COVID-19 narratives: old wine in new bottles?

Por Cláudia Santos e João Morais Mourato

As the COVID-19 pandemic unfolds it becomes clear this is not just a random phenomenon of human-Nature interaction. It is the product of human choices, quintessentially anthropogenic in its creation, reach, response and politicisation. The growingly quarantined world population, from the forced seclusion of their homes, expresses the full range of human emotions. All over the world digital logbooks are keeping record of some of these voices. The large majority however will never be heard. For them this will be another layer of their vulnerability, a cruel reminder of their marginalisation and structural disadvantage.

It is hard to miss the elephant in the room – how the COVID-19 phenomenon replicates climate change politics and narratives at so many levels. Yes, the pandemic’s immediacy is strikingly different, and so is the urgency it triggers in terms of public and political response. But its global nature, associated geopolitical bickering, half-hearted initial institutional action, (mis)information flows, and uneven geographical and social implications all bear a striking resemblance. In this sense, climate change narratives and their underlying socio-political conflicts are a good indicator of what might lay around the corner in a post-pandemic world.

Post-pandemic conflicting narratives

As the initial stage of isolation and functional segregation of our lives sinks in, the often romanticised sense of adventure wears off. As daily routines have been thoroughly disturbed, intuitive adjustment struggles emerge and early feelings of awe and disbelief give way to an array of hard-to-ignore concerns. As we find our way back from physical confinement, it seems that tomorrow is just not what it used to be.

Concurrently, an analytical pandemic of its own is taking place. Why this happened, how it happened, what and who will be impacted, what follows, what can we learn from it, are just some of the questions fuelling relentless opinion pieces, posts, tweets, calls for papers, special issues, etc. While efforts of systematization of this content-tsunami take place, and governments scramble for economic quick-fixes, post-pandemic scenarios seem to converge in a clear message: there is a strong risk that the global economic downturn to follow will dwarf the 2008-onwards financial crisis, the surgent rise in populist and nationalistic politics may find fertile ground to bolster its reach and existing socioeconomic inequality and vulnerability will deepen.

In a world contaminated by post-truth politics, the narratives and imaginaries to follow will bear factual plurality. The image below illustrates, to the extreme, this plurality. How the powerful and the powerless coexist under the same global threat and how their coping mechanisms, perceptions and narratives will evolve mirroring the existent social inequality between them. The social determinants that ease or aggravate individual responses towards disasters mirror years if not decades of local, national or international policies and practices. The circumstances and context we find ourselves in matter. There will be no shortage of post-event retroactive analysis that will expand on this premise.

Fonte: Adam Gerson / CC BY-SA; Karl Groendal (Unsplash)

Common sense tells us we should not anticipate a single narrative to justify how and why we have arrived where we are now. Hasted single explanations are not desirable nor acceptable, as they dishonour the dead and disempower the living’ by diluting individual and community struggles in global rationalisations of the root causes and impacts of the pandemic. We ought to be wary of all-encompassing narratives of causality.

A cautionary tale can easily be found in today’s mosh pit of climate change narratives. Climate change and migration is a case in point. More often than not, the views of those confronted with the possibility to migrate or stay put are not taken into account. Especially when defining the bigger picture or when designing global, national and regional migration policies. They are often compressed in a single and simplistic narrative that favours climate change as a migration inducing factor over other existing and often long-standing problems. This narrative fosters a deep-rooted lack of democratic representation. Its truth, so often voiced by public opinion, politicians, global institutions and the media, does little to help the actual welfare of migrants and non-migrants.

Similar assumptions already surface regarding a post-COVID-19 world. For one, there seems to be a sense of uniqueness to this pandemic. But West Africa is still healing its Ebola scars and the impact of the century-old Spanish influenza, with its 500 million infected people, is still easily traceable worldwide. In fact, in this Post-truth era, COVID19 sits prey to ongoing global predatory infodemics. Single narratives and all-encompassing explanations risk being belittling, de-contextualised and non-inclusive. They shut off structural imbalances and dismiss a deeper analysis of the context they are exposed to.

Post-pandemic Politics

Even against better judgement, it is hard not to look at this pandemic as a global test-tube evaluation of our current socioeconomic development paradigm. In its aftermath, some policies may change at the speed of light as they often do post- ‘extreme events’. But as we embrace the urgency to regain control towards a new normality, we risk being blindsided if we perceive COVID-19 as a random crisis, disassociated from the political, social, cultural and economic systems that it impacts.

Post-pandemics politics are yet hard to figure out. Too often global and regional crises are used as a platform to fulfil (old) political desires, instead of being an impetus for change. On a rare point of agreement Naomi Klein stresses Milton Friedman’s view on the value of the ideas lying around when a crisis occurs and the goal is to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable. This is nevertheless a ruthless uphill battle. Shifting the status quo is what climate scientists have been instigating over the last few decades, but progress has been painstakingly slow. COVID-19 may well have reminded us that we still fail to perceive climate change as a crisis after all.

Cláudia Santos is a doctoral candidate in Climate Change and Sustainable Development Policies. Her work focuses on the Ethos and Politics underpinning the Migration and Climate Change correlation discourse under the supervision of João Morais Mourato (ICS-ULisboa) and Tim O’Riordan (UEA). 

João Morais Mourato is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Social Sciences, University of Lisbon.

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