Written by: Ken Wang
Since late 2019, the emergence of COVID-19 has changed much of global life. Although scientists still do not know where the virus originated, China was the first country that took a hit and Wuhan, the city where the first massive outbreak was reported, went into full lockdown overnight. In a matter of weeks, the virus spread to every corner of the world, among which the United States took the heaviest hit.
The virus was named COVID-19 by the World Health Organization, which also declared the virus a global pandemic. The sudden public health crisis not only took the lives of millions of innocent people; COVID-19 became a political buzzword and a hyper-politicized matter, fragmenting political and economic stability worldwide, especially in countries under the leadership of right-wing populists.
In the United States, former President Trump knowingly downplayed the danger of the virus and encouraged anti-quarantine and anti-vaccination protests. Some of those protesters even took guns to state capitals. The Trump administration did not do anything to punish those who openly opposed quarantine restrictions and promoted anti-science rhetoric.
The United States was not the only country that had an extremely poor initial response to the pandemic. The Brazilian president, Jair Bosonaro, refused to acknowledge the danger of the pandemic, did not take any critical measures to mitigate the impacts of COVID-19, and was charged with crimes against humanity because of his actions. In England, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, like Trump and Bolsonaro, ignored the pandemic’s dangers and was heavily criticized by members of parliament. The U.S., Brazil, and England were among the countries with the worst initial response to the pandemic.
As we have all witnessed, 2020 was a difficult year for world leaders in every possible way. Government health protocols brought about domestic unrest, unemployment rose, and small businesses closed in droves. The stock market also crashed multiple times in one week, implying low confidence in the global economy, as well as extreme instability in global financial markets.
This all occurred in just the first wave of the pandemic. As the virus continued to mutate, the delta variant soon took over headlines and a second wave arrived. With the first wave continuing and the delta variant still in play, the recently-discovered Omicron variant emerged. Given what happened when the pandemic first began and how fast Omicron is spreading, the new variant has put the world on a path towards more economic and political instability.
One factor that will cause political instability amid the new variant is conspiracy theories about the virus and vaccines. There are priests and religious leaders who openly defy scientific discoveries and principles by claiming that vaccines contain tracking chips from the government. With this and congregations who have no better judgement than the words of their leaders, people actually believe in these conspiracies and refuse to get vaccinated.
Social media also plays an important role in vaccination hesitancy. Information shared on social media is not scrutinized and easily believable if one does not know better. Many anti-vaccination groups emphasize vaccine injuries and the connection between corrupt politicians and profit-driven pharmaceutical companies. In reality, vaccine injuries are extremely rare and are proven safe to use. Social media allows like-minded people to develop social groups, which in this case, allows the spread of misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines.
Misinformation encourages people to take reactionary stances. It is safe to say that if people continue to expose themselves to conspiracies about the virus, it is highly likely that they will react poorly to further health protocols. Though it is difficult to predict the intensity of people’s reactions, it certainly carries the potential to further destabilize civil societies.
Realizing the dangers of the Omicron variant, many countries, especially in Europe, have issued travel restrictions and lockdowns. In response, unrest has broken out in several countries. Massive civil unrest broke out in Brussels, Belgium over new restrictions because COVID cases have been skyrocketing in the country. There were also violent riots in the Netherlands where people set bikes and other items on fire. Austria and Germany also saw violent crimes and vandalism, where thousands of people gathered to protest new restrictions amid the continuing pandemic.
One commonality among the rioters is their allegiance to right-wing political parties and far-right groups. But why is that the case? One explanation is the rise of right-wing populists, who, by their very nature, seize moments of instability to criticize the politically corrupt elite and stress the loss of personal freedom to mobilize right-wing extremists.
Another explanation is the insufficient and inefficient communication on vaccines, as well as the information campaign on effective counter-Covid measures. As the disease expert in Salzburg, Professor Richard Greil said, “the strategy that has been chosen has been very bad; the communications about [the] vaccine has been insufficient.”
Civil unrest is not the only challenge nations have to face. At the beginning of the pandemic, because of lockdowns, global unemployment rates reached 6.47%, an all-time high in recent years, and the global economy came to a halt. It is likely that if civil unrest continues and vaccination rates continue to be generally low, Omicron will send everyone back to mandatory quarantine again. At the moment, this is not a question of if but a question of when. In China, cities like Xi’an went into lockdown due to the new variant. Soon a worldwide lockdown, like what occurred in March 2020, will happen again. When it happens, will the world economy be ready to take another hit while it is still recovering from shutdowns in summer 2020?
As the emergence of previous variants has shown, Omicron will decrease growth rates. A major reason is that newly imposed restrictions will decrease and limit freedom of movement. This is especially true for European Union member states, who rely on the free movement of EU citizens to conduct business in Europe. It is not yet clear how much growth rates will slow down and whether it will be worse than the economic slowdown in 2020.
Additionally, as China faces Omicron like the rest of the world, there might be a worldwide import delay or even a hiatus. China, the world’s second largest economy, relies heavily on its exports to maintain a strong economic status. This has the potential to put China’s 21st Century Belt and Road Initiative to a halt and damage the world economy as well as its partner states, many of which have regional and international economic relationships with other countries.
Ultimately, the combined result of civil unrest and global economic shutdown would be political instability around the world. What happens if global governance fails? World leaders need to come together to solve this continuing global health crisis and to mitigate the instability it has caused in multiple perspectives. As a new year approaches, hopefully the crises will go away soon.