By: Bryce Greer
By reconstructing our memory of the 1918 Influenza epidemic, we can prepare to combat the ever-more potential rise of the far-right in the aftermath of COVID-19.
Like many others trying to escape boredom in their time of isolation due to COVID-19 lockdowns, I looked more and more to the internet. Here, I happened upon a news article by Crawford Kilian that stood out for its almost prophetic warning to our current pandemic despite being written in 2017. Although, realistically, Kilian was not a prophet. Instead, what he does is show the importance of reconstructing our memory of the 1918 Influenza pandemic.
I bring up his article today as a plea for us to continue looking to the past to prepare for the near future. In recent headlines, I have noticed media claim that the far-right is taking massive blows due to COVID-19 revealing their incompetence. While there is an element of truth to such claim, I fear, in perhaps an alarmist tone, that we underplay the threat of the far-right with these statements. One look to the 1918 Influenza pandemic may be enough to show how COVID-19 can lead to long-term gains for far-right movements.
Back in May 2020, researchers from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York published a report claiming that the 1918 Influenza pandemic had supported the rise of Nazism. Statistics had shown that regions that suffered greater mortality-rates due to the virus also had higher turn-out rates for far-right parties in the years following. Similarly, it was noted that there was an increased anti-immigrant outlook in regions due to the uniqueness of the new virus, coupled with a weaponizing of the “Other” by parties like the Nazi Regime.
Richard Evans, a historian focused on Germany, has recently noted that Nazi Germany weaponized the fear in the language of “virus” by comparing Jews to terms like parasite or plague. The rhetoric seems shockingly familiar – perhaps Trump’s claim of a “China Plague” rings a bell. Just as was done with the 1918 Influenza pandemic, now we see an increase in anti-immigrant outlook among the populace once again.
Take for example Canada. Opinions have surfaced critiquing the Canadian government for their “open house” policy through air travel into the country. While the article states that statistically only 1.3% of cases come from airports, and there is strict policy on who may currently enter, one look to the comments can see people turning the blame of the virus on foreigners. The rhetoric is wrong, and yet the damage is already harmful.
Due to COVID, polls have shown that 20% of Canadians have grown a more negative attitude to immigration due to fear of the pandemic. While some can try and claim that this could be simple fear of the pandemic, last week, Vancouver reported that Anti-Asian hate crime has increased by 717% in the last year. This is one city, and an arguably progressive one as well. Clearly, nationalist, and anti-immigrant, outlook is growing. This will ultimately fuel the far-right.
And so, as experts highlight the massive blows due to the incompetence of far-right populists, I want to direct attention to the growing fear of the “Other” whether seemingly connected to the pandemic or not. Secondly, I also want to express the words of Cas Mudde, a political scientist focusing on populism in Europe. “Trump is the exception but not the rule.” Coming to generalize the far-right on the incompetence of Trump’s clear mishandling of the pandemic fails to show the nationalist element of the far-right. In Europe, there is a different story.
Ignacio Garriga, the regional candidate of Catalonia for Spain’s far-right Vox, was a vocal critic against Salvador Illa, of the Socialist Party, for his mismanagement and failure to deal with COVID. Illa had resigned as health minister, and from the weaponizing of the pandemic, Garriga had made a new move for Vox into Catalonia’s parliament securing eleven seats in the recent election. Previously, the party had no hold in their government. Vox’s support has come from pandemic burnout. Not only in Catalonia but also in France can we see the far-right Marine Le Pen’s popularity soar in the pandemic, now on par with Macron in voter support.
While some far-right falter, others take the mantle and strive. In the short-term, there are sacrifices, but in the long-term, COVID is bound to bring about further economic recession and a greater anti-immigrant outlook, policies that the far-right easily weaponize. For that, I think we may soon need to address the second wave that is the far-right not so long after surpassing the waves of COVID.