migrant crisis, although the virus spread may deter much of that now.
As with Trump’s trade war with China, much depends on the detail of these restrictions – but amongst the most alarming trends is the growth of leaders who clearly relish imposing them, and give signs of wanting more. In his address on Wednesday night, Trump at one stage appeared to be announcing an even more brutal transatlantic restriction, saying cargo too would be included. The White House quickly clarified that, but the spectacle of a U.S. president announcing such an unprecedented – and scientifically unjustified – step is a potent isolationist signal.
Much depends on how long this stage of the coronavirus outbreak lasts, and what other surprises are yet to come. Wednesday night’s deadly attack on a U.S. military base in Iraq was a reminder that other conflicts and dangers remain beside the outbreak. The scale of a now inevitable global economic downturn will pressure leaders in almost every country, and that makes unpredictable, even unthinkable political decisions like those of this week ever more a feature of international life. *** Peter Apps is a writer on international affairs, globalisation, conflict and other issues. He is the founder and executive director of the Project for Study of the 21st Century; PS21, a non-national, non-partisan, non-ideological think tank. Paralysed by a war-zone car crash in 2006, he also blogs about his disability and other topics. He was previously a reporter for Reuters and continues to be paid by Thomson Reuters. Since 2016, he has been a member of the British Army Reserve and the UK Labour Party, and is an active fundraiser for the party. (Editing by Giles Elgood)