How to Hold an Election During a Pandemic

Joel Trechard

Since September, we’ve been discussing the social and political impacts of Covid in POL2163 Pandemic Politics. The recent US Presidential Election brought into stark relief the challenges of holding election during a global pandemic. In Mach the decision was made to delay the May local and mayoral election in England. Voting was to take place for over 100 English councils and regional mayors. In this presentation, completed for the Pandemic Politics module, Joel Trechard, a 2nd year  BSc Politics and International Relations student, explores the implications of Covid for the conduct of elections.

The COVID-19 Pandemic and Democracy in Sub-Saharan Africa

By Elena Gadjanova, University of Exeter

In 2019, countries in Africa registered both the largest gains and biggest losses worldwide on some common measures of democracy. This is part of a pattern of divergence, evident since at least the 2000s. And while it is still fairly common to paint Africa in broad strokes as either “hopeless” and “in perpetual crisis” or “hopeful” and “rising”, it is important to recognize that the reality of African countries’ experience with democracy is much more varied and complex.

Therefore, evaluating how the Covid-19 pandemic will impact the quality of democracy in Africa must take this underlying heterogeneity as a starting point. We shouldn’t be speculating about whether Covid-19 will lead to a democratic decline or authoritarian resurgence, but asking how its impact will vary given countries’ highly divergent contexts and democratic trajectories preceding the pandemic.

Freedom House’s index of democratic trends for sub-Saharan Africa. Source and more details here.

Theories on democratic resilience and authoritarian retrenchment offer some direction in understanding this variation. The former highlight factors such as the strength of electoral management bodies, institutionalized opposition parties, free media, and a robust civil society in enabling democracies to withstand crises and emergencies. The latter list the ways, in which autocratic regimes use emergencies to consolidate their own positions: by enhancing executive powers, limiting basic civil liberties, cracking down on dissenters, and curtailing media freedoms.

Executive overreach

There is (rightly) a concern that governments will use the pandemic to increase and centralize power and dismantle existing checks and balances. As Farida Nabourema notes, dictators love lockdowns. To that end, the V-Dem project has compiled data on Covid-19 emergency provisions by country and classified them by type, level of severity, and by whether they include time limits and expiration dates. Looking at this data for Sub-Saharan Africa, it is not surprising that countries, which have made strides in democratization over the past few years (Ethiopia, Liberia, Malawi) fare better and are less likely to have governments who abuse pandemic-related executive powers while autocracies (Uganda, Tanzania, Zimbabwe) have implemented more sweeping power grabs. Thus, regime type trajectories create momentum that can either foster democratic resilience or accelerate autocratic backsliding during Covid.          

Human rights and civil liberties

Broad regime trends aside, the pandemic has led to a rise in police brutality in Kenya, Nigeria, Uganda, and South Africa, often under the guise of “lockdown enforcement”. Here, too, the pandemic appears to be exposing and exacerbating pre-existing problems: all four countries have a history of police heavy-handedness and the integrity and professionalization of their security services has been seriously questioned. Such abuse of power can undermine trust in the state as a whole, spark protests and civil disobedience, and lead to further crack-downs in a vicious cycle of escalating violence. This danger is particularly acute when police brutality is — often with good reason — perceived as specifically targeting a section of the population alone.

Civil liberties and media freedoms can also suffer in the name of public health: some governments have increased digital surveillance, used their new powers to ban public gatherings, and selectively targeted media critical of their line on the pandemic. The International Press Institute currently lists 47 media freedom violations in Sub-Saharan Africa related to the pandemic, ranging from arrests and jailing of journalists, restricting access to information and excessive regulation, censorship, and verbal or physical attacks.  

Again, it is worth underscoring that human rights abuses in the name of public health are by no means the norm. For example, activists successfully pressured the government in South Africa to adopt a sunset clause on surveillance measures. Civil society organisations have sounded the alarm on police brutality in Kenya, Nigeria, and Uganda. The Media Foundation for West Africa has launched a number of initiatives to track, document, and combat attacks on the media in a range of countries. But such push-back has been notably absent in other cases, such as Tanzania where CSOs have been “deadly silent”. This demonstrates the extent, to which democratic resilience is conditional on an effective civil society response.

Electoral integrity

With 22 African elections scheduled for 2020 and 18 more for 2021, there are no easy choices. Postponing or suspending elections risks undermining trust in the state, waves of protests, and the retrenchment of incumbent regimes. Going ahead risks increased infections, particularly given how rally intensive electoral campaigns across Sub-Saharan Africa tend to be and how crowded polling stations are on election day.

To guarantee safety, special provisions need to be put in place to cover the period of campaigning, voter registration, voting, and the tallying of results. This is a huge challenge given the importance of direct face-to-face contact. And while social media has become increasingly central to election campaigns in recent years, shifting to social media campaigning further risks of disinformation and inflammatory messages, disenfranchising the elderly and rural women, and increasing resource inequalities between bigger and smaller parties.    

Creating the infrastructure to allow for socially-distanced voting and vote counting in a way that ensures cross-party consensus so that no side later seeks to delegitimize the results would be a huge feat. Countries with electoral management bodies enjoying a reputation of integrity and a history of incumbents accepting defeat, such as Ghana, would be better placed to meet this challenge, but there will likely be trouble ahead in places where past elections have been bitterly disputed.     

Polarization and inequality

Beyond the immediate concerns with elections and voting, the pandemic can have long-term subversive effects on democracy by exacerbating polarization and deepening existing inequalities. Social polarization rises when state actions are seen as favouring some citizens over others. For example, in Nigeria, governors have been accused of scapegoating Qur’anic schools. In South Africa and Kenya, social media is full of examples of how curfews have been harshly enforced in some areas, while seemingly sparing others. In Uganda, the lockdown has provided cover for the regime to continue repressing street vendors and taxi drivers. In Ghana, the government has proceeded with demolishing poor residents’ homes in Accra despite the lockdown. All of these actions compound existing inequalities and threaten social cohesion. Partisan polarization has quickly followed suit with sharp divisions emerging along party lines regarding what measures are best to tackle the pandemic.

Against this backdrop, one African state provides a template for an effective government response that has successfully maintained national consensus and avoided polarization: Mauritius has been lauded for capitalizing on a long-standing culture of promoting national unity and a strong and centralized developmental state.    

In sum: accelerating divergence

So whither democracy in Sub-Saharan Africa during the Covid-19 pandemic and beyond? The pandemic will accelerate processes of divergence and heterogeneity already long underway. Countries with recent momentum towards democratization, vibrant civil society and media environments, robust electoral management institutions, and a culture of fostering national consensus are best placed to weather pandemic-related threats.

Accelerating divergence will likely have implications for states’ international relations as well — and processes of intra-African integration and cooperation in particular. On the one hand, increased divergence could hamstring pan-African movements and organisations, such as the African Union. On the other, it could foster the parallel strengthening of regional blocks such as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the East African Community (EAC). This realignment and the emergence of different state cohorts will likely have far reaching consequences for how Africa engages with the rest of the world.

Flaws in the UK’s coronavirus response has been a long time in the making

By Angela Cassidy

A deeply felt, highly fraught debate about life, death and pathogens. Uncertainty, complexity and controversy over an infection that’s difficult to find, follow, understand, or decide what to do about. Backstage policy tensions spilling into public spats between scientists, with politicians, activists and celebrities chipping in.

Conspiracy theories. Fear and anger about who gets infected, who gets sick, who is protected and who dies. Regular invocations of ‘The Science’ to support contradictory, changing policies. Blame shifting. What a mess. 

All the above have been writ distressingly large as Britain, reluctantly and then in a flat panic, has faced the global coronavirus pandemic. However, the same applies to the UK’s near 50-year history of debate over managing bovine tuberculosis, and whether it should be controlled by culling badgers.

Having just written a book on the subject, I can’t help but see many parallels between the UK’s experiences with bovine TB and coronavirus. But here I want to concentrate on a critical problem underlying many controversies that draw in science, policy and the public—the idea of The Big Book of Science.

In media coverage, popular culture and political rhetoric, science is often implicitly ‘The Science’: a monolith of immutable, authoritative facts, discovered and written by heroic, lone geniuses. Some scientists are deeply invested in this image, and work hard to build it, but many others don’t recognise or like it one bit. It’s also vulnerable when real people don’t live up to the myth.

Working scientists, and the researchers who study them, know that science in practice is a messy process of observation, investigation, theorising, and constant, passionate argument. It involves interactions between research groups, across multiple disciplines, all with different ways of working.

What scientists know does settle into reliable knowledge — that’s why science is needed. But this is always under revision. The name of the game is to make sense of uncertainty.

So what happens when science in practice becomes visible in public? This happens most obviously during public controversies and policy advisory processes, but preprint archives, open science movements, social media and rolling news are all making science in practice increasingly visible.

As we’ve seen in multiple cases, including cold fusion, mad cow disease, ‘climategate’ and now COVID-19, when the Big Book of Science and science in practice collide, confusion abounds.

The history of bovine TB exposes long-term dysfunctions in relations between science, policy and the media in the UK. For example, politicians, policymakers and journalists reacted with anger and confusion when a randomised badger culling trial generated new questions and uncertainties rather than providing the answers they wanted.

Politicians and campaigners, for and against culling, have strategically framed specific experts or evidence as ‘The Science’ to support their agendas. The most spectacular example saw two completely contradictory expert reports on the culling trial in the same year, but this still happens whenever new research papers on culling appear.

In turn, some scientists have jostled for influence, inflated expectations about The Science, or naively assumed that their particular advice should automatically shape policy, irrespective of its plausibility or conflicts with other experts. Around bovine TB, these mismatches have created a repeating cycle of raised and broken expectations, which has corroded trust, perpetuated policy failure and driven polarisation of the controversy.

Image: Solly Zuckerman, the UK government’s first Chief Scientific Adviser. In 1980 he wrote an expert report on badgers and bovine TB, the first of nine such reports published since that time. Image licensed from the National Portrait Gallery.

So, how to move forwards? The slogan ‘science is political’ doesn’t get us that far when political covers everything from everyday office politics to open lobbying and partisan bias.

Science, medicine, business, journalism, policy and politics are all deeply interconnected and mutually shaped, yet they retain conflicting working practices, mindsets, norms and ultimate aims. Understanding these differences is crucial to finding more constructive modes of communication, policymaking and public debate.

Rather than turning to The Big Book of Science, the aim should be close but mutually respectful science-policy relations, in which multiple options are considered, uncertainty stays in the room and politicians take responsibility for their decisions.

In the UK response to COVID-19, that’s not what we’re getting. This has prompted widespread calls for transparency, but openness is only a first step to accountability, not the end in itself. For transparency to work, scientists, journalists, politicians, and publics alike must be willing to look at the messy, complex, and scary world that sciencein practice, in the making, in motion — reveals.

It needs to be OK to talk about uncertainty without implying weakness, ignorance or unknowable mysteries. The Big Book of Science is a dangerous myth. Letting it go makes it easier to challenge policy incoherence, the politics of distraction, the strategic undermining of expertise and blame shifting. A good first step for science policy would be to revisit calls for a ‘hindsight project’ within the government’s existing Foresight Programme.

Science in practice is a powerful tool: let’s use it.

Angela Cassidy is a lecturer in science and technology studies at the University of Exeter. She is the author of Vermin, Victims and Disease: British debates over bovine tuberculosis and badgers (Palgrave, 2019).

A version of this article also appeared in Research Fortnight and Research Professional’s Political Science column on 20th May 2020

Some people never stop… (Or how to recycle the coronavirus into your extremist messaging)

By Stephane Baele, the University of Exeter.

Warning: the following post reproduces some extremist content, which is obviously not endorsed by the author or the editors of the blog. Similarly, we do not recommend that readers access the various sources of extremist material cited here.

For most, the COVID-19 pandemic is caused by a virus characterized by a particularly unfortunate combination of high contagiosity, slow development of symptoms, and low lethality. We also think, at times, about some of the socio-political dynamics involved in, and triggered by, the epidemic. But we don’t spend much time discussing the profound meaning and reason of this development within the grand history of our social group, nor do we seek to discover and unveil “the truth” about who ought to be blamed for it, let alone prove how this crisis demonstrates the superiority of our group and inferiority of other ones.

That’s normal — it’s the kind of reasoning that characterizes political extremists. From the far-right to the far-left, from neo-Nazis to Salafi-jihadists, a common feature of extremist worldviews is indeed to understand the world through the lenses of a grand historical narrative, which is directed towards an end-point where the ingroup confronts the outgroup responsible for its suffering (read here, there, and there for theory and evidence). In such narratives, every significant event simply has to be meaningful and tell something about the ingroup’s grand historical struggle against the outgroup. Judging from my ongoing monitoring of extremist websites,[1] COVID-19 does not escape this regularity.

From Salafi-jihadists…

Let me begin by a rapid overview of how the pandemic is presented in the communications of Salafi-jihadi groups. Indeed, this is where the impetus for the current post started: I decided to double-check a piece of news claiming that ISIS had issued guidelines warning its suicide bombers to avoid Europe while the coronavirus was active. I discovered much more than this straightforward advice.[2] I noticed that over the past couple of months every issue of the group’s al-Naba newspaper contained discussions on the virus that correspond to the type of reasoning described above. The pandemic is neatly inserted in ISIS’ grand narrative of Muslims suffering from the hands of the West and their Middle-Eastern “puppet” autocrats. On the one hand, the virus is understood as evidence that no-one, “neither America nor anyone else”, “is able to take away the harm” that results from “the will of the Almighty”, “no matter how much power, knowledge and tyranny” (al-Naba 227). On the other hand, it further reveals the wickedness of “the enemy”, who is said to lock thousands of Muslims in prisons where women and children die, unable to shield themselves from the disease. Overall, the pandemic is an opportunity given by God to accelerate the eschatological collapse of the “Crusaders”, whose “difficult time will coincide with the Caliphate’s preparations for new strikes against them” [this seems to contradict the guidance evoked above, which I could not locate], as “the level of occupancy of their security and medical institutions has reached the maximum”, meaning that the virus has “a great impact on weakening their capabilities to fight the Mujahideen” (al-Naba 226).

On its RocketChat channels, Al-Qaeda added a layer to this take, not only claiming that the pandemic is God’s will, but also that “the arrival of this pandemic to the Muslim World is only a consequence of our sins and our distance from the Divine methodology that Allah has chosen for His slaves”. In other words, the coronavirus is God’s punishment for the “obscenity and moral corruption [that] had already become widespread in Muslim countries”. There can only be one solution to this new twist in the modern Jahiliyyah narrative owed to Qutb: adhering to Al-Qaeda’s “pure” theology and confronting the “Western-led campaigns to spread atheism in Muslim societies”, confronting both the “despots ruling over the Muslim world” and the “Crusader enemy”.

Abu-Muhammad al-Maqdisi — a radical cleric who significantly influenced the recent development in the Salafi-jihadi theology, and who is often presented as al-Zarqawi’s mentor — could not stay silent on the matter. On March the 30th, released a theological guidance that argued, among others, that “there is nothing wrong for the disbelievers to be destroyed by the coronavirus”.

… to the Far-right

Unsurprisingly, this is not the presentation of the virus that I found exploring the vast and heterogeneous far-right online ecosystem. Here again, the pandemic has a deep significance within each group’s favoured master narrative.

When listening to the “Great Lockdown Chronicles” and other podcasts uploaded on Democratie Participative (the most brazenly racist platform I have ever come across), I learned that the “Judeo-Satanic” elite had been manoeuvring to let the pandemic spread in order to “turn European populations into slavery”. The pandemic, from this perspective, is yet another “great sacrifice” (like WW1 and WW2) that “they” regularly provoke to keep a grip on their “total power”. Knowing this “truth” can only lead us to support a “confinement of Africa” and take a stand on the ongoing “race war”.

It may sound absurd, but this is not too different to the kind of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories found on the popular “/pol” boards of the “chans” image-boards. On Endchan, I indeed read again that Jews have favoured the spread of the disease, this time allegedly in order to make financial gains (they are said to own vaccine companies, and therefore “to make their shekels off this”). What’s more, “what is causing the chaos, lack of supplies and hoarding” is not the virus itself, but “fear mongering by jewish media”. As always with extremists, the “truth” needs to be exposed: “It’s important to bring realization of this and that jews own the media”. 8kun and the notorious 4chan/pol blame other groups or use the pandemic to recycle old racist tropes. For instance, a poster on 4chan/pol “joked”: “Black man here how do u rape and social distance?”. The same day, someone on 8kun argued that the pandemic is the result of Chinese people’s “filth”: “one can barely even class them as ‘human’, and to class them as animals would be an insult to animals. They’re amoeba, primordial leeches, bottom-feeding slime that have never evolved to have anything at all resembling empathy. They almost literally are ant-people, working only for the colony, not stopping to help their fellow chinaman or even spare so much as a thought for another in that person’s time of need”. COVID-19 comes as a good occasion, for these extremists, to embark in their usual racist, anti-Semitic, xenophobic dehumanizing rants…

The white supremacist platform American Renaissance, is, as usual, more polished — but no less racist. For them, the current crisis simply shows the problems of “open borders” (they highlight, for instance, the high number of people who moved from China to the US after the virus had been identified), which has always been one of their main themes. The pandemic creates a window of opportunity for white nationalist policies: in one of their most recent podcasts, Jared Taylor and Paul Kersey for example “celebrate the ruling class’s late-in-life understanding of nationalism”. The virus is of course also said to reveal the problems with “political correctness” — a favourite concept in the alt-right. An article for instance focuses on an Italian official telling that he was “called ‘racist’ for wanting to test China travellers in February”.

In Europe, the islamophobic Gates of Vienna blog — a key inspiration behind Breivik’s infamous “compendium”— published, among many other hogwash, videos of French polemist Eric Zemmour claiming that the pandemic spreads in France because of Muslims’ backwardness, and benefits them at the same time. “Whatever we say”, he argues, it is in neighbourhood where Muslims are predominant that the lockdown is not respected (claiming that he saw “images of war” between the police and inhabitants of the “banlieues”), which leads to a de facto “secession” of “Islamic territories” in Paris, Montpellier and Lyon.

I could go on and tell you about other similar universes, highlighting for each how the pandemic is provided meaning through its insertion within a grand narrative glorifying the ingroup and blaming the outgroup. But you get the point: as you and I are busy homeschooling or struggling to keep up with work, extremists carry on with their obsessions. Some people never, ever stop…

[1] The reader will understand that I do not provide the links to the extremist content discussed in this post — I am, however, happy to provide them in private communication.

[2] Yet at the same time, ISIS’ newspapers were very unlike ours, as they only dedicated a fraction of their pages to the virus, with the majority of articles bragging about the group’s success, explaining its attacks, and displaying gruesome pictures of executions — I told the reader, some people just never stop…

Research impact and the denial of political responsibility

By John Heathershaw

“It’s not a matter of policy, it’s a matter of fact”

This quote is attributed to UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock on the Today programme on 5 May, 2020, in response to the questioning of social distancing rules for the over-70s. But it may just as easily have been attributed to any one of dozens of government ministers and their most senior scientific advisors in recent weeks with respect to testing, PPE, lockdown rules, or any other matters where the government has sought scientific advice. ‘We are led by the science’ is repeated ad nauseam.

While there is a consensus in government on this mantra, in academia the picture is more complicated. A fearsome debate is raging. This is evident in the furore surrounding the UK government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE). A former scientific advisor has set up a shadow group to meet in public, the minutes of official SAGE meetings have been published in heavily-redacted form, and an increasing number of SAGE members have disclosed their identity and taken exception to government policy in public.

The focus of this debate is that of transparency. The critics in science, the media and the political opposition seem to agree that more disclosure will restore trust in the independence of scientific advice. However, what if the problem is neither one of transparency nor even of independence but one of accountability?

This question requires some historical perspective. In the 1980s government funding of research was transformed after the Rothschild Review with an important new demand: demonstrable ‘public benefit’. This move, while commonsensical, established a particular and problematic relationship of accountability — from the academy to the government — in the form of research impact.

Research Impact (hereafter Impact) was formally inaugurated into immediate controversy with the first Research Evaluation Framework (REF) of 2014 which sought to assess, for the first time, “an effect on, change or benefit to the economy, society, culture, public policy or services, health, the environment or quality of life, beyond academia“.

The relationship between science and government in the Covid-19 response may be understood through the REF Impact debate. Impact has always been mired in controversy. Radical critics see Impact as creating an army of unwitting academic servants sacrificing basic research to the demands of short-term problem solving. More constructive voices point to the “heroic” narratives of REF Impact Case Studies (ICSs) in favour of the solo, senior and typically male academic identifying the problem and providing the solution.

The reality of the relationship between policy and evidence is more complex. Two fundamental problems arise from the notion of ‘being led by the science’.

The first problem with ‘being led by the science’ is that the idea of a fixed set of facts is a profound misrepresentation science, particularly with regard to a new natural phenomenon. There are few if any incontrovertible facts in science. Science is driven by controversy, by thesis and counter-thesis. New and complex problems can be cut in many different ways, according to many different models. Scientific consensus on the best approaches takes time to develop. No amount of evidence or transparency avoids the problem of having to decide which combination of models and evidence to place most weight upon.

A second problem is that scientific facts don’t emerge in vacuums but in social environments where they are subject to prevailing wisdoms and political interests. The Observer Effect means that it is not possible to observe something without changing it. Whether or not Dominic Cummings sits in on SAGE meetings, the scientific facts which are collected and the advice which is produced are, to some extent, standpoint-dependent. This much is clear from the “facts” of behavioural scientists and the advice of SAGE in March that a strong lockdown would not be respected by the British public — facts and advice which may have led to 10,000s of excess deaths.

These two epistemological problems are both widely acknowledged by observers of the Covid-19 controversy. However, fundamental though they are, they are in some ways dwarfed by two more basic political issues.

First, which facts and advice triumph is a matter of who is heard. Politicians are masters at selecting their kind of intellectual. There is no evidence to suggest this problem is entirely overcome if civil servants oversee the selection. Bearers of radical ideas are frequently dismissed as unconstructive. More moderate voices which offer win-win solutions are favoured. Daniel Drezner frames this distinction as one between public intellectuals, who often demand structural changes, and Thought-leaders, who present win-win solutions.

Second, as Anand Ghiradaradas argues, thought-leaders are chosen to provide an important function for their political masters: the evasion of responsibility. Thought-leaders within government, such as the Chief Scientific Officer, will repeat government mantras about being led by the science. They will repeat that their advice is independent and even (sometimes) transparent and open to scrutiny. But if they claim, even implicitly, that science speaks with one voice they are effectively conspiring in the denial of political responsibility.

Unfortunately, natural and physical scientists are not necessarily trained to spot the ways in which they are being co-opted for political purposes. Some may be aware of this and break ranks, others not. But ultimate responsibility for government policy, including the current debacle in relations between ministers and scientists, does not belong to them but to our democratically-elected politicians.

This is not a new problem but it is one that appears to have worsened in recent decades under the ‘regulatory state’ whose ministers behave like management consultants. Examples from foreign and domestic policy, Labour and Conservative governments, are abundant. Tony Blair insisted that it was independent evidence that required the Iraq War. David Cameron claimed there was no economic alternative to austerity, evoking Thatcher’s claims about the efficiency of the market.

This is not a problem unique to the UK but it appears to be particularly acute here. The combination of a highly centralised political system and a regulatory state creates both immense responsibility and meagre capacity. No other state appears to have quite this heady mix. But, as an emerging debate on the ‘end of democracy’ suggests, the UK may merely be a particular case the entwining of aspects of technocracy and autocracy with the institutions of democracy across the world.

From the point of view of research impact, this analysis suggests a rethink is required. The purpose of social scientific research is not to provide evidence behind which government can obscure its political choices. It is to lay out the array of possible frames and evidence bases on every possible question – natural, physical, social, cultural. We cannot expect government’s ministers-come-management-consultants to begin accepting responsibility for how they use our research, but we can call this behaviour out and lay down some alternatives. The impact of old-school public intellectuals may be greater than that of the co-opted Thought Leaders. Then, the question for the delayed REF 2021 will be how to measure our real impact on government.

John Heathershaw is Professor of International Relations and Director of Impact, Department of Politics, University of Exeter. The views expressed here are his own.

The pandemic and north-south divides

By Irene Fernandez-Molina, University of Exeter

‘The coronavirus is poised to spread dangerously south’. The global trajectory and mapping of the COVID-19 pandemic suggests a two-stage advance from east to west, and from north to south. Gramsci’s ‘southern question’ could not take long to be raised on all possible scales, from its Italian birthplace to EU politics to the world stage. To what extent is the so-called north-south divide — or divides in plural — a relevant lens to capture some of the current ‘pandemipolitics’?

A passenger has his temperature checked at a South African airport. Image source

There is indeed a very tangible, chronic global north-south gap in health capacities, including both universal health coverage and health worker density. In Africa, the COVID-19 pandemic has called attention to serious shortages of hospital beds, intensive care units, ventilators, surgical masks, medicines and even medical professionals, due to prolonged brain drain. The picture is more mixed when it comes to health emergency preparedness, as some low- and middle-income countries benefit from the experience of dealing with other recent epidemics, such as Ebola in western Africa (2014–2016), in close accordance with WHO guidance. This learning, coupled with awareness of their health system’s fragility, has led many of them to en strict containment measures, including travel restrictions and lockdowns, in very early stages of the pandemic compared to western Europe and North America (is there an additional north-south dimension to social trust, including self-perceptions and assumptions about citizen responsibility?). Also, the population ageing divide between the global north and south is likely to play in the latter’s favour.

More as a side effect but very strikingly, the sharp global north-south (im)mobility divide has suddenly levelled out due to the avalanche of border closures around the world. By the second week of April, 194 countries and territories had enforced mobility restrictions of various sorts. The first African air and sea travel suspensions to prevent access from European countries in mid-March were celebrated in social media with some sense of karma. Since then, as temporary as this might be, the pandemic has in fact put citizens from all states on equal footing in terms of passport power, and even some unheard-of reverse clandestine migratory movements have been reported across the Mediterranean.

Fewer surprises may be expected in relation to the north-south economic capabilities divide. If anything, COVID-19 has brought to the fore a global division of vulnerability whereby the weaknesses of northern economies are increasingly attributed to their neoliberalisation and deindustrialisation, while those of southern states stem primarily from dependence, lack of fiscal space and informality. Over reliance on foreign investment, exports the north, migrant remittances and tourism means that, even if southern countries managed to mitigate their own public health crises, they would still heavily suffer the repercussions of the north’s recession, as happened with the 2008–2009 financial crisis. In other words, they are doomed to pay a double economic price: the cost of domestic containment plus the cost of dependence. Meanwhile, high public debt will hinder the implementation of extraordinary measures to cushion the immediate socio-economic impact of social distancing and lockdowns as well expansionary, stimulus policies to revitalise the economy subsequently.

Finally, the pervasive role of the informal sector in global south economies, especially in terms of employment and inclusion, adds to the lack of a social safety net for much of the population. Upon this background, popular protests against social distancing have erupted in countries ranging from India to Lebanon. Ultimately, the dilemma between dying of the coronavirus and dying of hunger is what draws the line between the global north and the global south in the pandemic’s context. This, of course, distinctly includes the bits of the global south that are present within the global north, and has huge political legitimacy implications.

Two approaches in IR that may help unpack policy responses to this situation. The determinants of the global south state responses can be explored from the perspective of Ayoob’s ‘subaltern realism’ and ‘Third World security predicament’. Looking at the intersection of structural economic dependence and primarily domestic security dilemmas in which ‘the security of the state and the regime become closely intertwined’ yields two interesting observations. First, southern states appear to be now prioritising tackling the public health emergency over economic concerns, which might be unprecedented in history. Second, from Chile to Algeria to Iraq, the ruling authorities of not a few of them have seized mass gathering bans as an opportunity to pause or stifle significant political protest movements, which points towards a conflation of state/human and regime security. Still, whether this temptation is limited to the global south and/or to more authoritarian states within it remains unclear.

Southern state responses to COVID-19 can also be examined as part of north-south burden-sharing in the provision of the global public good that is health. In this respect we can distinguish between the burden of containment, which involves interrelated political legitimacy and economic costs in the short to medium term, and the long-term financial burden that will result from sharp rises in the level of public debt. How are the two burdens going to be distributed? The containment burden is currently weighing on most of the world’s states, albeit not evenly, and particularly less intensely in a few global north countries that have opted for limited social distancing measures. Southern countries are generally shouldering their part, primarily out of self-interest — as their health system’s fragility leaves them no alternative — but also as an indispensable contribution to the global control of the pandemic. The latter expectation transpires from many current comments, which raise the spectre of COVID-19’s potential re-transmission from the southern hemisphere back to the north in the winter of 2020–2021.

Global north states could compensate for the southern states’ disproportionate containment burden by stepping up their contribution in carrying the financial burden. By mid-April, 90 countries had applied for emergency support or debt relief from the IMF. The IMF has in turn called on the G20 to ‘do their part’ as creditors, easing the debt burden of poorest states, and as donors, building up contributions to international financial institutions. However, for the time being the G20 has only agreed a ‘time-bound’ suspension of debt service payments, and has refrained from any new financial resource commitments such as for the IMF’s special drawing rights.

In short, global burden-sharing in the COVID-19 crisis is likely to be asymmetrical in the sense that southern states have little choice but to cooperate in containment, while there is no compulsion for northern states to contribute more financially.

Unity in times of crisis? How power sharing societies respond to Covid-19

by Henry Jarrett, University of Exeter

Parliament Buildings, or ‘Stormont’; the home of the Northern Ireland Assembly, Belfast, Northern Ireland.

On 20 March 2020, Northern Ireland First Minister and Democratic Unionist Party leader, Arlene Foster, stated that tackling the Covid-19 pandemic is not an ‘orange or green issue’ and that the Executive is united in its approach to the outbreak . For many this comes as a welcome deviation from the traditional divisions of unionism and nationalism that have dictated politics in Northern Ireland since its establishment in 1921.

Unity at times of crisis in divided societies is not, however, a new phenomenon. As part of the Indian independence movement of the mid-nineteenth to mid-twentieth centuries, for example, members of many different religious and ethnic communities united to achieve an end to British colonial rule. Similarly, during the Arab Spring protests of the early 2010s, people of different groups and with often opposing positions came together to bring about regime change in several states in the Middle East and North Africa. In both of these cases, however, this consensus largely dissipated once the objective had been realised. So, can it be argued that crises can achieve unity in societies where power is shared between groups? And is Covid-19 such a crisis? 

Power sharing governments often struggle to be formed and are generally limited in their ability to effectively agree upon policy. In Bosnia-Herzegovina, for example, just 30% of legislation proposed between 2006 and 2010 was signed into law, while the Northern Ireland Assembly has only recently emerged from a three-year suspension largely caused by ethno-national disagreement. Perhaps more than any other issue in living memory, the Covid-19 pandemic requires a fast response that can only be achieved through unity in power sharing societies and attention will now turn to analyse if this is being realised. 

Despite Foster’s call for Northern Ireland’s response to the pandemic not to be dictated by unionist and nationalist division, when schools in the United Kingdom (including Northern Ireland) remained open, Michelle O’Neill — Deputy First Minister and Sinn Fein leader in the region — broke ranks with the Executive and argued that they should immediately be closed . While this was ostensibly a policy standpoint, many were quick to highlight that its implementation would bring Northern Ireland in line with the Republic of Ireland, where schools had already closed, and O’Neill herself stated that ‘we live on one island, we need one approach to this situation. We need to work together and be aligned’. 

Although there are likely to be genuine health concern driven reasons for O’Neill to promote this policy (which was indeed implemented in the UK soon after), it is also possible that she is using the pandemic as a vehicle from which to continue to promote the Sinn Fein objective of Northern Ireland’s increased alignment with the Republic of Ireland and eventual Irish unity. This example is evidence to suggest that the crisis caused by the Covid-19 pandemic is not at present bringing about a bona fide united response from the unionist and nationalist power sharing government in Northern Ireland. 

Power sharing governments are limited not only in their ability to provide a unified response to crises but also in their ability to respond swiftly enough. This is evident in the case of Malaysia — divided between the ethnic Malay, Chinese and Indian communities — which has been criticised for its slow response to the outbreak. Writing in Foreign Policy, Varagur argues that the political crisis caused by Mahathir Mohamad’s decision on 24th March to resign as prime minister delayed the country’s response to Covid-19 until after a new power sharing executive had been established . Although such delays are common in power sharing societies due to the fragmented nature of politics, they are particularly problematic within the context of a fast-moving pandemic. 

Lebanon faces similar obstacles. Since October 2019 the state has experienced widespread protests due to high unemployment, economic stagnation and corruption attributed to the ineffectiveness of its sectarian political system. Like in Malaysia, the Lebanese government has been criticised for its response to the outbreak, which is argued to be the result of claims that the country is unable to afford a shutdown similar to those implemented in many European states at a time of economic strife . The examples of Malaysia and Lebanon show that power sharing politics is often marred by political infighting and public protests that impact upon the ability of governments to effectively respond to crises, and the Covid-19 pandemic is no different. 

Covid-19 represents one of the greatest challenges for generations for governments of many states worldwide. It is, however, important to recognise that not all are able — or indeed willing — to respond equally. In many societies with power sharing we have until now witnessed  executives being unable to agree upon a unified approach or being limited in their response by factors related to the nature of sectarian politics. With the pandemic ongoing and showing few signs of abating at present, it remains to be seen if political actors in these societies can see the bigger picture of crisis management.

COVID-19 and the Politics of Responsibility

by Beverley Loke, University of Exeter

Individuals, societies and states all around the world are making drastic changes to their daily lives and modes of governance in response to COVID-19. Within this context, the discourse of ‘responsibility’ has been prevalent, with appraisals and judgments made on various actors.

As I explore in my research, the notion of responsibility is deeply social and political. It is both prescriptive (role expectations of an actor’s obligations) and evaluative (where praise and blame can be assigned), and it is this duality that allows for projections, demands and accountability to be made in the context of evolving norms of appropriate conduct.

It is important to recognise, however, that the location, object and nature of responsibility (respectively, responsibility by whom, to whom and for what) are often highly contested. Although responsibilities may be claimed and shouldered, they can just as easily be deflected, denied and shirked. The language of responsibility can also be mobilised and manipulated for instrumental purposes. As the current coronavirus pandemic bitterly reveals, this politics of responsibility is playing out across all levels of international society.

US and Chinese Presidents Donald Trump (left) and Xi Jinping (right) and their advisers face each other over a negotiating table.

Individual and Social Responsibility

On one level, this pandemic has laid bare the privileging of individual agency and personal freedom over socially responsible practice. Many have shrugged off expert advice and safe distancing measures, instead holding ‘lockdown parties’ and anti-lockdown protests. Others have engaged in ugly and criminal behaviour such as profiteering, stigmatisation, racism and deliberately coughing on frontline staff and vulnerable groups.

Amidst all this, however, we have also witnessed an outpouring of collective responsibility. To be sure, the pandemic has starkly exposed staggering social inequalities and class cleavages, providing a sobering reminder of the world we live in. As Rodrigo Fracalossi de Moraes rightly points out, ‘there are two pandemics: one for the well-off and one for the poor’. But societies are also coming together in solidarity and as we adopt more reflexive and socially responsible behaviour, there are surely opportunities to build roadmaps toward greater social cohesion.

National Responsibility

If the current pandemic has highlighted the tensions between individual agency and varying degrees of social compliance, it has also very fundamentally called into question the modern state’s responsibilities to its citizens.

States are charged with multiple responsibilities and governments around the world are undoubtedly facing enormous challenges in their fight against COVID-19. But the pandemic response scorecard has been highly varied. Countries such as South Korea and New Zealand have largely received praise for their pandemic preparedness and effective management of the outbreak. They demonstrate most clearly that non-traditional security challenges must be at the forefront of a state’s comprehensive security agenda and defence priorities.

COVID-19 has nevertheless thrown into sharp relief how numerous governments have spectacularly failed to fulfil their responsibilities. Under-investment in public health has left hospitals pleading for critical resources. Effective government communication has been left wanting: mixed, bungled messaging has led to significant public confusion and China’s censorship and initial cover up has contributed to a more widespread outbreak. Mobilisation has been sluggish, driven by denial, complacency and mismanagement. Many governments downplayed the severity of the crisis even as they watched it unfold in China, believing the outbreak to be far away. While US President Trump has since come to terms with this severity, he continues to deny and deflect any and all responsibility for his administration’s COVID-19 response.

With COVID-19 now an unmistakable poster child for securitisation, there are also rising concerns about the abuse of emergency state powers. Philippine President Durterte’s shoot-to-kill orders and Hungarian Prime Minister Orbán’s ability to indefinitely govern by decree, for instance, raise important questions about how the language of national responsibility is being used to justify extreme state measures.

International Responsibility

It is at the international level, however, where the politics of responsibility is playing out most intensely. Yes, states are often required to make judicious choices between various responsibilities and they have, understandably, turned inwards to prioritise their domestic responsibilities in the current crisis. But in dealing with a pandemic that completely disregards borders, national and international responsibilities should not be viewed as conflicting obligations. Imposing export bans on critical medical supplies and restricting supply chains are detrimental in the long run, especially for countries that have not yet seen the level of outbreaks in Italy, Spain and the US, but likely will. Global governance institutions also currently offer little promise. At a time when coordinated multilateral responses are urgently needed, the US has halted WHO funding, the EU is facing a crisis of solidarity, the UN Security Council is remarkably silent and the G20 is painstakingly slow in mapping concrete ways forward. 

Most prominently, great power responsibility in the US-China relationship has been sorely lacking. As Hedley Bull has written, great powers have special responsibilities to manage their relations and impart a central direction in the orchestration of world affairs. In both of these domains, China and the US have shirked rather than shouldered their managerial responsibilities. Instead of displaying global leadership by rallying multilateral efforts to mitigate the global public health and economic crisis, they have been locked in a blame game over the origins of the virus. While both leaders have since pledged to cooperate in the fight against COVID-19, tangible responsible stewardship remains to be seen. The US-China relationship is clearly grounded in real and fundamental differences, and these will not be reconciled anytime soon. Fighting this pandemic nevertheless requires Beijing and Washington to cooperate based on shared interests and to take the lead in joint crisis management. Unless they navigate their great power relationship through this strategy of selective collaboration, they are well on their way to becoming ‘the great irresponsibles’.

Moving towards a Post-Pandemic World

COVID-19 has exposed multiple fault lines of responsibility across all levels of international society. Tough questions are being asked about our social fabric, the role of the state and a deficient global response. When we ultimately emerge from this emergency crisis mode, we need to fundamentally rethink the ways in which we operate as societies and states, and the ways in which global governance mechanisms function. As we navigate these important questions on the politics of responsibility, we should not waste the opportunity to reassess, reinvent, redistribute and reform.

COVID-19 and the Contradictions of Interdependence

by Patrick Holden, University of Plymouth

The human experience of COVID-19 is full of contradictions. We talk of society ‘coming together’ by implementing social distancing and refraining from normal human relations. Notwithstanding the incongruities, the pandemic has demonstrated in the most vivid way possible that ‘society’ is a thing. Whatever our pretensions to individualism we share physical spaces and particulates on a daily basis. This interdependence has also been (re) illustrated at the global level, again in contradictory ways. It has demonstrated the very real interdependence of bio-systems and political structures. Strict European regulation of animal welfare and food safety has not saved Europe from viruses emerging in other parts of the world (while the industrialised agriculture we are all complicit in helps create these new diseases).  On the other hand the political, economic and public policy implications of the virus seem to diminish cooperative interdependence.

As has been often mentioned, COVID-19 has reiterated the fundamental importance of the state. Even in an integrated region such as the EU it makes an enormous difference whether you reside in (for example) Germany, Sweden or Italy in terms of the policy response, economic impact and your likely health outcomes. Sovereign governments still have the ultimate power over regulation of society, control of borders, taxation and maintenance of the economy.

To combat the virus many of the flows of what we can call globalization have been halted (in terms of people and many goods, though not finance or digital interaction). Some of this will be temporary but the political economy paradigms seem likely to change. In a global economy, countries rely on being able to import even the most fundamental products (food for the UK, essential medicines for the US). The perils of this are evident as states compete for access to scarce medical equipment (only the European Union has made an effort to moderate this, within its region). Many states have paced temporary restrictions on the exports of key equipment and medicines (see the WTO’s list here) while trade more broadly has been decimated due to the national societal and economic shutdowns.

So what does this mean for the theory and practice of interdependence? In contemporary IR it emerged via the concept of ‘complex interdependence’ in the 1970s and also informed international regime theory (in some senses a forerunner of globalization theory). Keohane and Nye argued that relationships like, for example, the US-Mexico relationship had so many forms and levels of mutual interaction (including many different forms of societal, economic, security, ecological, political interdependence) that domination, even for a power such as the US, was not practical and cooperation was a necessity.

Practical interdependence provided the basis for a lot of international regime theory, which offered a hard-headed counter point to realist statism (stressing that international institutions mattered not because of high minded liberal idealism but because of the practical imperatives for cooperation over issues such as monetary policy and trade). Generally regarded as a liberal concept it was criticised as obscuring the real power realities by those who, whether based on a realist (usually state-based) or a Marxist (class and economic forces based) perspective, retained a rigorous focus on power. Susan Strange’s unique analytical framework  disdained the term interdependence; what, after all, did it mean to say that the US and Guatemala were interdependent? The term asymmetric interdependence offered a little more precision and ‘realism’ here.

Interdependence as concept also permeated what can be called globalization theory (some of the excesses of which are now painfully evident) and ideas of global governance. Liberal globalization in particular rested on classic liberal economic assumptions that states should not pursue autarchy or self-reliance but could rely on being able to purchase what they need in the global market.

What new forms of interdependence will emerge after this crisis? There is no determinism here. Certainly the intensity and scope of this shock may result in new political regimes with radically different socio-economic policies. Globalization still has its defenders, Sandbu argues that intelligent globalization can bolster national resilience (there was nothing to prevent states buying cheap emergency equipment and stockpiling it for events like these, or at least globalization was not the reason that did not take place).

It is certainly true that no average country could aspire to even a limited form of autarchy. Could the UK feed its 66 million people? Could Honduras make its own medical equipment? A vision of regional (as in continental and sub-continental) autarchies based on regional supply chains is perhaps more realistic. However, we have often had predictions of the world devolving into protective regional blocs but that dog has not barked (partly because most regions are hopelessly divided).

Also, as Hans Kundnani notes, thus far only some elements of economic/financial globalization have been shut down (financial flows and the digital economy are proceeding and expanding in the latter case). Although anger at China is evident, the need for the PPE and medicines it produces is more acute than ever at the moment, thus countries pursue a delicate balancing act (in some cases between racist scapegoating and commerce).

 As noted, interdependence is generally regarded as a liberal concept as it implies a need for cooperation, but it could also be read as implying a need for domination.  Absolute domination is not practical but could we see heightened struggle to control the commanding heights of technological, financial and economic networks or what Farrell and Newman call the ‘choke points’ of interdependence? If states emerge with new, more radical, socio-economic visions from this crisis they will have to navigate these also.

Patrick Holden is Programme Leader of the Masters in International Relations, and leader of the Global Instability and Justice Research Group, at the University of Plymouth.

Why ‘it’ happens: Disease, non-humans, and political change

By Brieg Powel, University of Exeter

One of the central questions asked by policymakers and scholars alike is ‘why did X happen?’. Be ‘X’ a war, a revolution, the collapse of a party’s vote-share, or something else entirely, those who seek to understand, prevent, respond to, or replicate a phenomenon often try to understand how it happened in the first place. The coronavirus outbreak of 2019–20, however, forces us all to reassess how we go about answering that question.

An artist’s impression of Uruk around 3500 BCE. Source

Indeed, a striking feature of the Covid-19 outbreak has been its dramatic reminder to both policymakers and scholars of the need to factor non-human ‘things’ such as disease into our understanding of apparently ‘human’ affairs. This is not to say that they were entirely absent: for instance, back in 2008 the United Kingdom government identified ‘pandemic influenza’ as the one threat likely to have the most impact on public life and as being one of the most likely to occur. In 2019, the year that Covid-19 first appeared, the UK was ranked second only to the United States for overall preparedness for public health crises in the Global Health Security Index. Nevertheless, such high regard meant little as the UK’s reported Covid-19 death toll quickly overtook that of China’s, and the US became world leader in a much grimmer, league table of death. The fragility of even the apparently ‘most prepared’ health systems prompted leading public health and societal risk experts to judge that the UK was ‘wholly unprepared’ and that its response was scientifically flawed on multiple levels. The truth, as some were quick to point out, was that policymakers much prefer to spend money on fighting other humans than on more abstract non-human challenges, from our microbial competitors to climate change and biodiversity collapse. Human matters are elevated above the non-human, regardless of their interdependency.

Academic debates over ‘what causes “X”?’ are equally blinkered, albeit without the mortal consequences of governmental policy failures. Colleagues at the Duck of Minerva blog note the distinct lack of public health-focused articles in leading International Relations journals between 1980 and 2017, with American scholarship particularly weak in this regard. Issues such as interstate war and deterrence dominate despite the clear recent decline in such conflicts and the sometimes-seismic impact of disease on the human world. Within our scholarly communities, contemplation of the empirical and theoretical implications of non-humans in the social world has typically been limited to ecologically-focused work, with dominant approaches and theories preoccupied by human actors and human-centred explanations. Promisingly, scholarship around ‘posthuman’ international relations, actor-network theory, and new materialism has increasingly challenged such blind obsessions with humans at the expense of the broader world in which all human processes occur. Nevertheless, even these critiques often fall short of considering pandemics and their associated microbes.

What is needed is a more consistent appreciation of the transformative impact of non-humans on human life and society by policymakers and thinkers alike, along with policies and scholarship that recognise humanity as only part of a complex smorgasbord of interdependent life and chemical elements. After all, Covid-19 itself is a zoonotic disease brought about by the interweaving of human and non-human life (the first known human Covid-19 variant is specifically related to a virus found in bats and pangolins). All human relations are embedded in and continuously shaped by things beyond the human, including disease.

Moreover, human relations have long been so, and by researching across disciplines we can arrive at a fuller picture. As medical microbiologist Dorothy Crawford noted, microbes and pathogens have always been humanity’s ‘deadly companions’ over the millennia. The DNA of many of modern humanity’s ‘childhood diseases’, such as measles, dates their emergence to the very same time and place as the intensification of farming and urbanisation in Mesopotamia around 5000 BCE. Work by archaeologists on the first ‘international systems’, such as the ‘Uruk world system’, may be significant for identifying the importance of ‘international’ factors in the evolution of the first ‘states’. This ‘system’ was driven by trade and the exchange of goods and ideas between increasingly settled populations from the Caucuses to the Persian Gulf, and the Iranian Plateau to the eastern Mediterranean. Yet as anthropologist James Scott observes, it also spread the new diseases ever further, making state extinction de-urbanisation (as populations fled disease-filled cities) as much features of the era as state formation and urbanisation. Humanity and politics have thus been shaped by disease and the natural world just as we have shaped them.

Similarly, viral and bacteriological pathogens have often played a pivotal role in many ‘what ifs?’ of international relations. Dysentery, for one, has long been and remains a powerful influencer of armies’ potency, thereby influencing some notable political processes. For instance, the French Revolution faced a real prospect of defeat before it had the chance to establish itself as, in 1792, the armies of key European powers under the First Coalition invaded France to quash the revolution. Their efforts soon floundered, however, as the Coalition army led by Prussia (a leading military power of the day) was decimated by dysentery. As historian David Bell explains:

Many Prussians suffered so greatly that they could not even drag themselves to the latrines, turning their bivouacs into mephitic “shit camps”. Of the 42,000 who crossed the French border, fully a fifth did not even make it to the site of the first major battle, and many of those who did could barely stand.

The climactic battle at Valmy was a rousing French victory, and the first French Republic was declared two days later.

Such cases are important reminders of the susceptibility of politics to disease and the formative role pathogens have played on socio-political processes, from state formation to revolutions. More broadly, they reinforce the need for us to think of ourselves not as all-powerful masters of the universe, immune to non-humans, but as one part of a co-evolving set of connections and relations wherein sometimes, perhaps more often than we realise, non-human factors such as disease play a key role in why ‘it’ happens.