by Sue Kenny
2nd December 2020

In the context of our shifting knowledge and experiences of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are struggling with questions of how to stem the spread of the virus and how to make sense of different policy and community reactions. Policy responses have varied between denial of the existence or potency of the virus; providentialism (‘it’s in the hands of fate or God’); moderate restrictions; and the introduction of draconian measures involving harsh lockdowns and suspension of civil liberties. How can we best understand the different responses and how they have affected politics? What are the challenges for community development?

While there is not yet a corpus of scholarly research on the ways in which communities are dealing with COVID-19 encounters, we can identify four dominant narratives underlying the responses. These are: solidarity; fear; authoritarianism; and libertarianism. Solidarity is expressed when people offer to shop for elderly neighbours, when they drop in a note to say hello and when they donate to a foodbank. Solidarity is found in statements of empathy with those in aged care facilities and when community activists organise actions alongside vulnerable communities. Community development, as a way of empowering communities based on the principle of mutuality, is located in the solidarity narrative.

The invisibility of the virus heightens the fear of infection. Fear finds expression in the moral righteousness of those who report suspected transgressors, a righteousness that nurtures solidarity among those obeying the rules, but also undermines community solidarity when it opens up a schism between those who obey and those who don’t. The fear of contagion has led to the closure and policing of physical borders – local, regional and international. Fear also deepens existing distrust of strangers, and this is fodder for xenophobia.

The authoritarian narrative is embedded in the view that the way through the pandemic is strong single-minded direction from those at the apex of state power. It is only ‘at the top’ that people can access all the knowledge available and thus have an overview of events. This overview is necessary for the development of appropriate policies and strategies. To contain the spread of the virus, governments restrict people’s behaviour and movements. To ensure compliance, it is necessary to use coercive force, the police being at the forefront of these.

Libertarianism emphasises individualism, self-reliance and minimal government intervention into people’s lives. One libertarian view is to ignore COVID-19, and in the name of personal autonomy, continue to live life ‘as normal’. Another view focuses on the way in which individual liberties have been eroded through the extension of emergency powers. In its economic variant, the libertarian narrative highlights how the freedom to do business has been curtailed, undermining the economy. In extremis, this position has been articulated through the argument that the economy and the economic prospects for young people should not be sacrificed (through unemployment and restrictions on business) to help those most at risk of dying from COVID-19. The libertarian narrative is also linked to conspiracy theories such as those arguing that COVID-19 is a hoax and those proposing alternative explanations of the phenomenon.

Populism describes both a way of organising politics and a political culture. It constructs a binary social ontology that divides society into ‘us’ – the people – and the elites (and their dependants), and while using the rhetoric of the sovereignty of the people, also validates their anxieties. Populist leaders claim that they are able to speak for the people and solve people’s problems. These themes were clearly evident in the USA under Trump, and in regimes in Brazil, Poland, Italy and the Philippines.

The narratives of fear, solidarity, authoritarianism and libertarianism are well suited to the playbook of populism. In the era of COVID-19, established ways of organising society are disturbed, providing new openings for attacks on established elites. Populist leaders can seize on existing fears, amplify social divisions and validate grievances for the purpose of extending their own solidarities. While solidarity can be positive in volunteer acts, it has a dark side when it is exclusivist in nature, and when it feeds the binary of ‘them and us’ in the wedge politics constructed by populists.

The libertarian narrative is at work when people are ‘freed from the dominance of establishment elites’ which include scientists, academics and mainstream media who reject alternative therapies for dealing with COVID-19. The authoritarian narrative is evident when right-wing populist leaders, such as those in Hungary, Poland and the Philippines, use the control of COVID-19 as a pretext to strengthen their power. Authoritarianism is evident when surveillance and policing are the mechanisms for ensuring compliance with restrictions that have been introduced ‘for the people’s own good’. It might seem that the libertarian and authoritarian narratives are contradictory, yet both are employed by populist leaders, such as when Donald Trump opportunistically championed both law-and-order campaigns and anti-lockdown protests when such actions supported him.

To counter the new incursions of populism, we need to be able to navigate the narratives of fear, authoritarianism and libertarianism. This requires engagement with the different viewpoints in communities and an awareness of the concerns and hopes of members. Understanding the narratives also requires acknowledging the bases of grievances, while at the same time following the Freirean tradition in community development; it involves reframing the ways in which experiences and issues are understood.

The disruption of established ways of organising society resulting from COVID-19 not only means opening up new fronts for populism; it also provides opportunities for resetting agendas around cooperative and green programmes, social and ecological justice, and rethinking and restructuring ‘work’. As those committed to community development endeavours, we have an important part to play in these agendas, encouraging informed and critical debate and highlighting the knowledge, skills and resources that exist in communities. There are already thousands of (mainly) small-scale initiatives that provide exemplars of different ways of living our lives.

Insofar as citizens are fearful of strangers, withdraw from engagement with their communities, passively accept orders from those in power, or dismiss expert advice out of hand, they sabotage the active citizenship that is necessary for a robust civil society. A robust civil society is both a key bulwark against populism and an indispensability for ensuring participation, ownership and buy-in regarding strategies for dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. Civil society might well be the main instrument for ensuring a green, cooperative future. As a matter of urgency, we need to strengthen the processes of civil society and the role of community development within these processes.

Sue Kenny is Emeritus Professor in the Faculty of Arts and Education at Deakin University.

Populism, Democracy and Community Development edited by Sue Kenny, Jim Ife and Peter Westoby is available on the Policy Press website. Order here for £23.99.

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