24. Aug 2020 - Raul Cârstocea

The dynamics of responses to the current global pandemic have emphasized the importance of the national. Despite the apparent paradox of trying to contain a virus that knows no borders – its rapid spread from a clear point of origin to even the most remote locations has demonstrated the extent of today’s global interconnectedness – responses to it have been primarily national and, consequently, widely varied. This may be unsurprising to a student of nationalism, one usually sceptical of early twenty-first century narratives positing its decline and who is instead convinced of its growing infrastructural importance. The accounts of various national responses to the crisis, including some contained within this very blog, tend however to obscure developments that occur on different scales. One such scale that made a return in the context of the uneven spread of the virus in Europe was the macro-regional one, whereby ‘Eastern Europe’ became an alternative unit of analysis. The region’s relative (early) success in limiting the number of infections prompted those who commented to point at various factors, from socialist legacies, through the BCG tuberculosis vaccine common in the former socialist bloc, to poverty and continuing structural inequalities within the EU. Regarding the latter, and less speculatively, we have the story of precarious Eastern European seasonal workers embarking on chartered flights and trains that crossed otherwise tightly-sealed borders to tend to Europe’s rich: for example, picking asparagus in Germany (and strawberries in the UK or grapes in France) or providing essential health care to the elderly in Austria, while risking their lives in the process. This exposes the inconsistencies in EU legislation on the equal treatment of labour and hints instead to a political economy (still) fundamentally structured by nationality.

What these stories have in common is a reliance on easily recognizable conceptual containers, whether they be ‘the nation’ or ‘Eastern Europe’. What they mostly ignore are sub-national dynamics, patterns of inequality reproduced within countries, which are structured by class as much as race, gender, or locality. While certainly ‘local’ in their articulation, these are nevertheless very much a global phenomenon. It is along these lines that I believe thinking in terms of scale can make a contribution to the discussion, and this is the reason why I have chosen to focus on a pattern that is simultaneously sub-national and transnational, age-old yet differently articulated in different spatial and temporal contexts, transcending ‘East’ and ‘West’ while pointing to their uneven development: the scapegoating of ‘minorities’ in response to epidemics.

The choice of a scapegoat could draw on patterns of pre-existing prejudice and exclusion, as the stories of the persecution and mass murder of Jews in the wake of epidemics show, ranging from the Black Death to the nineteenth century outbreaks of cholera and twentieth century typhus. The latter sparked that most infamous association of a minority group with disease, the Nazi notion of typhus as Judenfieber, and acted as one of the justifications for the Holocaust. Antedated by a similar rationale held by Turkish physicians in the Armenian genocide and drawing on the medicalization of racism in the late nineteenth century, such notions enacted the complete dehumanization of the group in question, rendering them no longer a conspiring human agent to be expelled beyond the walls of the community, but a parasite that could be exterminated. Far from being confined to Nazi Germany during the interwar period, such biopolitical notions were popular in interwar Eastern Europe and beyond. They could be found in the context of nation-building projects that emphasized the ‘purity’ of the national body, deemed to be under threat from alleged ‘plagues’ such as Jews or Roma (who were themselves lumped together with criminals and other ‘deviants’). Even where the medical profession did not share such racial fantasies, as Diana Dumitru shows for the case of wartime Romania, their proliferation was influential enough to prompt genocide.

Lest we reassuringly consign such vile racism to the past, evidence points to a global rise in antisemitism in association with the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, with explicit references to the Holocaust in Germany, the blood libel rhetoric employed by President Donald Trump and portrayals of Jews as rats who are the “real plague” by lockdown protesters in the USA. Extreme right groups across the world view the pandemic as an opportunity for civilizational collapse, displaying an accelerationist drive toward a ‘race war’ that would lead to a ‘new order’. Such rhetoric is grounded in a temporality that is all too familiar from the history of interwar fascist movements, with the acceleration of time toward a watershed moment that would bring about a redemptive future of fascist making.

Jews are by no means the only group who were scapegoated in association with the current pandemic. In Eastern Europe, the predilect target of hate speech in the context of the pandemic have been the Roma. As has been extensively documented already, there has been widespread abuse and disproportionate use of force by the authorities enforcing the lockdown. A proliferation of hate speech in the mainstream press or by prominent intellectuals, which add to long-established stigmatization identifying Roma as “beggars, drug dealers and prostitutes”, has been evident across the region. In Romania, some of the statements on social media explicitly invoked the Holocaust (“until we’re able to gas them like the Nazis, the Roma will infect the nation”) or expressed appreciation for Romania’s wartime dictator, Ion Antonescu, lamenting that the Second World War fascist regimes “didn’t finish the job”. The use of such rhetoric appears all the more tragic when directed against one of the most marginalized groups in present-day Europe, not just in the East, but also in Spain, Ireland, Italy, or France. Moreover, this is a group that is particularly vulnerable to the pandemic, not least due to its marginalization. While none of the racist content is genuinely new, and the pandemic seems to exacerbate ‘pre-existing conditions’ more than generate new ones in this respect, it acquires more salience in a context where reports indicate that racism and discrimination contributed to disproportionate fatalities among other marginalized minorities, such as persons belonging to BAME groups in the UK.

If anti-Roma racism is certainly not exclusive to Eastern Europe and if the scapegoating of marginalized groups is a global phenomenon, is there anything specifically ‘Eastern European’ to this regional instantiation? For one, its ubiquity across the region is certainly striking; while most of the reports focused on the EU member states in the region, a study I am currently undertaking in seven non-EU countries in Eastern Europe and as a partnership between the University of Leicester and the European Centre for Minority Issues is returning similar results. Romaphobia appears to have replaced antisemitism as the dominant exclusionary discourse and form of hate speech in the region and, in this respect, even when present in Western Europe, it certainly seems to lack the pervasiveness and ‘mainstream’ character of the Eastern counterpart (Islamophobia arguably performs a similar function in ‘the West’). If this is the case, the explanation could lie, I think, with the vagaries of neoliberalism and Eastern Europe’s second-class status within the EU’s profoundly unequal project.

The red line that connects the stories of precarious Romanian asparagus-pickers in Germany and vulnerable Roma communities in Romania is one of marginality and exclusion, of expendable lives and convenient scapegoats, where race and class are mutually imbricated and played out on different scales, from the local, through the regional, to the global. The prime minister of North Rhine-Westfalia, Armin Laschet, recently ascribed a coronavirus outbreak to Romanian and Bulgarian precarious workers entering Germany. In turn, Romanians deflected their anxieties of contamination from the returning diaspora – with evidence pointing out that the virus was indeed ‘imported’ by returning Romanians, particularly from North Italy – onto one, ethnically-identified group of returnees. As such, stories of ‘modern slavery’ in German slaughterhouses bring to mind the modern slavery in which the marginalization of the Roma is grounded. For a historian of Eastern Europe, such stories recall ‘nesting Orientalisms’ in response to an acutely-resented regional peripheral status. On a global scale, the scapegoating of marginalized groups erodes solidarity and displaces anxieties about one of the most salient issues of our times: rising inequality. In this sense, as the text in a piece of graffiti in Toronto bluntly put it: “Corona is the virus. Capitalism is the pandemic”.

There is, however, an alternative. The prominent historian of pandemics, Samuel K. Cohn, showed in his comprehensive global history of 2,600 years of societal reactions to epidemics that even though disease often provoked class hatred, blaming of the ‘Other’ or victimizations of those afflicted, and occasionally led to violence against vulnerable groups, epidemics also had the “remarkable power to unify societies across class, race, ethnicity, and religion, spurring self-sacrifice and compassion”, and prompted improvements of the medical assistance offered to the poor. Contrary to popular belief, modernity made things worse, cementing the “disease-hate nexus” and escalating it to the point of genocide, rather than dissipating it through scientific discovery of the causes of epidemics. Nonetheless, there were also instances – such as the Spanish Flu of 1918–1920, the subject of many comparisons and analogies today – that resulted in an increase in solidarity, charity, and tolerance in response to the epidemic. As other historical examples show, the aftermath of pandemics could see a shift in the balance between labour and capital, empowering (scarcer) workers and peasants and reducing inequality. In the current context, the global reach of the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement – even as the escalation of the response to it is making some experts reconsider their stance on fascism in the USA – offers some hope that the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic will see not a descent into hatred and violence, but rather an increase in social justice. Driven also by the ‘discovery’ of the ‘essential workers’ and their fundamental role in the capitalist economy, as well as legitimate rage at their blatant expendability, the key to a more optimistic way out of the current crisis seems to me to lie squarely with solidarity. Undermined by neoliberal capitalism and rendered precarious, solidarity still holds the potential – I hope – to be its gravedigger, if it can be recognized in a global, post-colonial dimension that cuts across class, race, gender, religion, ethnicity, etc. The outcome, however, is not up to some impersonal forces – with ‘invisible enemies’ being rather the province of hatemongers – but to our everyday individual choices and actions. These would do well to be informed by awareness of the various scales at, and between which exclusion operates, articulated differently yet firmly embedded everywhere in the global logic of capital and its uneven deployment. With this pandemic, we are in unchartered territory. Returning to the more familiar system that breeds inequality and exploitation, to ‘national’ responses and the blaming of ‘others’, to East/West binaries and their underlying civilizational assumptions, would be tragic indeed. 

About the author

Raul Cârstocea is Lecturer in Modern European History at the University of Leicester, UK

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