Straight, No Chaser: The coronavirus has become a real flag-waver

May 5 saw the 75th anniversary of Denmark’s liberation after WWII, with substantial TV coverage and reminiscences of the war years. Coincidentally, this year also marked the centenary of Southern Jutland’s reunion with Denmark when land lost to Germany in 1864 was restored through a peaceful plebiscite.

Had it not been for the restrictions imposed by the coronavirus, there would have also been country-wide celebrations to mark the 80th birthday of Queen Margrethe II. All good excuses to go out and wave the flag and celebrate, you may say.

Friends, Romans, countrymen
During her press conferences on the coronavirus, Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen has gone out of her way to refer to the population as ‘Danes’ or ‘the Danish people’ at every opportunity. Danes should do this or that – not ‘people’ or ‘the population’ should do this or that.

Frederiksen and her advisers are far too media savvy to do this by mistake; it is all part of the idea that we’re ‘all in it together’ when unpalatable medicine has to be dispensed.

A flag-waver
Nationalism is certainly enjoying a renaissance in Denmark. On TV the country is singing its way through the ‘High School Song Book’ whilst waving Danish flags from balconies and back gardens. All harmless fun, but is it?

In a debate piece in Politiken on April 26, Peter Skaarup, the group chair of Dansk Folkeparti, argued that above all it is patriotism and the natural community spirit engendered by the nation state that will get us through the crisis: “This Danish community spirit is defined by history … as well as the Danish language and the culture that spiritually binds us together.”

The EU is written off as “an artificial ideological construction that will never have the same popular legitimacy as a national state, and because of this has only limited room for action as far as solutions [to major crises] go”.

Playing the Nazi card
History – and the use it’s put to – is a very potent weapon. I was born in 1957 – just 12 years after the end of WWII. The war was still very fresh in the minds of my parents’ generation and coloured my childhood and adolescence. I became fascinated by history – with a special interest in post-WWI Germany and the Nazi period.

As a Brit I’m certainly not alone in that. Early on in our relationship my Danish wife remarked on the fact that British people seem obsessed by the war. She also enjoyed pointing out that the UK was in fact part of Europe – and not just something that started at Calais. 

As I became a teenager I embraced the idea of Europe and the opportunities it opened up. If it hadn’t been for the UK and Denmark joining the EEC (as it then was) I probably would have never come to Denmark. Of course there were things that didn’t work so well, but it was a democratic institution and changes could be made, I reasoned.

Bulldog breed
Brexit certainly put paid to that pipe-dream. The toxic campaign surrounding this brought out the very worst in the British people and led to a resurgence of a chauvinistic nationalism. 

And now the coronavirus seems to have exacerbated this. The UK government and bullish PM Boris Johnson, in full-on Winston Churchill mode, are all fond of using military metaphors to describe the crisis – the ‘Blitz spirit’ is frequently invoked.

Coronavirus counter-measures saw borders being closed all over the world and immigration restricted – music to the ears of many. The question is whether post-coronavirus we will see a return to a relatively open policy or whether more restrictive measures will become permanent.

Annie get your gun
In a number of countries including Denmark, Asians or people of Asian origin have reported discrimination and stereotyping for being coronavirus risks. One of the more bizarre things that happened when the coronavirus first hit (at least to non-Americans) was a massive increase in gun sales in the US. Many of these were to Asian first-time buyers afraid of what their neighbours might do.

US President Donald Trump is ratcheting up the anti-Chinese rhetoric as he dismally fails to contain the crisis. A scapegoat must be found. First it was the Democrats sabotaging the economy to make sure he lost the next election, and now it is China for failing to inform the world in time and maybe even releasing the virus from a laboratory in Wuhan.

The blame game
When it comes to scapegoats, China is hardly blameless. A Guardian article from April 13 reports “a senior Chinese official has acknowledged accusations of authorities discriminating against black people in the city of Guangzhou as ‘reasonable concerns’.”

The article goes on to report that “health authorities in Guangzhou have been accused of racially targeting Africans, including with forced evictions, repeated testing for Covid-19 without providing the result, and refusing service or business”.

India has also seen conspiracy theories targeting the Muslim community for conducting a malevolent campaign to spread the coronavirus to the Hindu majority. Religious riots have taken place in Delhi.

All in this together
That all brings me back to nationalism. Rather than hunkering down in our own self-satisfied little enclaves, we must treat the coronavirus as the pandemic it is – it does not recognise borders or nation states. It is a cliché but there is only one world, and we can do much more together than as individuals.

By all means be proud of your country and its achievements, but when this is transformed into an ingrained belief in the inherent superiority of a specific race, religion or nation, that’s when the trouble really starts. We must keep a very close eye on civil liberties, politicians and those behind them and not be blind-sided by excuses about coronavirus measures or patriotic flummery.