Not only viruses mutate. If the new strain of Covid-19, discovered by some fluke in the United Kingdom, has sent the number of cases soaring and once again has the healthcare systems not only of that country but of a great part of the West, up against the wall, our societies look on in impotence as the successive strains of the crisis emerge: from a crisis in healthcare to one in economic and social terms. And, confronted with the risk that social malaise will spread, it cannot be ruled out that the next mutation will wind up in a democratic crisis. There are already some signs of this happening.
When the world approaches a death toll of two million due to the pandemic and the daily number of new cases has multiplied by three since the end of the summer, the programme of mass vaccinations, which is supposed to be the beginning of the solution to all our problems, is moving at an exasperatingly slow rate, with some exceptions, in practically all countries, Confidence has begun to erode in the idea that 2021 is to be the year of recovery, thanks to the development in record time of the different vaccines against Covid-19 and the fiscal stimulus programmes which were approved—some of them historic like that of the EU. And we are only midway through January.
In Spain, where the INE (National Institute of Statistics) recorded a rise of more than 80,000 over the number of deceased in 2020 with respect to the average recorded between 2015 and 2019, well above the 52,878 deaths officially attributed to the coronavirus, the Filomena storm-effect has plunged half the country into a new and involuntary lockdown. The dense underbrush in the pandemic landscape grows denser with the daily increase in the number of cases and deaths, and to the citizens’ fatigue can be added a fresh disappointment in the shortcomings of the vaccination campaign on the part of those who govern us.
Once again ideology comes before the need to unite forces and make use of all available resources, public and private, in order to vaccinate as quickly as possible. Once again we look on in perplexity at how the latter passes the buck to the regional governments so that everyone can avoid taking responsibility. Once more the failure of the State system of Communities (regional governments) to deal with a national health emergency is thrown into relief, in the absence of mechansims for solidarity and coordination like those that feature in other federal states such as Germany.
As a result of this confusion in powers and jurisdictions, the way out of our induced economic coma is receding. Nobody believes that 2021 will close with a 9.8% rise in the GNP, as the Government foresees. If, as everything suggests, the goal of attaining herd immunity is delayed until the end of the year, it is unlikely that tourism, which is more than 10% of our economy, will be able to recover. And the zombie firms that are today kept alive on ventilators will soon begin to default and their workers swell the unemployment lines. There is the added risk that the firms´ failure to pay will unleash a financial crisis. 30% of the self-employed (autónomos) recorded losses of more than 30,000 euros in the last year. Salaries, with the exception of those of civil servants, have stagnated and the gap with respect to the lowest paid, made up in their majority of young people and women, continues to grow wider. The risk of social exclusion is on the rise again and it affects 26% of the population (more than 12 million people).
All the data indicate that a social bomb is in the making and it could explode in our faces in a few months’ time. And that is despite the generous cushion afforded us by the European Central Bank, which has bought up 120,000 millions of euros of Spanish debt in 2020 (the equivalent of the Treasury’s net issue for the period), in order to keep almost negative interest rates in place for the emission of State debt and to make sure that credit keeps flowing. And also despite the “doping” measures taken such as the ERTE (Temporary Regulation of Employment Action), which are going to be extended again until May, though with a very insufficient endowment in the recently approved General Budget, or the IMV (Minimum Vital Income), which has grown to cover 20% of the requests for this kind of aid. This is the assisted respiration that the patient needs but it also keep us from recognizing the dangers ahead.
In a recent report the IMF has analyzed the worsening of inequality and of social unrest in several countries that have been hard hit by different pandemics in recent years (SARS, Ebola or Zika).
The conclusions are worrying. And taking into account the great spread of the coronavirus throughout the world, even more so. Because the social scars that the financial crisis of 2008 to 2013 left in its wake, some of which have still not healed, paved the way for the coming into power of populist movements right and left, some xenophobic and others exaggeratedly nationalist, some tempted to adopt a Perón-style politics by colonizing institutions and in so doing to blur the separation of powers.
One cannot therefore rule out that an aggravation of social malaise might mutate into a crisis in all of the liberal foundations on which advanced democracies rest. The temptation to give simple answers to complex problems, to find a guilty party to divide society over, and to delegitimise institutions is irresistible to some but also gravely irresponsible. The recent assault on the Capitol of the United States is a clear consequence of this.
Although on this occasion all the red lines were crossed, there is nothing new in the strategy: whether it is those from above against those below —Podemos— or the avowed will to disobey laws considered unjust or the Espanya ens roba (Spain is stealing from us) of the Catalan Independence movement, which culminated in the disconnection from legality and the assault on the Catalan Parliament by the CDRs (Committees in Defense of the Republic), egged on by Joaquim Torra, the Take back control of those in favor of Brexit —many of whom are now sorry for their stance—, Trump’s Build a Wall and his refusal to accept the results of the presidential elections, or Vox’s attacks on immigrants, China and the EU or their call to deny the legitimacy of the PSOE-UP government. To all of these populist tendencies, in many cases supported by young people, one must add the disturbing loss of confidence on the part of the younger generations in democratic systems. All of this makes for a dangerous breeding ground.
One hundred years ago the world was rid of the Spanish flu, one of the most lethal pandemics in history. What followed was a decade of vibrant creative activity, an explosion of world money markets, carefree consumption, and advances in individual freedoms. There are those who think that if we manage to vaccinate 70% of the population (achieving herd immunity) before the year is out, something similar might happen. Will it be on time to stop the mutation of the social and economic crisis into a crisis of democratic values? Only time will tell.