More than a billion people are now under confinement. Trade has come to a halt; economies have come to a standstill. To prevent a health threat from turning into a deadly global political crisis, major challenges, both unexpected and significant, will have to be met. Here are seven of them:
- The extraordinary restriction of freedoms that the containment and shutdown of all activities creates a fearful awareness of the seriousness of what is at stake. A moderate use of this scheme can only be recommended. The whole history of mankind reminds us that fear is a bad counsellor and that it can easily outflank its propagators. In this register we will note the usual excesses of demagogues who always demand more. But, in a democracy, is it possible to durably force citizens to stay at home and to give up the first of their freedoms, that of coming and going? By using force?
- The importance taken by the experts undoubtedly reflects the regrettable devaluation of public speech. Relying on them and allowing them to express themselves increases it dangerously. They will soon be divided on diagnosis and remedies; they will soon be overwhelmed by the role of co-responsible people we want them to play. Their opinion must be taken into account among other considerations.
Health is at stake as much as anything else. The responsibility of leaders is often overwhelming. It must be assumed and can, in fact, only be shared with citizens directly.
- The collective guarantee must not exclude individual responsibility. The slogan "the State will pay", which some Europeans very quickly launched, has been countered by a concept that is probably more resilient, involving the community and individuals in safeguarding the economy, trade and our model.
The disempowerment of citizens, the abuse of the right of withdrawal or of the precautionary principle must be avoided at all costs, otherwise a crisis will result in even more social damage.
While it is essential to protect the most exposed, the most fragile and the most vulnerable, others must accept their share of the risk.
Let us always remember that one of the promises - not kept - of totalitarianism has always been mothering as a risk reducer, the abandonment of individual responsibility in the name of the collective interest. We know the outcome: ruin without freedom.
- We are living in a century of emotions. Perhaps we are lacking some and are taking every opportunity to vibrate together for a shared cause. These are always moments of enthusiasm. However, we must beware of excesses that cloud judgment.
With every disaster, citizens are inflamed to celebrate the courage of those on the front lines. After the wave of attacks in 2015 and 2016, our heroes were the forces of law and order; after the Notre Dame fire, it was the firefighters; it is often our military; today it is the medical corps.
These institutions employ exceptional people of skill, courage, self-sacrifice and human qualities. Do we need disasters to realize this and to pay tribute to them?
Our old democracies, which are too often said to be tired, are animated by people who are devoted, admirable, committed to the general interest, and often ready to do anything to help their neighbours. The emotion of a moment should not make us forget this and mask the need to think of ourselves at all times as members and actors of a true community of shared values.
- Values, like viruses, have no passport. The European States, like all the others, wanted to reassure their citizens by closing their borders. This crisis will show that they were wrong and that this has protected them from nothing, not even from their selfishness! This bad move is contrary to the rules and spirit of the European Union.
Nationalist withdrawal, a dream opportunity for demagogues, threatens European integration. Europeans should have developed a concerted response to the virus: containment or not, sharing and pooling of tests and masks, etc. As long as they do not do so, the measures they take will be imperfect. Confining the population here, but not in the neighbour's home, preferring herd immunity there and attacking the virus head on elsewhere, are mistakes which show both the difficulty of our leaders' task and their disarray.
We knew that solidarity between Europeans had regressed, but we did not measure to what extent!
They will need a strong gesture to restore confidence and hope to their fellow citizens: Why not a European Council in vivo on 26 March, with the physical presence of the Heads of State and Government, rather than an unglamorous and probably inconclusive exercise in videoconferencing?
This would make it possible to abandon the enormous diplomatic-technocratic machinery that now comes with these Councils and finally give European leaders the opportunity to consult personally and decide politically together.
It would be a beautiful symbol when we are now being asked to add barriers between people to the walls, fences and barbed wire that are multiplying on the planet.
- This lesson also applies to the G7. The fact that the US President has already decided not to physically welcome his counterparts next June shows how much the United States has given up its leadership and how little importance it attaches to international cooperation. Without it, there is little chance of winning the battle against the virus from China.
Borders will reopen and trade will resume because it is vital for our people. Moreover, the virus will also hit the poorest countries. Only a truly concerted global effort will therefore make it possible to eradicate it by coordinating containment measures, sharing medicines and pooling medical resources.
Europe could take the initiative. This would be in its interest and in line with its values.
- The history of our countries has been marked by the fateful choices made by our leaders, analysed in retrospect without complacency. The extent of the economic and financial crisis, which is now inevitable, depends on the decisions they take in the days ahead. Sooner or later, we will have to start working again and pay the price for the brutal stoppage of production. The slogan "Stay at home" will have to be replaced by the slogan "Let's roll up our sleeves" and involve all the players in the recovery of the European economy, which does not depend solely on the Central Bank, the European Council or the Commission.
The conditions under which we can start working again must not be decided in the same confusion in which we were deprived of them. They must be concerted, at least at continental level and, if possible, beyond. Support measures and recovery plans must complement and not compete with each other.
This time we really must stick together.