The ‘other’ in a time of a crisis: Europe’s Populist Radical Right Response to Covid-19

Almost four months after the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in China, we can state with confidence that coronavirus pandemic has the potential to radically change the world and society that we live in. As part of mainstream narratives on the consequences of the pandemic has been the idea that globalisation will be reversed, and that populism will decline, a prediction that empirically appears to be relatively hopeful at best and complacent at worst.

On the contrary, events so far appoints populism just as resilient under the coronavirus pandemic crisis. Populist radical right representatives, such as PVV in the Netherlands, have been arguing and criticising the government there for not responding instantly to the emergence of the virus and delaying to take the appropriate measures to minimise the spread and the threat. In the meantime in Hungary, Viktor Orban, known for his anti-immigration stance (e.g. the introduction of the legislation that criminalises helping undocumented migrants), managed to get a two-thirds parliamentary majority that allows him to rule by decree indefinitely and without any parliamentary oversight, as a necessary response against COVID-19. On the other hand, populist leaders across the globe, from Boris Johnson to President Ovador in Mexico, and from Donald Trump to Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, have insisted for a long time to refuse the reality about the threat and aggressiveness posed by COVID-19, engaging in conspiracy theories that challenge the existence of the virus, spreading fear and failing to respond effectively in times such crisis.

However, as Thomas Haldenwang, president of Germany’s Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution argued in an interview, the radical right is tooling up COVID-19 as part of their discourse, as a reason to undermine confidence in the federal government, spread conspiracy theories and stigmatise and brand migrants as carriers of the virus.

Even from the first days of the virus, an emerging xenophobic rhetoric started to gain ground worldwide. From France, and Le Courrier Picard (with headlines like “Alerte jaune” (Yellow alert) and “Le péril jaune?” (The yellow peril?), accompanied by a photo of a Chinese woman wearing a protective mask), to President Donald Trump frequently references to the coronavirus as the “Chinese virus” and Japan’s #ChineseDontComeToJapan on Twitter, the number of incidents and cases of xenophobia and racism related to the coronavirus pandemic are increasing by the day.

The ‘other’ is once more the centre of the discourse, however, this time in a form of a foreign, unseen and mobile disease. For example, when responding to the COVID-19 outbreak in Italy, Matteo Salvini, former deputy prime minister and leader of Lega, politicised the coronavirus and attacked the Italian government for not defending the country’s borders. Similarly, to Salvini, what appears to be the argument, for several representatives of the radical right is an attempt to blame migrants, and loosen borders, along with a blaming of cosmopolitan globalisation for the spread of the coronavirus. It is in this case that they try to take advantage of the situation and force the debate on general border closings, connecting coronavirus crisis with the refugee crisis and abusing the pandemic to refuse to accept refugees in emergency situations. In addition, another argument also starts to be formed around the exploitation of the welfare state by foreigners. These urgent conditions and the need for support and healthcare fuels people’s fear. Following the pattern where, in times of crisis, in this case of health, welfare and economy, the radical right places the ‘other’/migrant in the centre of the discourse in limiting the ability of ‘native’ citizens to get the help they need.

Although the number of violent and xenophobic incidents appear to be decreasing, due to rising information and enforcement around COVID-19, what is quite clear is that despite the expectation of decreasing populism, or drowning out of radical right arguments during the crisis, the signs point to a fertile ground for new opportunities of an excluding discourse developed by radical right. This is likely to become increasingly salient as we exit the pandemic – with economic dislocation and lingering fears about a second wave of infections fuelling xenophobic anxieties and sentiments going forward.

Dr Vasiliki Tsagkroni is a Senior Fellow at CARR and Lecturer of Comparative Politics at Institute of Political Science, Leiden University See their profile here.

© Vasiliki Tsagkroni.  Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).