Populism and pandemics: Backlashes against international law and COVID-19

Syrian Prime Minister Faris El-Khouri signs the UN Charter at a conference in San Francisco on 26 June 1945. Photo: United Nations via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).
Senior Lecturer, ANU College of Law
Thursday 23 July 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has now been with us for half a year. As new knowledge emerges about the disease itself, there are some things that have been apparent from the start. COVID-19 spreads rapidly, crossing national borders with ease. The pandemic now affects almost every corner of the world and does not discriminate by citizenship or national identity. This is a truly global problem for all of humanity. These are the very problems that international law is crafted to respond to.

It would seem to follow that countries should respond to this current global crisis by harnessing international law and institutions. These provide frameworks and principles for cooperation to address problems that are bigger than any one nation. The allied countries that established the United Nations (UN) in 1945 declared, through the UN Charter preamble, the goal of uniting their strength to maintain international peace and security. That vision remains in the imperfect but inclusive and cooperative, rules-based multilateral system. The global nature of the pandemic would suggest that responses need to be similarly globalised, uniting strength and purpose to mitigate the human and economic impact.

Yet recent statements and actions by some world leaders paint a different story. Most notably, United States President Donald Trump has announced the US withdrawal from the World Health Organisation (WHO). Instead of leveraging the strengths of shared purposes and unity, Trump is disengaging from the very system purpose-built by countries (often led by the US) to coordinate globalised responses to precisely this kind of pandemic. The US action on the WHO has received international condemnation, but is best seen as continuing a trend that was already well established before COVID-19 took hold: an observable backlash against international law and institutions, in particular within Western democracies that since 1945 had supported the rules-based international order. Examples of this backlash include the 2018 US withdrawal from the UN Human Rights Council, its announced withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement in 2019 and its attacks on the World Trade Organisation’s Appellate Body. Similar backlash patterns can be observed elsewhere, from Brexiteers’ antipathy to European institutions to an Australian Prime Minister in 2019 commissioning an audit of Australia’s engagement with the ‘unaccountable internationalist bureaucracy’ of UN-type bodies.

Backlash does not occur in a socio-political vacuum. The recent backlash trends in the West have largely coincided with politicians’ response to (and fuelling of) a rise in nationalist populism. Populism has many variants, but common to them is a rhetoric promoting fundamental distrust of perceived elites, expertise and institutions, twinned with a prioritisation of direct producers of goods and wealth. This can lead to rejection of expert evidence and preferencing those perceived to contribute to the economy at the expense of those who are perceived not to.

The US action on the WHO has received international condemnation, but is best seen as continuing a trend that was already well established before COVID-19 took hold: an observable backlash against international law and institutions, in particular within Western democracies that since 1945 had supported the rules-based international order.

These two elements are evident in the responses of populist national leaders to the pandemic. Early on, Trump minimised the COVID-19 threat. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro – despite contracting COVID-19 himself – continues to insist that the disease is no more dangerous than a ‘little flu’. Both of these leaders have either downplayed, rejected or sought to wind back social-distancing recommendations, thus undermining the credibility of the medical ‘elites’ who give such advice in order to cultivate political gains at home. President Alexander Lukashenko, the authoritarian Belarus populist, uses the same tactic. For Lukashenko, the virus is a ‘psychosis’, and healthcare advice of social distancing unnecessary.  

Rhetoric prioritising those perceived to contribute to the economy is seen in the counter-narrative in many countries – Australia included – that we must go back to work, that the cure of social distancing is in fact worse than the disease. If this comes at the expense of the elderly (those less likely to contribute to the economy) then, the argument goes, this is a price that must be borne. The effect of this is devastating. Recently, the US has seen dramatic spikes in COVID cases following the re-opening of businesses against the recommendations of many health experts.

While such policies cause widespread damage within national borders, they also affect the ability of states to engage with international law and institutions to craft effective responses to the problem. Perhaps the most troubling and dangerous characteristic of populist leaders’ responses has been denial and deflection of any responsibility for measures to respond early and adequately to the pandemic. Trump and other populists have sought to shift the blame to foreign countries and institutions, thus both fuelling and tapping into the fears and passions of their nationalist populist base. This is seen both in rhetoric – most recently Trump’s description of COVID-19 as the ‘kung flu’ – and action. Trump’s WHO press statement accused the WHO of mismanaging the crisis, being biased towards China and unwilling to act because of concerns of political correctness. The press release itself is framed in the language of accountability, a trademark of populism: characterising institutions as inherently divorced from the populace, removed and out-of-touch. 

Such backlashes are potentially devastating in the time of pandemic. Those lucky enough to live in a country that has taken effective social distancing measures early and has a healthcare system robust enough to deal with increased and complex cases can shelter from the worst effects of the disease. For others, there are no options. The only effective response to a pandemic must be global. Those countries who recognise this are now in a position to frame themselves as leaders. Australia, while calling for an independent international review into the pandemic, stressed the need for ‘effective global institutions’, ‘free from undue politicisation’. This turnaround from the 2019 approach of the Australian Government shows a stemming of Australia’s backlash position to once again engage with, and laud the value of, international law mechanisms and institutions.

Such a change is hopeful. Indeed, in these dangerously disorienting times, the path to an effective response lies in transparency, accountability and evidence-based policy that is guided by a dispassionate understanding of facts. Rejection of expert evidence has seen devastation in countries that have responded too slowly to the crisis: backlashes against international institutions driven by populist ideals will compound the problem. The world came together in 1945 after the great scourge of war to craft a fairer, freer and more robust future for all. It is the international institutions created in this spirit, and the international cooperation they oversee, that we must turn to now to overcome the current scourge of disease. Any repudiation of this is short-sighted and ultimately not in the national interest of the very countries engaged in this backlash. Ironically, it may also not be in the interest of populist leaders themselves: as cases soar in the US, Trump’s popularity is decreasing. Similar results in Brazil has seen suggestions that the pandemic may be the death-knell for such populist leaders.

Updated:  10 August 2015/Responsible Officer:  College General Manager, ANU College of Law/Page Contact:  Law Marketing Team