The spread of the coronavirus has health officials worried about a potential global pandemic. But while governments and international organizations are rushing to stop the virus, far-right politicians in Europe have been eager to exploit it.
Radical right populists like Italy’s Matteo Salvini and France’s Marine Le Pen are using fear and uncertainty surrounding the virus, believed to have originated in China, to advocate for closed borders and anti-immigration policies ― misleading and panicked messages that health officials warn can hinder efforts to combat the virus.
In Italy, there are hundreds of cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, as well as multiple towns under quarantine and 17 people dead. Salvini, leader of the far-right Lega Party, has repeatedly attacked the government for its handling of the crisis. He has groundlessly linked Italy’s outbreak to the arrival of migrants from Africa, called for “armor plated borders” and accused Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte of failing to “defend Italy.”
There is no proof for Salvini’s claims: Africa has only three confirmed cases of coronavirus, according to monitoring data from John Hopkins University. But his inflammatory statements are a prime example of the longtime far-right trope of associating migrants with disease ― derogatory rhetoric that has been a prominent feature of Europe’s migrant crisis.
These and other attacks, coming as officials struggle to contain the virus, have put additional stress on the European Union’s ideal of border-free travel. Salvini is calling for Italy to suspend the Schengen Agreement, which allows travel between EU nations without border checks, even though health experts doubt the measures would be effective.
Austria’s Freedom Party echoed Salvini’s calls for immigration controls and suggested that the government had failed to prevent the outbreak, while the Swiss People’s Party wants “strict border control immediately.” (Austria’s health minister countered with the assessment of World Health Organization and EU experts that closing borders “makes no sense.”)
In France, Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Rally, has called for border controls and falsely accused the EU of remaining silent on COVID-19. (EU officials have repeatedly issued statements on the virus and announced hundreds of millions of euros in health funding.) Le Pen also clashed with Italy’s Prime Minister Conte when she suggested that Italian soccer fans should be barred from entering the country. Spain’s far-right Vox party leader Santiago Abascal similarly blamed open borders for the virus.
Far-right parties tend to thrive in opposition, where their lack of governing experience and extreme policies aren’t tested, allowing them to snipe from the sidelines to gain support. They also feed on periods of unrest and uncertainty, as seen in their fearmongering around events of recent years such as the migrant crisis and ISIS-related extremist attacks. The COVID-19 outbreak gives these parties a chance to both frame governments as ineffective and advocate for the anti-immigration policies they view as a panacea to every societal problem.
Meanwhile, countries with far-right governments in power have taken a slightly different tack, largely downplaying the virus and maintaining that everything is under control.
Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban claimed that although the virus has garnered the world’s attention, people should not forget that the real threat is from migration. In the United States, President Donald Trump has contradicted health officials and gave a dismissive press conference filled with false information, while Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Friday refused to say that the coronavirus wasn’t a hoax.