Dr Owain Williams By: Dr Owain Williams
Lecturer in IR and Human Security
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04 Jun 2020 : Further Unraveling, in the USA and Elsewhere

This whole week has seen the USA teetering on the brink of real social and political collapse, with the POTUS having invoked the need for a military presence on the streets, measures way beyond that of the deployment of the National Guard. This week has not been normal by any stretch of the imagination. The are multiple news channels carrying images of military assets rolling through the city streets of Washington; heavily armoured men with no insignias patrolling national monuments and choke points; and Black Hawk helicopters being used to disperse protestors. The murder of George Floyd has brought people out to the streets of multiple cities in their tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, all angry and seeking justice. Racism is at the heart of it all, so embedded in the USA as it is in many Western states. The USA has reached boiling point and anger has been stoked by Trump who is already cornered and on his way out. He is reacting with more authoritarianism and racism and not with solace or solicitation, doubling down as he is want and in manner that further exposes his inadequacies and core values.

There are multiple curfews in many cities, all either being ignored by protesters or the gendarmerie who are attacking routinely before deadlines are reached. The response to many of the peaceful protests has been brutal, and there are multiple instances of the press being targeted across the country by riot police. Even people kneeling have been sprayed with tear gas or shot at with rubber bullets. This is all been carried live on TV across the world. The area close to the White House was cleared of peaceful protesters one evening this week before the curfew time, all so Trump and a coterie including the Secretary of Defense could proceed to a photo opportunity outside the Episcopalian Church used for services by successive Presidents. He posed with a bible.

In one Guardian piece this week the analysis is that Trump has now descended to the ‘mad emperor stage’. In past post I cited The Atlantic piece carried way back in March that predicted exactly this mental and political trajectory with regard to the POTUS. The article looked not just to his inadequacies with regard to listening to others or command of detail, but also to how his inflated opinion of his own powers would collide with the realities of what was happening with COVID, his failures leading to cognitive displacement and his own unravelling. It seems to be playing out over the present crisis that has coalesced around the most recent example of structural racism in the USA. His deeply flawed psyche means he cannot back down, and the knowledge of his evident political demise and exposure as a charlatan adds to the multiplying sense of him wildly lashing out and reaching for means to consolidate his power. Where is the art of the deal this week?

This has all led to an abuse of power and the military presence within the USA. The POTUS is dissolving and so are many of the givens of the US polity and constitution, including the relationship between present governance and the obstacles posed in the constitution to a garrison state. While the US has already been poised at a major turning point in its history this week, how much more social, political and constitutional damage will he do to his country in what are surely the last months of his presidency? I am not the only one to be asking what he will do if he loses in November?

Many are asking for him to be removed from office, and now. Article 25 of the constitution is again being suggested as a means of toppling an unfit president. GOP Senators have remained stony silent on his fitness for power and the handling of events this week. At the same time, church leaders, former presidents, former joint chiefs of staff,  foreign leaders and the global press, all react with disbelief and anger to what Trump is promoting in terms of an aggressive militarised response to protests and rioting. Other Senators and Congress people are openly calling him a dictator, and the much over-used epithet of fascism is being applied to what is emerging. Things are very grave in the USA.

I terms of COVID in the USA, all this chaos and social protest signals much of an end to any shred of control of the pandemic. Many of the protesters are wearing masks, but many are not. Although the reaction to racism is completely understandable, these events really all mean that the USA will have another huge spike in new infections in coming weeks. It is a future disaster that will only increase the sense of political failure of the Trump administration. The CDC and public health advisors are also now removed from the chaotic governance of opening up and pandemic control. Fauci admits on radio that he has not spoken to Trump in over two weeks. The country is visibly unravelling with the President, and it is as if the pandemic has been forgotten by everyone, all with over 1.8 million infections.

In Brazil, the home of another unravelling authoritarian political leader, the death toll, at least the official one, has now passed 31,000 people. The effects on the poor are very evident, with favelas carrying much of the burden as was perfectly predictable. In one piece in The Economist these effects are traced in Paraisopolis the huge shanty on the southern edge of Sao Paulo . The virus is hitting hard and fast in overcrowded homes. Bolsonaro states publicly in a mask this week, ‘I regret each of the deaths, but that is everyone’s destiny’. He also again attacks the ‘tyranny of quarantine’, targeting those city mayors and provincial governors still trying to mitigate the spread of COVID. This is another leader who has on more than one occasion raised his own preference for a return to military dictatorship. In Brazil this week there were 151,600 new cases of COVID.

Brazil still has no Minister of Health, the last one long gone over the President’s insistence on the use of Hydroxychloroquinine as a treatment for COVID cases. In early June Trump signed an order to send 2 million doses of Hydroxy to Brazil – a gift of aid as it were to a fellow traveller – and it continues to be used as a standard treatment in that country despite WHO, France and other current trails citing its complete failure and inherent dangers for patients. The international relations of deluded denialism are playing out here. Peru, Mexico, and Chile are also in real trouble, all with political leaderships masking the extent of their respective national crises.

On June 1st India became the 7th most COVID affected nation, with a one-day spike of 8,700 new infections. The BJP is claiming that its response has been the ‘best in the world’. The economy is reopening after 4 extensions of the initial lockdown that started so disastrously. all while India’s trajectory is arcing rapidly upwards. The lockdown is now being constructed as having failed there, and in many senses this is true, not least in terms of the ongoing status of many of the thousands of stranded migrant workers or the failure to support those reliant on daily wages or engaged in the informal sector. Throughout the last months the Indian government has been plagued by mixed messaging on COVID and the need for lockdown, and we are presently seeing the same debate and blurry conditionalities play out as in the UK with regard to planned school reopening in India in mid-June, or the hundreds of thousands of university exams that are about to start in the country with physical presence of students still being required.

Mumbai is a huge city in the state of Maharashtra with an overall population of 112 million people. It has been India’s epicentre for many weeks. The government of Maharashtra is also flailing. Hospitals in the city are massively overloaded, with staff unable to remove dead bodies from wards and corridors, many patients two to a bed with others suffering from the virus. An emergency team of medical staff is drafted in from Kerala, a small and poorer state that has handled the epidemic very well. In Mumbai large amounts of private hospitals are closed for business, and beds have been left empty, capacities unused. Health governance and political leadership has failed.

Amid this, the government of Maharashtra started criminal investigations of a TV station for broadcasting on the crisis in hospitals and the chaotic responses by the state government to what had unfolded. Social media posts that carry criticism and false reporting are also being investigated. Official counts detail a total of 77,000 cases in the state, and Mumbai is seeing over 1,000 cases per day this week. New Delhi is catching up fast, as are other major Indian cities and states. How will Modi and the BJP respond as a failure of governance also becomes apparent in coming weeks?

All this is depressing. I find myself this week just plodding around feeling amazed at the scale of stupidity and inequality. How did we get to this?

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