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Medical experts are trying to map out the health effects of coronavirus. Economists are estimating its economic fallout. Yet predicting its broader political consequences is likely to be the biggest challenge of all.
The historian William McNeill once tried to understand why the natives of the Western Hemisphere so rapidly adopted the religion and customs of the Europeans. He speculated that viruses played a central role. When the native inhabitants saw that diseases such as smallpox killed them but left the foreigners unscathed, they assumed the Europeans had a culture and religion they should adopt.
It’s possible the coronavirus will be quickly contained and we will all move on. But if it persists, this epidemic could accelerate a major political shift.
Almost everywhere, the populist right is trying to blame the contagion on open borders and migrants. In reality, the disease has been spread internationally by travelers and tourists — impoverished asylum seekers don’t usually board cruise ships. But that hasn’t stopped politicians from trying to exploit the crisis. Italian firebrand Matteo Salvini railed against the government for continuing to allow in migrants from Africa, though there are few cases of coronavirus on that continent. Far-right parties in France, Germany and Spain have all called for tighter border controls.
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