Looking Back to Politically Structured Chaos: Geopolitical and Communicative Aspects of the Coronavirus Pandemic in Croatia

September 22, 2023
Written by: 
Krešimir Petković
Editor-in-Chief of Annals of the Croatian Political Science Association

On the eve of another autumn, when the number of registered cases of infection with the already somewhat domesticated, endemic variants of the coronavirus increases again, we present two new articles in the Annals, dealing with the governance of the pandemic in Croatia. The total number of several hundred active cases has so far been deprived of media dramatization and does not cause changes in the biopolitical regime governing the conduct of the population. The short history of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic seems to repeat Lyotard’s postmodernist lesson about the collapse of metanarratives in the face of interpretive polyphony: the unified theater of public health civic morality has been replaced by the idea that “a single recommendation for the entire population no longer makes sense”. Perhaps this is a good opportunity to clear-headedly remind ourselves of the pandemic policy that has had a significant impact on our lives, by empirically illuminating some of its hitherto insufficiently researched aspects in Croatian case, in order to encourage critical thinking about the government of ourselves and others.

In Croatia, the epidemic was officially declared on March 11, 2020 and abolished on May 11, 2023. At the end of last year, the total mortality attributed to the coronavirus amounted to over 17,000 cases, whereby, according to the official data, it can be concluded that the disease was particularly risky for the elderly population: in in the 60-69 age group, the number of deaths exceeded two percent of the total infected, while the ratio of dead to infected in the 90-99 age cohort amounted to almost 30 percent.

At the same time, even a common public language could not be harmonized in the society: the dispute about whether someone died from or with COVID was part of the general political struggle related to the pandemic, which provided another opportunity to polarize society. The entire set of penal, disciplinary and biopolitical measures intervening in social interactions was disputed: closures and movement bans, masks, prescribed physical distance, testing obligations, various punishments related to non-compliance with pandemic measures and finally the vaccination policy itself. On the one hand, there were those who considered skepticism towards the official narrative, non-compliance with measures and the refusal to take the jab as the crowning example of irrationality, anti-scientific obscurantism and a sociopathic absence of civic solidarity, while on the other hand, opponents of measures and vaccination saw in them an unprecedented attack on freedom and personal autonomy in the murky connection of mediatized politics and the pharmaceutical industry, the dark cabal of the World Health Organization, puppet governments and their farcical technocratic committees. In addition to the effects on public health and the biology of population, the pandemic undoubtedly produced great psychological, economic, social and political consequences for the community that still deserve social scientific expertise.

The texts we bring in this small political-pandemic homage, in order to examine that legacy, cover two specific aspects of governance during the pandemic. They deal with the question of how the government – that Rousseauian “small body”, the scandal for a seriously understood democracy, to which the citizens as a true sovereign submit servilely from election to election – governed its borders in a specific geopolitical and economic context and how it managed its crisis communication. Contributions are neither uniform in time nor comprehensive in its analyses, they are focused on relatively narrow empirical problems. Also, the question of the thing itself (the danger of the virus, the effect of the vaccine) and what is ultimately normatively desirable (justification of measures, optimal pandemic policies), they somewhat agnostically put in parentheses. The question of the veracity of statement is changed by the question of the appeal of the image and the postulated reaction to it, that is, by the issues of a successful image management, and the dissemination of the objective risk of infection is substituted by the psychology of the fear of infection associated with the official codings of space and security. However, very generally speaking, the fact that they do not discuss the virus and vaccine as Ding an sich and optimal policies for dealing with the threat, as the “first-order” phenomena, does not necessarily make their discourse at the very level of researching “second-order” phenomena any less indicative. or in principle untrue, nor is the stake of their language games less political. And as the readers will see for themselves, it is no less economic either. Unlike the plague, the coronavirus allowed seasonal breaks, and the authorities’ calls for civil responsibility gave room for reasoning about the economic consequences of the closure.

Josip Lučev and Marta Zorko in the article “Geopolitics of Fear in Croatia: Changes in Border Regimes and Tourism in the Shadow of the COVID-19 Pandemic” investigate how different border regimes during the pandemic coded security, how they intertwined with the economic imperative of summer tourism, and what were the effects of the borders policies of Croatia, neighboring and other countries, as well as the EU-policies of marking safe and unsafe areas. The closing of the borders has had a negative impact on the economy, including tourism, which also appears to be a geopolitical phenomenon, subject to the political games of “psychological geoengineering of the perception of security”. Their analysis, which brings together the sociology of fear and the statistical analysis of indicators relevant for tourism, shows that states should not be written off as the agents of border-drawing despite the processes of globalization. Moreover, one of their paradoxical conclusions is that strict border regimes favored the feeling of security: “Contrary to the expectation that strict border regimes will make tourism activities more difficult, it turned out that strict regimes, a controlled common code and rules can actually have a positive effect on the feeling of security on certain locations. The common European space and rules contributed to the creation of a common European code and increased the receptivity of tourist destinations in a shared safe space.

The article by Karlo Kanajet, Hrvoje Popović and Danijel Labaš “Government Management of Crisis Communication on Internet in Facing the COVID-19 Pandemic: Media Frames, Reactive Strategies, Communication Intensity, and the Visibility of the Prime Minister” is temporally focused on the communication in the first wave of the pandemic, analytically covering the period from February to May 2020. Despite the media prominence of the Civil Protection Headquarters and the Croatian Institute of Public Health, the authors justify their focus on Government communication by saying that “in the background of the activities of these entities is the Government as the central place of executive power whose policies are actually in question”. Their analysis of the official framing of the problem shows the dominance of the “responsibility frame” together with the significant presence of the “economic consequences” frame, while the analysis of the Government’s reactive communication strategies shows that they mostly correspond to the type of “corrective behavior” (nominal appreciation of criticism through the announcement of prevention, repairs and compensation) with perhaps a quarter of “defensive responses” (making excuses and shifting responsibility). The authors also observe the retreat of the prime minister during the researched period and conclude: “Broadcasting messages of control and communication openness can affect credibility, and all three elements together are an important basis for strengthening a positive image and reputation, which represent a premium for the actor responsible for dealing with the crisis situation.

Pessimism or optimism in connection with such an assessment will certainly be in the eye of the reader, and it will most likely depend on the political attitudes regarding the pandemic outlined above. However, when we leave aside the Weberian struggle of demons, I hope it is beyond dispute that the contributions we present are valuable for the understanding of pandemic politics primarily because of the theoretical and empirical work invested in them, which sheds precise light on border politics and communication patterns of a biopolitical regime. We do not know if, when, how and to what extent this regime will be reactivated again—already this autumn, or some of the following ones. The fact is that it shaped our everyday life for several years and that we still feel the consequences of the politically structured dynamic of the pandemic chaos whose fluctuating rhythms we lived. Therefore, it is still worth examining them politically and communicatively in hope we will learn to govern ourselves and others better in the possible comparable situations in the future.

Annals of the Croatian Political Science Association

Croatian Political Science Association
Faculty of Political Science
Lepušićeva 6, 10 000 Zagreb

email: anali@fpzg.hr
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