In Thucydides’s Peleponnesian War, one of the most stirring historical testimonies of times of plague, we read what happens when a population-decimating disease comes to Athens. The most virtuous citizens die, inevitably becoming infected while nurturing the sick. Meanwhile, the worst, most selfish members of the community escape death by staying at home. The fear of inescapable death makes them think only of taking advantage of material goods and pleasures. Although the plague’s course and effects seem to be the mere sum of individuals’ actions, in the background we see the consequences for the political community: the fall of collective solidarity, the decline of the rule of law, the flourishing of conspiracy theories.
Thucydides’ testimony is so valuable because it allows us to grasp the political dimension of events which at first glance are of only a technocratic and managerial nature. When dealing with today’s version of the plague, the Covid-19 pandemic, it may seem at first glance that we are experiencing the expert’s return to the pedestal: that politicians are forced to consider the results of scientific research and choose means of protecting their citizens accordingly. One should not forget, however, that many of their actions are still strictly political, and so are the consequences.
In this context, we must ask what dangers are posed to democracies when humans are faced with natural catastrophes, of which pandemics are just one example. Looking at recent political decisions in many Central and Eastern European countries may tell us a lot about the mechanisms at work.
Strikingly, many countries in this region decided to close their borders exceptionally early after the outbreak of the coronavirus. Let’s recall: Italy decided to close its borders on 10 March, when the number of confirmed cases there was already over 10,000. Within five days after that, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary had closed their borders, even though the number of confirmed cases in any of these countries had not exceeded one hundred at the time. One could, of course, assume that those countries’ leaders simply behaved very cautiously, wanting to avoid the tragic Italian scenario, in view of the efficiency of their native health care systems. And yet one can pose the question of what the decision to close the borders tells us about societies in this part of Europe and the politicians who are in power there. For when we look closely, there is a paradox in recent Central and Eastern European behaviour. The very countries which sorely wanted to enter the Schengen zone just over a decade ago were now, in 2020, exceptionally willing to suspend the free movement of people. Why might this be?
Pictures from Berlin in autumn 1989 show crowds of people literally escaping from the East, uncertain whether the opening of the borders would be temporary. Other inhabitants of the former Eastern Bloc behaved similarly. A whole generation mentally emigrated to the West, hoping not only that they would find a more prosperous and dignified life for themselves and others there, but also that the West would finally bring stability and security to countries whose central experience in the 20th century was the cyclical loss of sovereignty.
The trouble is that the political transformations that began shortly thereafter meant another break in continuity for institutions, customs and habits. That the borders opened so quickly became a source of fundamental ambivalence. On the one hand, it has indisputably brought modernization and prosperity. On the other hand, it was followed by, for example, the mass emigration of well-educated workers, including physicians, whose absence is felt especially strongly during the current pandemic. In this way, although the fear that Central and Eastern European countries and societies would be physically annihilated has become a thing of the past, another powerful feeling has taken its place, touching the sensitive chords linked to memories of the past: a sense of loss.
This existential anxiety has been capitalized on by illiberal populists in this part of Europe. They have pointed out that with the opening to the West, these countries experienced phenomena that are incomprehensible for many post-communist societies. Indeed, movements understood in the Western part of Europe as an expression of passion for human rights, respect for minorities and wisdom gained through the dramatic experiences of the twentieth century—for example, those demanding protection of the rights of sexual minorities—were often described in post-communist countries as a kind of “plague”, invisible but dangerous, spreading through society in mysterious ways. When in Poland today we hear about priests who bless their parishes from planes to stop the Covid-19 pandemic, it is hard not to think that, paradoxically, they are treating the coronavirus similarly: an invisible enemy that came from the West across open borders. Closing the borders in this case is an expression of freeing ourselves, taking a break from the fear of the outside world that we do not understand.
In a time of collective disasters, democracy may be one of the first victims. Of course, this is a challenge for the whole of Europe, and not only for its Central and Eastern part. However, in countries where illiberal populism has flourished for some time, this can have particularly significant consequences. We will only see the true political meaning of leaders’ decisions after the smokescreen of a constant flow of news about the pandemic is lifted. It is significant that Viktor Orbán was allowed to rule by decree in Hungary.
The prospect of cataclysm effectively pushes democracy off the stage. Where respect for her has been cultivated over the years, she does not have to be doomed. It is different in those places where she wasn’t a welcome guest anyway. Collective quarantine could last for several more weeks or maybe months. There is a danger that for some countries of Central and Eastern Europe it will result in consolidating the illiberal order for the unforeseeable future. And this in turn will lead to a lasting change in the image of European Union.
Karolina Wigura is a board member at the Kultura Liberalna Foundation and assistant professor in the Institute of Sociology at the University of Warsaw. She was a Bronisław Geremek Junior Visiting Fellow (2012/2013) at the IWM.
Jarosław Kuisz is editor-in-chief of Kultura Liberalna and assistant professor in the Faculty of Law and Administration at the University of Warsaw. He was a Milena Jesenská Visiting Fellow (2014) at the IWM.