The Z Factor: Death by populism

Every generation believes that its hardships are the worst, but hear out my case on behalf of those of us alive today. After the era of hope which ran through the 1990s and the 2000s, apocalypse has befallen us: world trade is at its lowest in decade, global immigration is all but dead, and a pandemic is wreaking havoc for the first time in a century.

But these aren’t even the worst of it; to deal with these historic challenges, countries around the world have now conjured together the most dangerous class of world leaders in generations. Take a look at what’s been happening around the world over the last few weeks.

In Washington, President Donald Trump’s cavalier attitude to Covid-19 has seen his country take the top spot on both cases and deaths – and the President keeps finding new ways to create more trouble. Early this month, he sent pangs of shock through America’s community of international students by threatening to deport them if their classes were moved online. The White House later walked back that measure partially, but it said that it would still not issue visas to newly-admitted students.

Trump’s new policy is baffling because, if anything, it merely acts as a policy incentive for universities to reopen their in-person classes. If they move online, they risk losing international students in a financially difficult year (the coronavirus couldn’t have written a better policy for itself, even if it had tried). Later, Trump also threatened to cut funding for public schools if state governors did not reopen them soon.

In Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro has proven equally catastrophic. Last year, Bolsonaro nearly burnt down the Amazon forests, by encouraging reckless human activity. This year, his dismissal of Covid-19 as a “fantasy” has taken Brazil to the second spot behind America. The president himself has tested positive three times so far. When he first came out to announce his diagnosis early this month, he daringly took his mask off right in front of journalists, asking them to “look at my face”.

For some leaders, the pandemic has been an opportunity. China’s Xi Jinping and Russia’s Vladimir Putin have been exploiting the chaos and noise for their own merriment. While Xi has hardly left any neighbour’s territory unoccupied, Putin has been busy laying the foundations for unaccountable and life-long rule in Russia. In early July, the Russian president temporarily raised social distancing restrictions in order to hold a vote on constitutional changes. He is now all set to reign till 2036.

But there is some good news. In Britain, the virus has done the unthinkable: It has transformed Boris Johnson – the poster boy of populism. Johnson initially refused to take the virus seriously, arguing that ‘herd immunity’ will kick in and keep Britons safe if everyone is allowed to get infected. But in March, Johnson himself contracted the virus that forced him all the way to that near-death experience called the intensive care unit.

When he came out, Johnson became an altogether different prime minister. He launched a war on obesity, which he held responsible for his brush with death (he had previously opposed taxes on junk food). He decided to relax immigration rules for international students, allowing them to stay on for longer after they graduate. He even announced a $446 million funding package for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, after having pooh-poohed climate change not too long ago.

Populism is not a habit that dies easily, and nobody knows how long Johnson is going to take to fall back into his old ways. But one hopes that his fellow populists elsewhere would serve as a cautionary tale.

(c) 2020, Deccan Herald