What strikes you when you view this crisis from the perspective of your field?
“Two things. Only now do I see some interest gradually developing for how the situation is unfurling in non-Western countries. I’ve lived and worked in India and Tanzania. The first thing I remember thinking when reports of the virus there came in was: there’s no way they can keep the major cities there in lockdown. There are so many day labourers who depend on work. They can survive one or two days without wages, but by the third day, you can bet they’ll be venturing out to find food, drink or work. It’s imaginable that by the time we’re returning to the 1.5-metre society, the situation will actually be at its worst in countries like India. This is very troubling. Not just for the local economy, but also for the international economy.
“I also found the urgency with which countries worked to repatriate their own citizens and close their borders quite fascinating. I get that from the perspective of an individual country, you want to have as little migration and contact between people as possible. But people don’t just move between countries, but above all within countries. For example, we’ve never said: Noord-Brabant is the hotspot of this outbreak, so let’s cancel all trains running from and to Brabant. In China, they did follow this tactic. I don’t know which approach is better or worse, but I was fascinated by the rhetoric surrounding national boundaries.”
Do you have an explanation for this rhetoric?
“States are very powerful actors, and they have a natural tendency, and moral duty, to protect and repatriate their citizens. Indeed, you can’t predict how other countries will be dealing with their corona hotspots. But we also have students in Canada, and they actually may be safer there than in Noord-Brabant. The university has called back all our students, in part from this kind of idea of family: get everyone under your wings; take care of your own. But wouldn’t people be safer in Toronto than in Den Bosch? This point isn’t even raised.
“Secondly, a number of right-wing populist parties have always been fascinated with opening and closing national borders. And now, their idea is: this virus is an outside threat, so if we close our borders, we can keep the virus out. This is slightly naive, of course. But sentiments like these have definitely played a role.”
Are there differences in how individual countries have decided to combat the virus?
“You can see very big differences. A number of dictators in Eastern Europe have their own ideas and are in the denial phase. But the Americans are still rather nonchalant about the outbreak too. They think that if they ride it out long enough, the level of immunity in their society will increase to the point where the problem simply goes away. For example, it’s still quite easy to travel within the US – particularly by car or coach. That’s almost unfathomable if you consider how quickly the disease is spreading.”
What’s the explanation for these differences?
“I think that in America’s case, it above all has to do with leadership. Trump and a number of people in his circle are obviously uses to approach matters from their former roles as businessmen. Using your own common sense when you think about a problem, and go your own way when it comes to solutions – even if people advise against it. In countries like the Netherlands and Germany, we tend to pay a bit more attention to what the experts are saying, and heed their advice – even if we don’t like it.
“I see Trump as a car salesman who thinks he knows better than the other car salesmen and ends the discussion by banging his gavel and saying: ‘This is how we’ll be doing things. I heard what you said, but I’m doing it my way.’ Trump says: ‘No one’s allowed to shake hands anymore, but I’ll do it anyway because that’s what presidents do.’ It’s an approach to leadership that I would find difficult to accept as a citizen.”
We can also see marked differences in Western Europe. Between countries in the Northwest and those in the South, for instance. Does this have to do with national identity?
“I think these differences have less to do with culture or identity than with history. Until the 1970s, countries like Greece, Portugal and Spain were still dictatorships. From a historical perspective, these countries became modern democracies only fairly recently. At the time, they were also a lot poorer than the countries to the north. Thanks to the European Union, among other things, these countries have come closer together. But we can still see significant economic and cultural differences between the north and the south.
“Southern Europe is poorer, so it stands to reason that this region is hit harder by the pandemic, because a number of matters are less well arranged than in the north. The national budget, for instance, but also access to healthcare. These are disparities between the north and the south; rich and poor. The disease may appear neutral in principle – everyone can catch the coronavirus. But ultimately, this isn’t the case. The most vulnerable members of our society are hit harder than others. You not only see this within countries, but also within Europe as a whole.”
You pointed out that only recently did people in the West start paying attention to non-Western countries. Did this surprise you?
“No, it didn’t. People always pay far more attention to developments close to home. Which makes sense. But people here were in a panic too – meaning that there is even more of an inward focus than usual. You could see people entering a kind of survival mode. It happened to me too – because if I need to have my online lectures finished by Monday, I’ll be paying a bit less attention to my kids over the weekend. And the same applies to states. Let’s first debate how we’ll be tackling this problem in our own country, and then start looking out again. Which is understandable, but also naïve, and a wasted opportunity. Because parts of Africa and Asia are looking towards a very uncertain future. And we’ll have to start thinking about this at some point.”
Will this crisis also be affecting relationships between countries?
“I think this is one of those moments when we realise that our planet is quite small and that we live a lot closer together than we occasionally think. For example, a share of our population feels far less urgency when it comes to our environment or the ozone layer than they do with this outbreak. This crisis shows that we have a lot more in common than we tend to assume. And I hope – and expect, to be honest – that one of the consequences of this situation is that as countries, we start sharing a lot more best practices rather than keep trying to re-invent the wheel by ourselves.
“Another very interesting development in this context is China’s position. They’ve offered their help to Italy and other Western countries. For a long time, we were the ones who did this, as the West, and now we’re forced to accept help from others. As we did, fortunately – but it does highlight the changing relationships in the world. America didn’t come to Europe’s aid.”
So is this crisis also blurring the boundaries of national identity, since countries are helping each other in response?
“That would be great, but I’m afraid that it’s wishful thinking. I don’t know which deals this assistance was based on. Similarly to how in the past, we didn’t just help non-Western countries out of charity or to merely feel good about ourselves. You can be certain that China’s help came with strings attached. I don’t know what went on behind the scenes. But at the end of the day, there will have been some hard bargaining. This goodwill needs to pay off. At some point, the Chinese will be saying: ‘We helped you out two or three times – now it’s time for you guys to do your bit. These things are never completely neutral. It’s a good example of the changing relationships across the world, though.
“But I’m not a prophet and I don’t have the gift of foresight. Which is also what makes this so interesting. Historians are always saying that when history is in the making, this sets developments in motion that also enable change. We’ll be seeing the same thing in the case of the coronavirus. We need to wait and see which shape these change will take. But right now, we’re in the momentum.”
Professor Gijsbert Oonk (1966) is historian and an alumnus of Erasmus University. He was conferred a doctorate for his research into entrepreneurs in the Indian cotton industry. Since 1 September 2018, Oonk has held the endowed chair in Europe in Globalizing World: Migration, Citizenship and Identity. In addition, he serves as the director of the Sport and Nation research programme at Erasmus University. This interdisciplinary programme focuses on talented athletes from a migration background within football and the Olympic Games in the context of changing aspects of citizenship, nationality and elite migration.