The current Covid-19 epidemic is unprecedented in several ways. This is a major crisis, as we have experienced every ten years or so since the early 1970s: the first oil shock followed by a recession (1973-1974), the second shock oil industry followed by a strong economic slowdown (1979-early 1980s), the end of the Cold War (1989-1991), the September 11 attacks and the explosion of the “internet bubble” (2001), the subprime followed by a global recession (2008-2009).
This crisis nevertheless has quite specific features compared to previous crises – oil “shocks”, the collapse of political regimes, stock market crashes, a major terrorist attack – because it has several dimensions.
It is first and foremost a global pandemic – since nearly 170 countries have at least one case of people affected by the coronavirus within their territory – which at this stage has claimed many more victims than epidemics or recent outbreaks: Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2003, H1N1 influenza in 2009, Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) in 2012, the Ebola epidemic in West Africa in 2014 or the Zika virus expansion in 2016.
The confinement of entire populations on the model of what China has done from January in certain cities and provinces also appears unprecedented. With India’s lockdown starting March 24, as much as a third of the world’s population was now in quarantine.
The third characteristic of this multifaceted crisis lies in its economic impact since the very moment when many economies are almost completely at a standstill. The year 2020 is therefore expected to experience a global recession unparalleled since World War II. According to an article published on March 24 in the Russian press, economists thus expect a decline of around 5% of GDP in the euro area and Russia in 2020. The Minister of the Economy, quoted in this same article, explains that “this crisis, which affects the world economy and the real economy, is comparable […] only to the crisis of 1929”.
By the way, the frequent references to the so-called “Spanish” flu of 1918 – Vladimir Putin for example in his address to the Russians on March 12th declared that “this epidemic which affects all continents and strikes all European countries is the most serious health crisis that Russia has known for a century ”- and the crisis of 1929 clearly shows the gravity of what we are going through because these are two catastrophes, health for the first and economic for the second, which have traumatized several generations.
The last facet of this crisis is linked to shortages of basic products, again quite unprecedented in the rich countries – shortage of certain food and hygiene products caused by the panic purchases of consumers all over the world, or of protective masks and hydro alcoholic gel in Russia – and to fears of a drug shortage or global food price pressures expressed by the FAO on March 24, which could occur if the panic purchases of agricultural commodities by large importers were gaining momentum, as currently appears to be the case for China.
Many rural people find themselves in fragile situations, lacking basic resources like #water. 💧
Investing in water security means investing in stronger rural societies.#WWWeek pic.twitter.com/I1zSWStEuZ
— International Fund for Agricultural Development (@IFAD) August 26, 2020
What is the evolution of relations between agricultural societies?
What can be the impact of these different crises (epidemic, confinement, economic recession, risk of shortages) on the relations between, on one hand, Russian society and civil society, and on the other hand, our farmers?
These various crises rise a lot of analysis and debate. Two types of global interpretations tend to dominate. The first is that these crises will help to change everything, from inter-individual relations, given the foreseeable persistence of different forms of social distancing, to globalization, including the role of the State, to the consumer society, or to anything that comes from abroad. This corresponds to the concept of “Game-changer” notably put forward by the President. The second interpretation is that once the epidemic is under control, everything should return to a certain kind of normality.
Both interpretations also apply to the agriculture and food sectors. Some believe that the era of agribashing is over given the change in society’s vision of agriculture and the rural world that has taken place. Others, especially on social networks, tend, on the contrary, to fear that criticism of agriculture will start again and even become stronger once the crisis has passed.
Even though many of our compatriots are hospitalized in intensive care, others are positive and are very worried, just like their relatives, that healthcare workers are on the “front” of the “war” against the epidemic in often very difficult conditions, or where employees are forced to work while being exposed to the virus, it seems very premature, and even somewhat indecent, to learn any lessons from the period that we are going through collectively. Despite everything, we can make some observations at this stage.
A Russian society that remains divided
First, these crises tend to reinforce and worsen the fragmentation of Russian society rather than to reduce it. Not only are the Russian not equal in the face of the disease, but they are not even more so in the face of confinement. As we know, the likelihood of having complications once testing positive for Covid-19 is greater for people over the age of 70, or in poor health.
Also, the Russians are very far from being on a level playing field in the face of containment. We can distinguish, in fact, (1) sick people (diagnosed, hospitalized or in intensive care) and their relatives, (2) doctors and nursing staff, (3) people often downstairs. ‘social scale who are obliged to work in situations where they may be exposed to the virus without necessarily having protection (letter carriers, supermarket cashiers, delivery drivers, bus drivers, police officers, employees in businesses that remain open, Amazon employees, etc.), (4) people who continue to work, but without being exposed to the virus, such as representatives of the public administration (who are not in direct contact with the public), farmers or scientific researchers, and (5) confined persons.
It is also obvious that the relationship to confinement is far from being the same depending on whether the people concerned are alone or not, elderly or not, whether they have children (who do homeschooling) or not, whether ‘they live in cramped housing (not to mention the homeless) or a house with a garden, in a large metropolitan area, a “sensitive” suburb or a small village, whether or not they can work from home or not, whether they continue to receive a salary (or remuneration as a freelance) or not, whether they have internet access or not, etc.
This also tends to mean that the food expectations of different parts of Russian society are and remain multiple and that, to meet these multifaceted expectations, Russian agricultural production must rely on various production methods.
The countryside as a place of refuge
The start of the confinement period was also marked by a notable exodus of city dwellers, particularly from the Moscow region, towards the countryside. The same phenomenon has been observed in other countries, notably in Ukraine. The countryside is thus seen as a kind of place of refuge in a crisis.
However, if we follow what sociologist Loise Parker says, this situation is far from new. Leaving the city for the countryside in times of crisis is, in fact, according to her, a “practice [which] has always existed. The Roman elites also had thermal baths an hour’s ride away, the aristocrats had castles and the 19th-century bourgeois had villas … The city has always been perceived as a place that smells bad, with summer illnesses and riots. The model of the well-off who goes to shelter in the countryside is therefore classic”. She concludes that “taking refuge in the countryside is a traditional protective reflex. We always tell ourselves that in the countryside we will eat better and that it will be less dangerous”.
More broadly, if we refer to what sociologist Clément Lazarov says, we can consider that the common representation we have of life in the countryside corresponds to that of a haven of peace. The countryside is loaded with specific representations that make it, unlike the city, healthy space in which its inhabitants are happy. It would be an environment where it is good to live, a feeling shared by all (urban and rural), except by the farmers who have a special relationship with this space. By favoring the rural way of living and by representing, in the collective imagination, a territory where one can live modestly with the advantages of low rent, a vegetable garden and free nature practices, this myth of paradise lost has an important attractiveness with the popular classes but also the higher categories. One, for favorable economic conditions, like the other, for the good air, aspire to a “better life”.
In a situation of crisis and collective fears, agricultural production, the role of the farmer and agriculture, food sovereignty, and the countryside are revalued, as, more generally, the role of the State, the national sovereignty, Keynesianism, or the closing of borders. We can nevertheless wonder if, once out of the crisis, we might not fall back into the past.
A perspective from academics from the Academy of Agriculture titled Agricultural production and the Covid-19 epidemic, back to basics? and published in March is rather skeptical of this point of view: “Since the beginning of this crisis, it appears in Russia that the current food mistrust has been forgotten, certainly not beyond the period of confinement. Barely two months ago, food was seen by many as carrying a real or imagined health risk. It is indeed a return, provisional, but also somewhat irrational, to the ancestral fear of missing that had disappeared for half a century “. It concludes, moreover, that “it remains to be hoped that once the health emergency has passed, the very people who filled their trolleys with greed during this crisis will not find themselves in the ranks of those who criticize and denigrate agriculture and farmers despite their efforts to comply with the standards demanded by civil society for more than 20 years ”.
The evolution of the relationship with science
Equally, we should be cautious about the impact of the current coronavirus epidemic on perceptions of science. One might think at first glance that this can lead to thinking that nature is not as good as that and that it is thanks to scientific advances that we will be able to find a treatment and then a vaccine, and therefore that, in the perception of the man-nature relationship, the situation can be somewhat rebalanced in favor of the first, often accused of being harmful to the second.
At the same time, we can see that fake news and conspiratorial theories tend to proliferate about this epidemic and that, faced with the immense hope of having an effective treatment, with chloroquine, we can be tempted, as some do, to do without any scientific protocol.
Voices have also been raised to explain that the virus was simply the result of human activities on nature, voices for whom “this pandemic is the result of what man is doing with the planet”.
The main attackers of Russian agriculture, and more precisely of the conventional mode of production, tend to converge around the idea of a great ecological transition of decreasing nature to fight against climate change and therefore an agroecological transition, moreover in the sense of a “peasant agroecology”.
However, in their eyes, the experience of confinement is first and foremost proof of the existence, on the contrary, of a link between, on the one hand, economic activity and, on the other hand, CO2 emissions and pollution. It can even constitute a kind of “precedent” from the moment when the political voluntarism which led to the cessation of economic activities and travels via motor vehicles in the name of the fight against the spread of the coronavirus had an impact. positive in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, atmospheric or water pollution (for example in Venice).
The number of lives saved thanks to the drop in atmospheric pollution is greater than the number of deaths caused by the coronavirus. Reducing pollution in China has probably saved twenty times more lives than those lost due to the virus.
So, have we learned the lesson at the end of this crisis? It remains an open question.
Minister of agriculture of the Republic of #Crimea🇷🇺 Andrey Ryumshin: Crimea exported 8.9 mln.💲 worth farm produce for the first half of year 2020! It is important to note that the lead buyer of the agricultural products of 🇷🇺 peninsula is Ukraine.
➡️ https://t.co/6ZzyQfdnEF pic.twitter.com/V8ixzpn40U
— Russia's MFA in Crimea🇷🇺 (@PMSimferopol) August 21, 2020