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

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.

On the Securitization of COVID-19

By Stephane Baele, the University of Exeter

As the COVID-19 pandemic accelerates its propagation across the world, extraordinary measures are being taken by every single government: drastic confinement is ordered, massive liquidities are injected in national economies, the army is deployed in the streets, borders are closed, and the State pays private sector salaries. These are unprecedented developments for peace time. I do not call into question the effectiveness of these measures to tackle the epidemic; rather, I  build on Pandemipolitics’ first post (Heathershaw) to further unpack the process by which they have been presented as necessary by governments, and widely accepted as such by populations. Specifically, I understand this as a clear case of securitization, which I suggest allows us to highlight some of the less obvious socio-political implications the pandemic will have on the longer run.

What is “securitization”?

One of the initial formulations of the concept argues that securitization happens when “an issue is presented as an existential threat, requiring emergency measures and justifying actions outside the normal bounds of political procedure”. In their excellent handbook, Peoples and Vaughan-Williams define it as “the shifting of an issue out of the realm of ‘normal’ political debate into the realm of emergency politics by presenting it as an existential threat”. More sophisticated definitions, such as Balzacq’s, encapsulate the full scope of “heuristic artefacts” (“metaphors, policy tools, image repertoires, analogies, stereotypes, emotions, etc.”) that can be “mobilized by a securitizing actor” in order to convince the audience that a “referent subject [has] such an aura of unprecedented threatening complexion that a customized policy must be undertaken immediately”. The concept has, in particular, proved to be useful to study the consequences of securitizing moves, especially the development of extraordinary politics in the longer run.

The securitization of the coronavirus

This is where the theory could help us make sense of the politics of COVID-19. Indeed without a doubt, the coronavirus has been securitized. The presentation of the disease has shifted from a distant health issue, to a fundamental security threat requiring emergency measures bypassing normal politics. Governments and scientists (the securitizing actors) have invested the virus (the referent subject) with the “aura of unprecedented threatening complexion” against a series of different referent objects – people’s lives, the Nation/State, health services, society, etc. – to justify the unprecedented measures evoked above.

On March the 16th, Emmanuel Macron for instance proclaimed France to be “at war” — a classic and powerful securitizing analogy that immediately justifies wartime measures such as curfews or the establishment of a State-led economy. “Never had France had to take such decisions in time of peace”, he added, calling for a “sacred union” and arguing that “all these measures are necessary for our security”, to “protect our fellow citizens and the Nation’s cohesion”.

The very same day, Boris Johnson used the same war rhetoric when talking about the “national fight back” against the virus, warning that it would require “drastic action” and “extreme measures” that “are unprecedented since World War 2”. The disease, he said, “is so dangerous and so infectious that without drastic measures to check its progress it would overwhelm any health system in the world”. “We’re going to win, we’re going to beat it”, he added, as “we have the resolve and the resources to win the fight”.

Across the globe, leaders have similarly used what we called a “security lexicon” to present the virus as a fundamental threat.

So what? Thinking points on the securitization of COVID-19

Isn’t such a framing exactly what’s needed? Perhaps, but as noted above, securitization theory nonetheless identifies a series of potentially problematic effects of such framings. I build on previous studies on the securitization of diseases (for example contributions by Elbe, Sjostedt, McInnes & Rushton, or Watterson & Kamradt-Scott) to sketch below four such effects.

First, securitization is powerful. In the right circumstances, securitizing an issue can prompt a widespread acceptance of measures that would be unthinkable in normal deliberative circumstances. Left-wing people come to endorse repression, liberals suddenly support “Big Government”. I recently ran an experiment with my colleagues Travis Coan and Olivier Sterck, to evaluate the impact of quantitative information on the convincingness of securitizing language. The issue we tried to securitize was tuberculosis, and our results in terms of numbers’ power were unclear. Why? We were simply too successful in securitizing the disease: with or without numbers, almost everyone backed our extraordinary measures, even though they were “blatantly harsh”. We observed that “even left-leaning subjects tended to agree to the idea that TB is a security threat that needs to be addressed by harsh executive security measures targeting immigrants and the poor”. With such enthusiasm for emergency measures, we could hardly detect the effect of numbers…

This leads me to the second point: securitization comes with a danger of creating enemies from categories of people that are framed as threatening. In our study, the securitizing actor suggested that the poor and immigrants were more likely to contract tuberculosis and contaminate others — our extraordinary measures, which included the use of force to test them and criminalization if they were positive, were widely accepted. Even if most official speeches in the context of COVID-19 have not singled out particular groups, xenophobic remarks against people from Asian descent have been widely reported, and Trump’s labelling of the disease as a “foreign” or “Chinese” virus certainly encourage in-/out-groups dynamics. In the longer run, new lines of categorization and marginalization are likely to appear to fill the need for blame and control.

Third, with securitization short-term security measures eclipse long-term alternative ones. When the recent Ebola outbreak spread to Western states such as the US and Spain, the virus was immediately securitized. Quite rightly, assistance to Western Africa was geared towards a strong, immediate response involving the military. Yet the epidemic — and African states’ inability to face it — was also, if not primarily, a development and poverty issue, and policies addressing these underlying, structural factors have been side-lined by the militaristic emergency approach. Relatedly, security professionals are preferred to non-security actors, creating a “militarization of public health”. As Elbe explained for the case of HIV/AIDS, “the language of security simultaneously pushes responses to the disease away from civil society toward military and intelligence organizations with the power to override the civil liberties of persons living with HIV/AIDS”. As he also showed, this logic means that national responses privilege a national conception of security than an international understanding of risk. For COVID-19, it will be crucial to ensure that the security frame does not engulf alternative ones.

Fourth, while securitization is (relatively) easy, de-securitization is hard. Extraordinary measures are a resilient beast, they are hard to dismantle and can be cumulative. They may be scaled down at one point, but rarely to the initial situation. In this regard, the laws and decrees granting almost unlimited powers to governments to “do whatever it takes” to “beat” the pandemic will generate a problematic heritage once the medical situation settles. Some voices have emerged to establish surveillance on these powers, from worries in Belgium that the Prime Minister obtained a “blank cheque” to the EU and Hungarian political opponents worrying that Orban obtained extraordinary powers for an unlimited timespan. These voices, however, are still marginal. In particular, the request by states and the EU to obtain mobile operators’ data to track movement, inspired by South Korea’s “tech” response, may set a perilous precedent. 

All in all, what the securitization of COVID-19 thus indicates, is that real political struggles will only begin when the pandemic wanes — and this will happen in the difficult context of a global economic recession…

Post-scriptum on the COVID-ization of Securitization theory

I am tempted to use this post to add some, more theoretical, afterthoughts. I would like to suggest that just like our societies are challenged and re-shaped by COVID, similarly Securitization theory is unlikely to be left intact by the virus. Let me briefly enunciate, for the reader to reflect on, three questions that will need to be (re-)asked.

First, this pandemic will inevitably transform the debate on the “normative” character of Securitization theory (see for example Aradau, Floyd, or Roe). For some, Securitization theory is a critical theory aimed at highlighting and denouncing the problematic by-products of securitization highlighted above; securitization is understood to be a negative development. Yet the current pandemic seems to show that securitization may at times be warranted. At the heart of this renewed debate will be the tension, in the theory, between the objective and subjective dimensions of the threat — a tension too often deemed secondary.

Second, the ongoing developments are likely to prompt discussions on the role of legitimacy in securitization processes. The legitimacy of the securitizing actor has traditionally been understood as a “felicity condition” enhancing the change of success — but is it necessarily the case? Divisive leaders like Johnson, presidents with ailing approval ratings such as Macron, or PMs with very low social capital such as Belgium’s Wilmes, have seen their actions supported and their position reinforced across political lines, suggesting that legitimacy can also be an output of securitization.

Third and finally, this situation is also likely to invigorate research on the role of science and technical expertise in securitization. My own study mentioned above is one of the very few that specifically looks into this issue, and could not provide a clear answer. Some key conclusions from research on statistics’ impact on public perceptions of natural threats (e.g. Kahan’s “cultural cognition” project) seem to be proven wrong. Securitization theorists will have to explain how/when/if numbers participate in the construction of an issue as a fundamental threat, with everyone now attuned to concepts such as “exponential growth”, “R0”, or “inflection point”, and anxiously accessing data-heavy platforms such as Worldometer and the WHO’s or Johns Hopkins University’ coronavirus count websites.

This pandemic is not only a severe challenge to our political systems, as explained above, but also a crash-test for our major theories of IR…

China’s Overseas Investments and the Coronavirus Crisis: Towards Benevolence or Profit?

By Catherine Owen, the University of Exeter

A ‘new settlement‘ in Kyrgyzstan — one of many countries with a high level of Chinese investment under the Belt & Road Initiative (Credit: Owen)

The last week of March was a big day for economic news. While the IMF declared that the world economy was in a COVID-19 induced recession and Fitch credit rating agency downgraded the UK’s credit rating from AA to AA−, observers noted signs that the Chinese economy was beginning to recover from the sudden impact of COVID-19. Although profits were still low, property sales and steel production had more or less returned to normal.

But China’s economy is not out of the woods yet: while the government has implemented a raft of policies to help businesses as they resume operations, there is little it can do to boost the external demand required to sustain its export-based economy. As the global financial devastation wrought by the whirlwind of COVID-19 becomes apparent, will China take advantage of commodities prices’ historic lows and ramp up overseas investments or will it begin to demand timely repayments on its global loan book as domestic purse strings tighten?

In the last two decades, Chinese state-owned banks and enterprises have lent hundreds of billions of dollars to developing countries, leading China to surpass the World Bank and IMF as the world’s largest creditor.  When confronted with COVID-19, developing countries are likely to take the biggest hit in terms of both economics and mortality, as their fragile markets and health systems are pushed to point of collapse. Meanwhile, China’s loans are often secured against commodities, meaning that when borrowers default, countries must cede natural resources or infrastructural apparatus to China.

China’s highly publicised aid-related activities differ sharply from the much more oblique management of its burgeoning overseas financial portfolio, the former constituting more of a global public relations campaign while the latter remains shrouded in secrecy. Indeed, recent research indicates that up to 50% of its loans go unreported.  While the World Bank and the IMF have called on creditors to suspend loan repayments for the world’s poorest countries, Chinese creditors have thus far remained silent. Last month, China Development Bank stated that it would provide low-cost financing and loans for companies involved in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) — but it is not clear whether this referred solely to Chinese companies.

While it will take months for China’s overseas debt management strategy to become clear, there are places we can look for the first signs of emerging trends. Colleagues and I have argued elsewhere that activities at the state’s peripheries are just as significant as central government pronouncements when trying to understand national strategies. Hence, in order to gather an indication of what is to come, we can examine the activities of sub-national Chinese actors in the margins.

The first indication of how things could continue comes from a pronouncement from an economist at the People’s Bank of China, who recently stated that local governments were likely to respond by investing in high-cost infrastructure projects, supported by trillions of yuan of local government bonds released as fiscal stimulus. This could see local governments at China’s peripheries expanding the already extensive cross-border collaboration with low-income neighbouring countries desperate for infrastructure and investment. While BRI construction has temporarily ground to a halt across Central, South and South East Asia, this provides reason to suggest that, once travel restrictions are lifted, BRI-related activities will increase with renewed zeal.

However, the debt-stricken countries on China’s periphery are not able to wait that long. For example, on 26 March, Kyrgyzstan became the first country to receive a soft loan to tackle the economic impact of COVID-19 totalling $120.9 million — not from China but from the International Monetary Fund. Its largely remittance-based economy is taking a further hit as swathes of workers return home from Russia as enforced lockdown is extinguishing work opportunities in Moscow. Heart-breaking stories of people unable to afford to feed their families as food prices have shot up and shops have closed have appeared in the local media. The country has received financial support and donations of masks and personal protective equipment from USAID, the World Health Organization, and the Soros Foundation Kyrgyzstan. While China and Russia have donated much-needed medical equipment, Kyrgyzstan’s debts to China total at least 30% of its GDP with almost half belonging to a single creditor — China’s Export-Import Bank. It is not clear how this debt will be managed in the near term.

Elsewhere, the consequences of unprofitable Chinese overseas investments have become devastatingly apparent. In Australia, when Chinese businessman Liu Dianbo recently closed 34 private hospitals he owned in Australia due to a cited lack of profit. As this case demonstrates, with profits stalling, there is little to prevent Chinese investors from simply shutting down essential infrastructural operations overseas. While strong states like Australia can mobilise other resources to fill this gap, this is far from the case in countries like Kyrgyzstan, where the government is already struggling to respond to the epidemic.

Many other countries in Africa and Southeast Asia are facing comparable situations to that of Kyrgyzstan: corrupt governments, fragile health systems, and large debts to China. How China’s big banks and billionaires respond to the economic crisis ripping through the world will have profound consequences for the living standards of many of the world’s poorest. Some have suggested that the international symbolic capital acquired by China through its comparatively effective management of the pandemic will outweigh the accusations by Western countries that its initial handling of the crisis was poor, and shift normative power further away from Western countries. But how China acts as the world’s largest debt collector during this crisis should also form a large part of this picture.

Extraordinary Measures and ‘Pandemipolitics’

By John Heathershaw, the University of Exeter

“Coronavirus is the most serious public health emergency that has faced the world in a century. We are all targets, but the disease reserves its full cruelty for the weakest and the most vulnerable. To defeat it, we are proposing extraordinary measures of a kind never seen before in peacetime.”

Matthew Hancock MP, 23 March, 2020
Matt Hancock, House of Commons, 25 March, 2020

With vivid speech, the UK’s Secretary of State for Health moved the truly unprecedented Coronavirus Bill. The virus was presented as akin to a biological weapon. Politics begat security. Hancock’s was a speech act animated by ‘the specific quality characterizing security problems: Urgency; state power claiming the legitimate use of extraordinary means; a threat seen as potentially undercutting sovereignty, thereby preventing the political “we” from dealing with any other questions’.

This definition speaks to the tension between so-called ‘traditional’ and ‘non-traditional’ security affairs which has defined the study and practice of security since before the end of the Cold War. Pandemics are non-traditional in that they are not leading matters of statecraft driven by rivalries between great powers. But they are also not new, even if they have been relatively neglected by IR journals. Plagues have plagued us for years. However, the closest comparator to Covid-19 — the so-called ‘Spanish Flu’ of almost 100 years ago — was dwarfed in political consequence by the Great War which preceded it, although this took far fewer lives.

A further tension, which our current crisis lays bare, is that between objective and subjective dimensions of security. Covid-19 is a matter of security. But it is not traditionally or naturally so. It is made so by political processes of the modern ‘risk society’ which seeks to manage every problem through expertise, management and planning. According to the logic of risk management, risks are technical and data-driven; but these techniques and data effectively politicise, and then securitise, and in so doing transform societies.

Compared to the Spanish Flu, which saw relatively few ‘extraordinary measures’ such as lockdowns, Covid-19 is a security object of far greater consequence. Few people doubt that the world will change dramatically because of the crisis we are currently living few. And yet the evidence so far, and the hope we all have, is that fatalities from the coronavirus will be a tiny fraction of the estimated 50-100 million lives lost from the flu epidemic. And it is not a simple equation of greater measures = fewer deaths. Our politicians cannot be sure whether their counter-measures will kill more than the virus itself.

Certainly science is a driver of these counter-measures but so are in-built, and often unacknowledged, political choices. When a politician condemns a critic of official policy as ‘politicizing a health crisis’, they deny the already-existing pandemipolitics.

This pandemipolitics is structural and long-term. In the UK this includes a history of under-funding and under-staffing which has led to a lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) and ICU beds, among other NHS weaknesses which make it a service of scarcity and efficiency not abundance and effectiveness. It is also individual, short-term and contingent on the choices of leaders to prioritise the economy and emphasise certain scientific ideas (e.g. ‘herd immunity’) over others (e.g. testing and quarantining) in the early stages of the pandemic.

Pandemipolitics are also matters of act and affect. Apparently strident speech acts for extraordinary measures may be undermined by other voices seeking to protect the economy. In sum, the referent objects of securitisation are multiple. As are the modes and means, be they image, sound, or text. This cacophony seems to have created a meta-securitising affect among some where combinations of fear and confusion reign. The emotional content of politics matters.

Pandemipolitics raises questions of gender and identity. So many of the authoritative global voices are strongmen and the language is often stridently paternalistic. In England, Amber Rudd asked Boris Johnson ‘where are all the women?’ in his all-male coronavirus team that has struggled to keep to a consistent line, in contrast to the all-female trio in Scotland. When it comes to global health, women are ‘over-represented in informal care roles and under-represented in leadership, decision making, and senior research roles’. It is clear that some groups — migrants, refugees, the homeless and uninsured of the global north, those subject to the healthcare systems of the global south, — will suffer most.

Pandemipolitics are also profoundly and non-traditionally spatial. The politics of Covid-19 are quintessentially transnational, although they beget traditional great power politics — such as the spat between China and America — and new nationalisms which reassert territorial borders. The virus may have originated in China but it is not in any meaningful sense ‘Chinese’. Viruses do not know the borders that are cleaved to by many. They are exacerbated by globalization but this is not a process which can simply or easily be reversed. How different spatial effects of globalization (migratory, financial, etc…) affect the pandemic is one of the greatest questions we face.

Pandemipolitics foreground environmental, economic, and societal security questions over political and military ones. The virus emanates from a zoological environment which is literally being consumed by the Anthropocene to the point that barriers to zoonotic disease have been increasingly eroded. The economic crisis has almost been simultaneous to the public health one as market crashes and unemployment have followed the lockdowns. Destructive nativisms and anti-Chinese sentiment have been countered by new local and global solidarities.

Finally, pandemipolitics raise great questions of state power. Very often, governments have followed the most vocal groups in society not led them. Apparently ‘bottom-up’ collective action has led supposedly ‘top-down’ government. At the top there is a troubling ideological dimension where authoritarian states have proven more effective than liberal democracies. But this has been overlaid by a tremendous regional variation where Eastern states, both autocracies and democracies like South Korea and Taiwan, most affected by SARS in 2003, have been far better prepared. Institutional memory matters.

All these questions and more deserve scholarly attention. This blog invites contributions which address all these questions and more, from students and scholars of International Relations and beyond. The politics of the crisis may seem like pandemonium but there is no way we can respond to the pandemic which is not political.