International Institute for Middle East and Balkan Studies (IFIMES) from Ljubljana, Slovenia, regularly analyses developments in the Middle East and the Balkans. Teodor Palade is former Intelligence officer and Romanian military attaché in India. In his comprehensive analysis entitled “Geopolitics of survival or geopolitical aspects of the evolution of Covid-19” he is analyzing geopolitical aspects of Covid-19.
It’s just a virus. It is regarded by many as a weapon. If we look closer it’s not far from the truth. A library could be easily filled with the last two-months writings on this strange virus. If we were leaving aside preconceptions and would not be afraid of the inept allegation that we are promoting the conspiration theory then we would more than likely reach the conclusion that similar to a weapon of mass destruction, the saga of Covid-19 has an undeniable geopolitical overtone.
The great powers’ politics is often captivating. China’s domestic and foreign policy intimidating success, the accomplishments of the demographic colossus called Peoples’ Republic of China culturally, politically and militarily could not but cause envy. Even adversity. The fierce political confrontation between the two systems which marked for a long time the world’s evolution and the economic and military rivalry has foreshadowed a genuine war between the US and China. A war which, like any war, causes losses, fatalities, brings forward fighting tactics and strategies, allows for experimenting new weapons and has no mercy. Well, after all, everything is politics. The war included.
Ever since the outbreak of epidemics American sources suggested that China was guilty of Covid-19 explosion and its global spread. China, with its bat-eating people, with its Wuhan lab, with the filthy market where slaughtered animals were sold, and the carelessness of the Wuhan epidemiological specialists who would have manipulated the viruses.
Politically it was the right moment when, on the background of the ongoing disputes with the US and with many EU states, China could have become the ideal culprit. The moment was not missed. The world’s media was plenty of charges, assumptions, facts, make-believe and analysis whereby China is the main villain.
China’s counter-attack didn’t take long. Recently, the spokesman of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs pointed to the American military who took part in the last year’s Wuhan Military Olympics as being the ones who brought the virus to China. Zhao Lijan made an argument of the remarks of some American media which stated that part of the last year’s dead due to seasonal flu where in fact sick with Covid-19 and declared: “It is possible that the American Army brought the epidemics to Wuhan. The United States should show transparency. It should make public the data! The United States owes us an explanation!”. It is highly unlikely that the Chinese official has made the statement on his own as it is improbable as well that other charges are not ready and waiting in line for the right time to come to throw it on the market. Then, it could not be by chance that China’s charges are launched when American military are landing in the European ports of countries ravaged by coronavirus.
The American military are brought directly from the other shore of the Ocean to take part in the biggest European military drills with American participation during the last 25 years.
This military exercise suggestively code-named Defender Europe 2020, is planned to be conducted overwhelmingly near the Russian Federation’s European borders, a China’s dependable economic and military ally.
Covid-19 was already politically weaponized in the US and is used to the fullest by the two great political forces competing for winning the coming presidential elections. The Republicans are attacking the Democrat and presidential contender, Joseph Robinette Biden Jr., sustaining that the latter’s son Hunter is refusing to come back to America from Ukraine (where he quietly oversees his business) to take a paternity test on the ground that he does not want to be infected with the new coronavirus. Going beyond the attack to family, Bill de Blasio, the Mayor of New York City and contender to presidency from the same party as Donald Trump’s, attacks vehemently the US Administration saying that the new coronavirus represents a serious argument for the government, in case it was a responsible one, to nationalize the main factories and industries directly involved in the fight with Covid-19. ”It is a war situation!”, he says.” Where are the mechanical ventilators? Where is the government’s intervention to secure our hospitals the needed ventilators? Where is the government’s intervention for securing the protective masks? We are in a situation which calls for the nationalization of the main factories and industries involved – literally a nationalization!”
In the US too the emergence of the virus changed the discourse of the three main candidates contesting for the presidency. In a way, Covid-19 has modified the agenda of the potential future presidents. The sanitary issue, the citizen’s medical security, the steps to be taken for diminishing the economic, financial and psychological effects of the new coronavirus, became the main subjects of the political struggle.” This virus revealed the serious deficiencies of the present Administration”, Joe Biden declared. Another candidate, Bernie Sanders warned that if urgent measures are not taken ”the number of deaths caused by coronavirus could be bigger than the number of the American military killed during WWII (...) We have such an incompetent administration so that its incompetence and carelessness threaten the lives of many, many people of this country.”
In the majority of the states affected by coronavirus, the politicians changed their agenda. Parties whose adversity was not shaken since decades shook hands. Political decisions which dragged on for years were adopted overnight and what seemed insurmountable some weeks before has been achieved. Suffice it to look to what happened in Romania (a government rejected twice in a row was unanimously confirmed and ministers rejected by the parliament several times became apt overnight) and no other argument is needed to prove how real is the political component of this strange virus.
At the same time, the adoption of certain measures of force, restraining the constitutional rights of the citizen, abuses taking place here and there brought in an increased lack of trust in the political class. Globally, the effect is enhanced, something totally disastrous.
The medical aspect of our life is political too. We depend totally on the policy in the sanitary field. From this standpoint, the Covid-19 epidemics revealed unspeakable shortcomings as far as the citizen’s medical safety is concerned, especially in Western Europe. West-European states considered to be the flag-bearing ones in the field of sanitary assistance were unable to manage the spread of the infection nationally and made unacceptable blunders when tried to confront the challenge. Worldwide, Italy toppled China as number of death and is showing no signs of being able to manage the situation. The Italian physicians are overburdened, close to breaking down nervously and psychically and then the situation might become dramatical. The fact that in what concerns the total number of infected people worldwide, out of a total of 155 countries affected by the virus, Spain is on the fourth place, Germany is on the fifths and France on the seventh.
Geopolitics sums up the two facets of reality: politics and geography. The geographical evolution of the new coronavirus seems to be natural and surprising at the same time.
It is natural as it emerged in a specific period for the viral diseases of the winter-spring season, falling within the pattern of the flues that mankind is confronting since generations.
It is surprising because by ignoring the laws of probability, it emerged in the most favorable place for a rapid spread (a country gathering around 20% of the world’s population, in a crowded city inhabiting more than 12 mil people) which became extremely difficult to control and at the most suitable time (during the Chinese New Year’s period when population movements from a place to another, nationally and internationally, too, peaked; the mass of people engaged in this back-and-forth process is estimated at around 3 billion)  .
It is also surprising in the virus geographical evolution that, with some exceptions, there were the adversary states or, without being hostile, the ones which do not completely accept the US policy (China, 81,000 affections; Iran, 14,000 affections; France, 5,400 affections; Germany, 5,800 affections) as well as the places representing, in most cases, the cradle of human civilization (China, Iran, Italy, South Korea, Spain)  .
It seems also strange that the ground zero of the virus action moved all of a sudden some thousands of kilometers away to the west, to Western Europe, while states with great land masses, some of them in China’s proximity, such as the Russian Federation, India or Kazakhstan, the presence of Covid-19 is timid, almost inexistent.
A serious impact was resented in the field of peoples’ transhumance, a very dynamic aspect during the last years. The emergency of the new coronavirus brought about an unprecedented reflux in what concerns the labor migration, especially in Europe. In Romania only, around one million persons who were working in Italy, Germany, Spain or Great Britain returned home during three weeks only. The return home of such a mass of people, many of them presumed of carrying the virus created a multitude of problems, including in the sanitary field and which are difficult to solve by the authorities of the indigenous states and imposed expenditures that will be very hard to recover during the next period.
The epidemic which disrupted Europe showed to everybody, once more, that the European Union proves unable to manage crisis situations. The Union’s bodies, the Commissions and Committees in their entirety, circumvented the important decisions and left the member states to cope with the situation as anyone was able to.
As if the European Union did not exist as a super state entity. No serious research was genuinely conducted and, therefore, no ways of coordinating the medical, economic, financial or psychological efforts were found at the Union’s level. Moreover, the migration of labor as a result of the epidemics spread, with its adjacent devastating effects on the European level which were left to chance. Voices in the European mass-media are already labelling the European Union as a paralyzed body with a huge bureaucracy blocked in the past, with an impermissible inertia for the century we are living in. A construct whose end is looming. After Brexit, Covid-19 epidemics raises another red flag on the foundation of the European political and economic bloc.
The relocation of the new coronavirus ground zero to Europe had as an immediate result the taking off the pressure from the migration wave from the war areas in the Middle East.
The acute frictions between Turkey and the European Union calmed down and the explosive tensions from the Turkish-Greek border softened for the time being.
Terrorist type organizations or the organizations pursuing immediate financial gains benefitted from the extraordinary online interest for the Covid-19 issue had crossed the strict geographical borders and activated their hackers who launched phishing-type cyberattacks and infested the servers of the big companies, banks or main state institutions. An impressive number of persons and institutions fell prey to hackers before the cyber security specialists reacted. The amount of damage is not known, yet the first estimates point to billions of dollars.
A less analyzed aspect with an extraordinary impact on the global human community is the psychological effect of the emergence and geographical spread of Covid-19. The trust in governments and in the state’s attachment to the citizen were shaken. Separately or organized in small and big communities set up empirically most of the times, people have been isolated, considered guilty towards their fellow humans, ostracized through brutal methods sometimes, panicked. Family did not represent any longer a safe haven, friends are not trusted anymore as they might become harmful for one’s self health.
The sports and cultural communities and, for the first time since WWII, the religious ones restricted their activities or simply abolished them. Panic seems to become the only driving force of the individual’s action.
Just like the emergence, behavior and the geopolitical implications of Covid-19 were impossible to foreshadow, it is just as difficult to assume the issuance of assumptions concerning the future evolution of the situation from a geopolitical standpoint.
It is indeed much too early to draw resolute conclusions. Yet having at hand the so far information, the countless analysis, the conclusions and the forecasts of the specialists in the field and looking attentively to the general picture and its dynamics it is worth risking to make some assumptions and to issue some opinions.
No doubt a devastating economic shock will shake the planet.
After the epidemic wave goes, the return to the normal condition will be hard and will last much longer than it is estimated at present.
The states hurt by the destabilization brought by the desperate and necessary measures to limit the epidemics manifestation, states which seem to have been hand-picked, will reach their limits in what concerns the financial and economic survival.
The politicians, formally united now in front of the danger they amplified themselves (to prove the voting citizen how capable they are at controlling it), will attack each other savagely. Governments will change overnight and huge debts will accumulate everywhere as a result of the populist measures taken to keep them in power.
The most affected countries will indebt themselves beyond the limits imposed so far for keeping a stability status.
The rich and poor divide will widen and, although the real profiteers as a result of the mess generated by fighting Covid-19 are not known for the time being, yet those who will get poorer are already known.
The model and the lessons of using such a weapon (if this virus was a weapon) will be known and they will be in the future at the heart of similar actions imposed by situations of domestic crisis, by deadlocked interstate relations or situations foreshadowed to be to the benefit of one or another of the world’s great powers.
The emergence, mutation, effects and the dangers attributed to Covid-19 represented an excellent exercise in what concerns the targeted use of the media power. Guidelines for the ways media could be used in the future are already in place for maintaining a panic state, for isolating the persons considered dangerous, for manipulating the society to the benefit of those who are politically, economically or financially interested.
China, for instance, used cleverly almost to the limit the situation created by Covid-19 and succeeded in annihilating the dangerously growing domestic protests against the government and silenced the Hong Kong stubborn protesters. Moreover, it acquired quite for free thousands of western investments that were dumped locally by the managers and shareholders out of fear. Beijing proves under these circumstances too that it is a main global player by offering material support to Italy and to other countries requesting it and uses very skillfully the opportunity to enhance its position in Europe.
The US has altered the citizen’s agenda in the discourse of the presidential candidates and the president Donald Trump was nominated the Republicans’ candidate for the coming elections.
The Russian Federation proved it is not disturbed by such a scenario and, moreover, seems to be until now one of the winners of the situation especially having in mind the situation in Europe.
The Western European states proved weak and derailed, overwhelmed by the situation and an easy prey to all kind of speculations. The European Union excelled in words and promises but proved to be practically unprepared and helpless. The EU could not protect seriously any of the member states and, moreover, left Italy, the main Union’s ”sick man”, without any support. Up to March 20, 2020, Brussels was unable to prove its capacity of leading the Union go through this crisis leaving each and one of the states to manage on their own. In doing so, the EU almost nullified its chances of being a first-class geopolitical global player and I don’t think it will come back (if it ever comes back) too soon.
The psychological effect on the globe’s population will affect for a long time the human communities, no matter the geographical area they are living in. The experience of forced isolation of man by man, removing by exceptional government measures of trust among friends, relatives, children, parents, terrifying by fear and cultivating panic while calling for calm and rationale will surely be case studies as well as starting points for other actions of the same type.
There are voices saying that in the shadow of fear and panic induced intentionally or not by this virus the future of mankind is foreshadowed. Although such an opinion can be exaggerated, a seed of truth seems to come out.
If this Covid-19 was not a weapon, the future Covid will surely be.
It seems we are coming closer to what has been suggested on the eve of the financial and economic crises which rocked the world a decade ago. The emergence of a new geopolitics – geopolitics of survival.
Does really the Covid-19 pandemic represent the signal, the necessary landmark for the need to search for a new way to perceive, analyze and judge the world we are living in?
About the author:
Teodor Palade is Intelligence officer, now retired, was born in Bucharest in 1943. He was military attaché in India, held important positions in the Ministry of National Defense and, after retirement, in the Government of Romania. His articles, covering a large area of interest, are published by many online and printed outlets in Romania and abroad.
Ljubljana/Bucharest, 27 March 2020