COVID-19 Symposium: COVID-19 and the ‘Western Gaze’

COVID-19 Symposium: COVID-19 and the ‘Western Gaze’

[Alonso Gurmendi Dunkelberg is currently Professor of International Law at Universidad del Pacífico Law School in Lima, Peru.]

The COVID-19 pandemic can be understood through various different frameworks. It can be a vindication of anti-neoliberalism, a resurgence of nationalism, or even an opportunity to criticize or praise democracy and autocracy. The issue of framing is an increasingly important, if underestimated, meta-discussion in this crisis.

One of the dominant ways the COVID-19 pandemic has been framed is as the first truly ‘global’ crisis of the ‘globalized’ world. But what does this mean? Who defines what ‘global’ means and the way we understand it? After all, ‘global’ framing is usually produced in English, by Western outlets, based in the Global North. Globalization, truth be told, is a privilege, not an equal experience. This is why, when seen from Southern eyes, ‘global’ is usually perceived as a synonym for ‘Western’.

It is not surprising, therefore, that our (at least nominally) ‘global’ world is consumed, experienced and framed through a ‘Western gaze’ that commonly denies any agency to the non-Western communities that inhabit it. When local Latin American news goes ‘global’, for example, it changes frames. Brazil’s President is no longer the product of a particularly Brazilian process. ‘Globally’, he is presented as the “Trump of the Tropics”. Likewise, environmental conservation discussions are reframed as casus belli: “who will invade Brazil to save the Amazon?” Even counter-hegemonic left-leaning views tend to get caught up in this trend, particularly regarding Venezuela, where the situation is almost cartoonishly simplified as a “US-backed coup” and not a complex regional crisis, involving sometimes conflicting diplomatic efforts by at least fifteen other Latin American and Caribbean states. It is really unsurprising, therefore, that the ‘pandemic-as-global-crisis’ framing of COVID-19 has also occurred through a ‘Western gaze’, with analysis of the crisis following Western attitudes rather than human problems.

At the start of the pandemic, ‘global’ attitudes painted it through the prism of Western geopolitics. China’s coronavirus plight, as the main rival to Western dominance, was framed in the language of civil and political rights; as an ideological battle between ‘Western democracy’ and ‘Chinese dictatorship’. In late January and early February, reports of China’s censorship and human rights violations in the course of its lockdown dominated the discussion. For The Atlantic, for instance, the Wuhan lockdown was a ‘radical experiment in authoritarian medicine’, claiming similar measures would be unconstitutional in the US. For The Guardian, the Chinese quarantine was ‘terrifying’; the product of a country where ‘people cannot remove their leaders from power’. Even the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) stated – in late January – that ‘travel bans and quarantines are not the solution’ for the COVID-19 pandemic. China’s social and economic obligations to its quarantined population were a secondary concern at best.  

By late February, the pandemic reached Europe. Italy placed Lombardy in lockdown on February 22nd, and the whole country on March 9th. Spain followed suit on March 14th. At this point, the discussion shifted. Blank correlations of quarantine and dictatorship stopped. Italy, after all, ‘unlike China’ – said The New York Times – ‘is a democracy’. The ‘global’ question now became: what does a liberal, Western, democratic, and human-rights-compliant lockdown look like? Rather than a sign of Asian authoritarianism, lockdowns became a ‘test’ for Western democracy. ‘[W]e have always recognized’ – said the ACLU – ‘that, during a disease outbreak, individual rights must sometimes give way to the greater good’.

And then, in mid-March, the virus hit the United States. On March 14th, Donald Trump banned air travel from Europe. Two days later, he banned gatherings of over 10 people. On March 20th, California declared a lockdown. New York followed suit on March 22nd. At that stage, Trump said he expected to lift restrictions within three weeks, hoping to see ‘packed churches’ at Easter. US news filled with pundits terrifyingly suggesting older people would rather die than kill the economy. Since then, predictably, the discussion has tended towards state obligations to mitigate and prevent pandemics.

This change of narrative and focus, from China to Europe to the United States, and from civil rights violations, to civil rights limitations to social rights obligations is a phenomenon worth noting and mapping. Given the fast-changing nature of the COVID-19 crisis, the Western gaze with which ‘global’ attitudes are formed is a lot more visible than usual, which allows us to notice just how much it has conditioned our understanding – even legal and academic – of the pandemic.

Of course, the issues discussed are important. It is not my purpose here to delegitimize human rights violations in China or the inadequacy of the US’ response, but rather to ask why these topics and framings were highlighted and make us aware of their impact in our scholarly output.

Contrast, for example, the Western ‘global’ story of COVID-19 with Latin America’s ‘regional’ one. As early as January, the Spanish-speaking discussion focused on readiness. The precarious and underfunded state of public healthcare systems prompted the immediate question: ‘are we ready?’. After all, Brazil, with nearly half the population of all the European Union combined, spends half of what France spends on healthcare.

In a region much more used to states of emergency, and frequently sidelined from great power politics, discussions on the rise of China and mobility limitations were much less of a focus than healthcare and economic inequality. Unlike their European counterparts, Latin states like Paraguay and Peru did not hesitate to set up lockdowns before even a single death was recorded, with 95% of Peruvians supporting it. For comparison, Italy’s lockdown was imposed after 800 deaths and Spain’s after 200. As soon as the virus arrived, news coming out of Latin America focused on the question of how middle income economies would deal with a pandemic. In Bolivia, a patient was denied entry to four hospitals by doctors because they claimed they lacked protective equipment. In Peru, the nurses’ union threatened to go on strike over poor working conditions.

In fact, the most critical human rights issues were not related to abuse during lockdowns (even if, of course, problems do exist), but rather the states who were refusing to instate them. Mexico’s President, the leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, consistently encouraged people to go out normally, hugging and kissing supporters, and claiming the best ‘détente’ against coronavirus were prayer and religious amulets. In Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro, who really can only be fairly described as a right-wing fascist, called the virus a media-induced ‘fantasy’ and attended mass pro-government demonstrations in the country’s capital despite being himself under self-isolation for risk of infection. At one point Bolsonaro called state governors trying to impose local lockdowns ‘lunatics’ actively downplaying the severity of the situation. Recently, he called on Brazilians to ‘go back to normality’, referring to the virus as a ‘little cold’. The situation is so dire that citizens in both countries took to the courts to try to force their government to take meaningful action (see here and here).

It is perhaps because of an awareness of these issues that, on March 6th, while ‘global’ public opinion was still slowly waking up to the possibility of a national lockdown in Western Europe, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet – herself Latin American – was already placing the right to health and economic support to citizens front and centre: ‘our efforts to combat this virus won’t work unless we approach it holistically, which means taking great care to protect the most vulnerable and neglected people in society, both medically and economically’, she said, with little ‘global’ repercussion. Similarly, the Inter-American Human Rights Commission’s first Coronavirus-related statement, focused mostly on mitigation of hardship, not restrictions of mobility. It said: ‘states must urgently assess effective responses for mitigating the impacts of the pandemic on human rights … by adopting an appropriate combination of regulatory frameworks and short- and medium-term public policies such as credit relief programs and the rescheduling and flexibilization of repayment schemes for debts and other financial obligations that may impose financial or tax burdens that jeopardize human rights’.

Had the ‘global’ discussion truly adopted a ‘global’ approach to the pandemic, COVID-19’s story would likely have looked a lot different, focusing more evenly on the problems and concerns of not just average Westerners preoccupied with the rise of China, the strangeness of a European lockdown or the baffling negligence of Donald Trump (all worthy topics of discussion, of course) but, also, on the problems of a migrant worker in India making 3 dollars a day or a Brazilian street vendor that simply can’t socially isolate without support from their government. What does mitigation and economic support look like in nations with limited resources and underfunded health services? What is the ‘minimum core’ of the right to health in these circumstances? What does progressive realization look like? These questions have been sidelined because the crisis has not yet been framed through Southern eyes.

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