by Jesmond Saliba
The Covid-19 epidemic is stoking a fresh sense of nationalism around the world that has gone missing for several generations. The widespread return to identity symbolism and cultural narratives occurred almost automatically: there have been official statements such as monuments lit up in the country’s colours or high-powered addresses by political leaders; there have also been spontaneous gestures like radio stations starting their broadcasting day with the national anthem or people brandishing flags outside their windows and balconies.
The sentiment of nationhood is proving effective in channelling a sense of belonging that communicates both duty and courage at a time when communities feel under attack. But unity against the virus is, at times, also veering off into competition against other countries at a time when international collaboration is critical.
A fiery series of tweets over China’s role in the outbreak grew into a war of words between Thai and Chinese netizens, spilling quickly into hot political territory. Beijing has also been in President Trump’s crosshairs, who persisted in calling the disease the “Chinese Virus”. The US, on its part, has been blamed by Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei for spreading Covid-19 in the middle eastern country.
Not all confrontations have been cross-border, however. Some leaders, typically of the strongman type, exploited the national interest surrounding the Covid-19 to further their plans. Think of Orban’s rule by decree vote in Hungary, Erdogan’s imprisonment of journalists in Turkey, or Bolsonaro’s sacking of his Health Minister in Brazil.
But there is not only conflict and animosity: governments have also used the emergency to galvanise their people and reinforce a national sense of pride – and exert some geopolitical influence in the meantime. Russian troops were ceremoniously deployed to deliver supplies in Milan and New York. Not to be outdone, Albania choreographed a tear-jerking dispatch of 30 doctors to assist in Italian hospitals.
Malta has largely followed the international trend, but, thankfully, the national sense has primarily been a consolidating force. There have been public divergences, of course, with enough arguments to go around political parties, the government, unions and associations. But it has largely all been constructive and temperate.
Now, the migration saga threatens to shatter this civilised conversation and pit rival sections into a contest of who demonstrates the strongest passion for the nation. This is a delicate time to play petty games and attempts at weaponizing the emergencies we are dealing with to trip up long-time opponents are simply shameful.
National unity does not necessarily require consensus, but it does require integrity. For the sake of the nation, we must not allow disagreements to descend into chicanery