Covid-19 Can Change International Politics Forever

(AP Photo / Evan Vucci)

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Don’t take it personally. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a friend or a stranger. I don’t care about your identity or your politics, where you work or if you work, whether you wear a mask or carry a gun.

I don’t trust you because you are, for the time being, a potential carrier of a deadly virus. You don’t have any symptoms? Maybe you’re an asymptomatic superspreader. Show me your negative test results and I’ll still have my doubts. I have no idea what you’ve been up to between taking the test and receiving the results. And can we really trust that the test is accurate?

Frankly, you shouldn’t trust me for the same reasons. I’m not even sure that I can trust myself. Didn’t I just touch my face at the supermarket after palpating the avocados?

I’m learning to live with this mistrust. I’m keeping my distance from other people. I’m wearing my mask. I’m washing my hands. I’m staying far away from bars.

I’m not sure, however, that society can live with this level. Let’s face it: Trust makes the world go around. Protests break out when our faith in people or institutions is violated: when we can’t trust the police (#BlackLivesMatter), can’t trust male colleagues (#MeToo), can’t trust the economic system to operate with a modicum of fairness (#OccupyWallStreet), or can’t trust our government to do, well, anything properly (#notmypresident).

Now, throw a silent, hidden killer into this combustible mix of mistrust, anger, and dismay. It’s enough to tear a country apart, to set neighbor against neighbor and governor against governor, to precipitate a civil war between the masked and the unmasked.

Such problems only multiply at the global level where mistrust already permeates the system—military conflicts, trade wars, tussles over migration and corruption. Of course, there’s also been enough trust to keep the global economy going, diplomats negotiating, international organizations functioning, and the planet from spinning out of control. But the pandemic may just tip this known world off its axis.

Current Issue

I’m well aware of the ongoing debate between the “not much” and “everything” factions. Once a vaccine knocks it out of our system, the coronavirus might not have much lasting effect on our world. Even without a vaccine, people can’t wait to get back to normal life by jumping into pools, heading to the movie theater, attending parties—even in the United States where cases continue to rise dramatically. The flu epidemic of 1918-19, which is believed to have killed at least 50 million people, didn’t fundamentally change everyday life, aside from giving a boost to both alternative and socialized medicine. That flu passed out of mind and into history and so, of course, might Covid-19.


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