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  • Brendan Shaw

Are we all in this together?: individualism, collectivism and post-COVID politics in 2022

Updated: Dec 13, 2022

Brendan Shaw

“The importance of competent government is perhaps the most important of the many painful lessons that are being learned during the pandemic.”

- Prof Elizabeth Fisher & Prof Sidney A. Shapiro. 2021. “Covid 19 and Competent Government

As 2022 comes to a close, one of the key political issues confronting many countries is the extent to which governments should intervene and control peoples’ individual liberty for the broader common collective good.

In the first full year since humanity has started to move on from COVID-19, politics around the world has been upended by the aftereffects of the pandemic, which has triggering debates about individualism versus collectivism.

One of the key issues in politics right now is the balance between on one hand individuals having the freedom to do what they like and make their own decisions, and on the other hand active collective action by governments to protect the economy and society. Along with other fault lines like globalisation vs de-globalisation, the ‘anywheres’ vs the ‘somewheres’, and environment vs development, it is one of the major issues societies are working through after the pandemic.

Individualism, collectivism and pandemics After the last few years of lockdowns, travel bans, border closures, mandatory quarantine and isolation, mask mandates, vaccine mandates and mass vaccination programs, societies in many countries are giving their verdicts on government action on behalf of the perceived collective good versus individuals exercising their freedom to do what they want.

The history of pandemics and humanity is littered with examples of governments imposing restrictions on economies and societies in an effort to stop pandemics.

For example, when the ‘Great Plague’ swept through England in 1665, the residents of London were asked through government directives to kill all cats and dogs and fill the rooms of the dying with tobacco smoke. (Unfortunately, not only did the smoke tend to suffocate the patients, but the absence of cats and dogs led to a proliferation of rats – the ultimate carriers of the bacteria-ridden fleas that spread the Plague).

Even the word ‘quarantine’ itself comes from the old Venetian terms ‘quaranta giorni’, ‘quarantena’ or ‘quarantaine’ describing the 40 days of isolation imposed by the Venetian government on incoming trading ships in the 14th and 15th centuries to stop the spread of the ‘Black Death’ plague.

However, this COVID-19 pandemic is the first pandemic in human history where humans have been able to develop highly effective vaccines against the disease within 12 months of discovering and identifying the virus. This created all sorts of opportunities for societies to potentially protect themselves, but also challenges for governments trying to encourage, convince and cajole their countries’ populations to get vaccinated. Similarly, to varying degrees science has informed various other pandemic control measures instituted by governments.

This juggling act hasn’t been without controversy. Pandemic management tools have tested the patience of people and populations around the world, in circumstances where governments have chosen to use, or not to use, such tools.

Throughout the pandemic we saw these contrasting perspectives play out, from the community collectivism demonstrated by clapping for frontline health workers and statements of ‘we’re all in this together’ to ‘freedom’ and anti-vaccination mandate protests around the world.

This year, 2022, was the first full post-pandemic year where people were mostly allowed out again and got to cast their verdict on what they thought of all this.

Politics and 2022

So, in this post-pandemic contest of ideas about people acting together for the collective good versus people struggling to protect their liberty and freedom, what happened in the politics of some countries in 2022?

· Australia

Australia had its first national election since the pandemic in May and the ruling Liberal-National Coalition conservative government was defeated by the opposition centre-left Australian Labor Party. The opposition ALP, led by now Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, ran on a platform of competence and integrity in government, critiquing the former government’s handling of the pandemic, and campaigning for stronger action on climate change. Labor won, but a strong showing by similarly leaning independents and Green parties also pushed these campaign issues. Another issue through the campaign was the role of women in Australian society, with a widely held perception that the ruling Coalition government and former Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, had an ongoing ‘women problem’.

· Brazil

In October, right wing Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro lost in his attempt to be re-elected against returning President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Bolsonaro had spent much of the last few years refusing to act medical advice in managing the pandemic to protect individual freedom – losing several health ministers in the process. He achieved world condemnation for opposing lockdowns and social distancing. He even complained that COVID-19 was just “a little flu” that people shouldn’t worry about, this in a country which had the second highest COVID death toll. Lula, in contrast, campaigned on government competence, Bolsonaro’s mistakes in government and doing things for the collective good of all Brazilian people.

· China

This year, 2022, finished with China, under President Xi Jinping, finally starting to ease restrictions in its ‘COVID-zero’ policy after protests in various Chinese cities. For three years since the first outbreaks of COVID in Wuhan in late 2019, China has maintained a strict policy of large and long lockdowns, widespread mandatory testing and isolation and other restrictions. This was often done on the back of even relatively small numbers of reported COVID cases. China maintained such restrictions long after many other countries started opening up again in 2022 on the back of good management or just sheer community exhaustion. For several years, the Chinese people engaged and largely supported this process, however the ongoing lockdowns took their toll. Many cities in China saw extensive lockdowns through 2022. Within weeks of Xi securing an unprecedented third term as President in October’s National People’s Congress, protests against continuing lockdowns broke out in multiple cities. While small, these were seen as significant in a country like China with its one-party communist government.

· France

France’s presidential election in April saw French President, Emanuel Macron of La République en Marche face off against right-wing Marie Le Pen of National Rally. Macron was re-elected – the first time a French president has won re-election from office in 20 years. His campaign was a centrist campaign focussed on an open future for France in a global world against Le Pen who campaigned heavily against immigration, supported a ban on Muslim women wearing headscarves and on the advantages for traditional French values. She had also campaigned for some years against what she argued were Macron’s excessive coronavirus restrictions. The election had the lowest election turnout for a French presidential run-off since 1969, and many voters submitted blank ballots as a sign of protest against both candidates. In the subsequent French parliamentary elections shortly thereafter, Le Pen’s National Rally made inroads in the national parliament.

· Iran

While the French election saw debate over a proposed government-mandated ban against women wearing traditional Muslim headscarves, in the last months of this year Iran has been rocked by protests triggered by mandated rules requiring the wearing of the headscarf. Sparked by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who died in custody after being arrested by the Tehran morality police for allegedly wearing her headscarf ‘improperly’, the protests have escalated into widespread criticism of the government, state and the country's strict social laws. There have been country-wide protests in the streets against the government’s rules. Led by young women protesting for the freedom to decide how they dress, women have publicly burned headscarves, cut their hair in the streets and marched in cities all over the country. The protests have spanned across provinces, social classes and ethnic groups, spreading to 150 cities and 140 universities across the country. It is another example of the individualism vs collectivism debate.

· Israel

Israel faced national legislature elections again this year in November which saw Benjamin Netanyahu re-elected as Prime Minister as part of a conservative leaning government. The new government includes several ultranationalist far right-wing and religious conservatives. This latest election was the fifth in four years, reflecting ongoing political instability in the country. In the weeks following the election, the Netanyahu government is already facing criticism from some for giving control of schools policy to a government-aligned party that has been criticised for being homophobic, misogynist and racist. Netanyahu argues his re‑election reflects the will of the people, but there are debates in the country about the extent to which this reflects a desire for greater government control over people’s lives.

· Italy

Italy faced yet another election this year in September which saw the country elect its first female prime minister in Giorgia Meloni. The new government has been dubbed the most far right-wing in the country since the fascist era of Benito Mussolini. The election followed the earlier collapse of Mario Draghi’s cross-party coalition government, largely due to disagreements with coalition partners the Five Star Movement and League. In recent years, Italian politics has seen the rise of non-traditional parties such as the left-wing populist Five Star Movement and right-wing League parties. In the most recent election, Maroni was elected Italian Prime Minister – the sixth in eight years – as part of the ultraconservative Brothers of Italy. Maroni has stated views on annulling same-sex marriage laws and raised fears of winding back freedoms in abortion laws. However, she has also supported NATO in the war in Ukraine and softened her position on Italy being a member of the European Union.

· Russia

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, of course, dominated much of the global political debate through 2022. The invasion represents an obvious trashing of the Ukrainian people’s individual freedoms. But, equally, individual freedoms in Russia have been curtailed in the country as well. Russian President, Vladimir Putin, has sought to strengthen his control over the Russian state at a time when his administration is under challenge due to the ongoing war in Ukraine. Tight government controls on media reporting of the war, and thousands of Russians fleeing the country to dodge conscription are all symptoms of government control over individual liberty. How this plays out in 2023 remains to be seen.

· United Kingdom

The United Kingdom cycled through three Prime Ministers in less than a year during 2022, much of it driven by the balance between individual freedom vs community collectivism. Boris Johnson, Prime Minister at the beginning of 2022, was forced to step down after a series of exposes of office parties, communal drinking and breaches of the government’s own COVID lockdown rules that occurred at the PM’s offices at Number 10 with Johnson’s knowledge. For a British public that had endured the restrictions themselves for years, unable to attend their own relatives’ funerals and watched their Queen adhering to those restrictions while mourning the death of her husband alone in St George’s Chapel in Windsor, it was too much. Johnson departed and, after an extended internal Conservative Party voting process over the summer, Liz Truss was anointed PM. Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, passed away a day or two after Truss was sworn in. Truss lasted just six weeks as PM until she had to resign after a series of gaffes and badly thought through policy bungles from tax reform to health policy – all driven by a desire to reduce government intervention and re-assert individual freedom. This included the freedom of the rich to pay less tax at a time when budget repair was seen as a high priority. Rishi Sunak is now PM, and the Conservative Party is still in power at the end of the year.

· United States of America

The long-anticipated US Congressional midterm elections did not bring forth the widely expected rout of the Democrats in the House of Representatives and the Senate by the Republicans. Typically, in US politics the governing party of the ruling Administration performs badly in the first midterm Congressional elections after it has won the Presidency. However, in November President Joe Biden’s Democrats did surprisingly better than many expected. While the Democrats lost the House of Representatives (just), they retained control of the Senate in Congress – a feat that was the best Senate performance by a President’s party since 1934. The conservative Republicans campaigned hard on a combined platform opposed to Biden’s big infrastructure spending packages, pandemic restrictions, the supposed (but untrue) ‘steal’ of the last Presidential election from Republican Donald Trump, and the aftermath of the Trump-aligned freedom protesters’ storming/insurrection of the US Congress building on 6 January 2021. Another big issue was women’s’ right to abortion, following the Supreme Court decision in June overturning the 50-year-old Roe vs Wade federal protections for the right to abortion. This crystalised the issue of women’s rights and the right of the individual to choose. The Republicans performed worse than expected, leading to recriminations and soul-searching on the conservative side of politics that tends to favour liberty over collectivism.

In many countries around the world, we may see a continuing variation in this post-pandemic political re-alignment of the individualism vs collectivism debate and the role of government in 2023 that could influence political debates for years to come. Watch this space.

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