From Argentina to Romania, a lesson from history


Politicians beware as the public awakens from its Covid dream state.

by Allen Therisa in History

Romania, 1989
Romania, 1989

A month ago, Kier Starmer found himself bundled into a Westminster police car to protect him from rowdy anti-Covid protestors, a story told from different angles and for various reasons at the time.

From a Labour Party leader that has been repeatedly criticised from the Left and Right to a millionaire footballer kicking a cat (West Ham Defender Kurt Zouma) as well as the shock Russian invasion of Ukraine, the post-pandemic mainstream and social media have been awash recently with stories further shaking a jittery nation still emerging from a lockdown dream state.

And this is before public attention has had an opportunity to focus on Covid-19 infection numbers rising across Europe, as two variants of the virus (Omicron BA.2 and Deltacron), work their way through local populations.

Ukraine halted this potential 'next crisis' by replacing it with an actual crisis, in the process temporising a sense of public fatigue and frustration with a political elite that has, over the past two years, committed to baked-in lockdown policy mistakes while living high on the money-printing hog.

This Covid-19 dream state came to an end in the UK on 24 February, after the British government replaced all previous restrictions with its 'Living with Covid' strategy.

Recent crises have drawn attention away from the disastrous effect of Covid-19 lockdowns on British life and, subsequently, have distracted politicians from focusing on what can happen when such dream states can suddenly end.

The Covid-19 effect

The change in UK Covid-19 policy came despite rocketing infection and hospital admittance numbers in such countries as China/Hong Kong, Australia and the UK. Despite this, it appears to be followed, or is about to be followed, in France, Germany (where individual states are less enthusiastic about lifting restrictions than the federal government) and even - whisper it - in Italy.

What happens in these countries as the national policy changes may reflect the UK experience (which has been largely accepting of the change in direction), or it may be responded to more chaotically. Whatever the immediate public reaction, those perceived to have misled the public and abused their positions of power during the past two years may find that they quickly lose control as the Covid-19 dream state ends and people are given back their freedom.

In terms of those politicians still in power today, compared to when the initial lockdowns were introduced - notably Boris Johnson and Emanuel Macron - all are facing domestic political challenges (Johnson, obviously) or are about to (Macron in the upcoming French presidential election). But, political personalities aside, each national government attempting to implement a sudden change in Covid-19 policy may still find that they come under unpredictable pressure because of what they have done to their citizens since 2020.

Time for a change?

The UK Chief Medical Officer, Sir Chris Whitty, recently gave an insight into how the political and medical establishment in the UK may be attempting to transition from its previous authoritarian mode during the Covid-19 dream state.

Speaking at a virtual conference organised by the Association of Directors of Public Health last month, Whitty warned of a significant worsening in childhood obesity as a result of the lockdown measures the British government introduced in 2020.

Whitty also warned at the conference of the long-term risk of a host of deadly conditions, such as strokes and heart attacks, for vulnerable children when they reach adulthood. Indeed, the latest figures show that 28 percent of children in England are now overweight or obese by the time they start primary school (an increase from 23 percent before the pandemic began).

"We really need to make sure that whatever policies we bring forward are going to have their biggest effect in the areas which are most affected by this, because the long-term effects are going to be very considerable," Whitty stated during the conference.

"Obesity has effects on health which you wouldn't necessarily predict. Some things are obvious, like the significant increase in risk of stroke and cardiovascular disease, but also cancers, particularly hormone-driven cancers, and also infectious diseases, of which Covid was the most recent."

"There is a very strong gradient where people who are at the higher end of the obesity spectrum have significantly worse outcomes."

Whitty also pointed to evidence that suggests there has already been an impact on the mental health of children and older people as a result of lockdowns, with an accompanying rise in eating disorders, but said far longer-term consequences are yet to be seen.

"We shouldn't have any illusions," Whitty told the conference. "I think there's a big worry about the effects on mental health of particularly older people for long periods where people were lonely because people for good public health reasons didn't want to infect elderly or vulnerable people, but therefore they had less contact.

"That is something which we do not know the effects of, but it seems unlikely there'll be anything other than a problem, and the impacts of disrupted schooling on some children is going to be very substantial...the long-term effects of which it'll be very difficult, I think, to tell."

As the effects of the lockdowns introduced by governments worldwide under the direction of such scientific-medical experts as Whitty are fully felt, the response of the public may not be as measured as it has been to date.

Historical parallels with similar nation states emerging from their own failed dream states can be found in the experiences of Argentina in the 1940s and Romania in the late 1980s, as both nations woke chaotically from the politically-driven social experiments their leaders had committed to. 

Juan and Eva Perón
Juan and Eva Perón

Argentina in the 1940s was taken into its populist dream state by political players who promised stability and nurturing paternalism after years of military coups and economic failure. Led by General Juan Perón, a minor military player during the preceding years of junta and counter-coup, Perón was elected President of Argentina in 1946. His new, apparently radical government, introduced social programmes that benefited the country's working class, supported labour unions and promoted deeper state involvement in the national economy.

Partly because of these populist policies, but also as a result of the media-savvy campaigning of Perón's glamorous wife, Eva, the new government was, for a while, hugely popular.

All this came crashing down, however, after the death of Eva Perón in 1952 from cervical cancer. As her health declined, Eva was declared the Spiritual Leader of the Nation by the Argentine Congress and then afforded a state funeral following her death. Facing rising inflation and associated economic problems in the years that followed, Perón was overthrown by the military in September 1955.

With Eva gone, the dream of Argentinian rebirth brutally perished in the face of political reality. During their rise to power, the Peronist revolution had thrived on a carefully constructed platform of Argentinian rebirth ("A new age about to begin/A new Argentina/We face the world together/And no dissent within", as Tim Rice's lyrics bitchily put in the hit musical Evita). When that dream fell apart, the country slipped back into violent chaos and stayed that way for decades

The lurch from the heady confidence of the Peron years into the economic decline and violence that followed would be reflected thirty-four years later, in the Romanian Revolution of 1989.

Nicolae Ceaușescu
Nicolae Ceaușescu

Romania, after suffering decades of calcifying communist rule shrouded in isolationist utopia-building under the leadership of Party General Secretary Nicolae Ceaușescu, finally crumbled, along with Communist Eastern Europe, in similarly chaotic circumstances to those experienced in Argentina.

The foundations of the Romanian Revolution lay in the country's ballooning foreign debt, which had increased by $7 billion between 1977 and 1981. This prompted Ceaușescu, aiming for an independent communist utopia under his cult of personality, to demand total reimbursement of the debt, financed by an austerity programme that devastated Romania's already weak economy.

The policy resulted in the debt being fully repaid by 1989 but also led to Ceaușescu's downfall after he gave a poorly prepared speech on 22 December in Bucharest that was broadcast live on state television. After the assembled crowds listening to the speech began heckling and demanding an end to the regime, key figures in the Romanian military switched from supporting the dictator to backing the protesters.

Evading the increasingly violent mob, Ceaușescus and his wife attempted to escape by helicopter before being captured and convicted by a military tribunal (also shown live on television) on charges of genocide, damage to the economy, and abuse of power. Ceaușescu and his wife were dragged into the December snow and shot on Christmas Day 1989.

As Ceaușescu discovered to his cost, when the public wakes from its dream state, it can quickly turn chaotic and violent. It is a warning in extremis to the political elites of the United Kingdom, Canada (particularly after its recent truckers protests), France, Italy and Germany. In all these countries, citizens nullified by war fear and the looming threat of stagflation, appear frustrated and increasingly complain of feeling betrayed, while many also continue to be as frightened as they were back in March 2020 when the pandemic began and the Covid-19 dream state took over.

As that now comes to an end in a growing economic crisis, despite the best efforts of familiar voices to keep it going, and people wake up to the reality of damaged societies and the failing leadership of an out of touch political class, the risk of violent rebellion becomes ever greater.

History teaches us that at such junctures the irrational mob can emerge as quickly as a summer storm. For the democracies of the west, struggling with related economic and Ukrainian crises, a chaotic reckoning may be waiting once the drums of European war fall silent and the dreamers fully wake.

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