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…

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.

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.

What Coronavirus might tell us about capacities and resilience’s in environmental public agencies after a decade of public austerity

By Nick Kirsop-Taylor, University of Exeter

The current coronavirus outbreak has exposed cracks in the NHS that can in many ways be linked to ten years of public sector austerity. But what might these cracks tell us about the resilience of other public agencies, such as environmental agencies who have faced similar funding pressures over the last ten years, and who face systemic challenges in the climate crisis and ecological crisis? In the blog I explore these questions to try and understand what the future of these agencies might look like.

Coronavirus, the NHS, and organisational resilience

The coronavirus outbreak is a national challenge larger than any the UK has experienced since World War Two. Some have suggested that this represents the major test of this political generation, others, that it is a foretaste of other systemic challenges coming down the road; that call for new political and economic thinking. Whilst some have argued that it exposes inherent flaws in liberal democratic political systems real analysis of this might have to wait till the afterward. Most agree that the response of the National Health Service (NHS) and its doctors, nurses and aligned health professionals has been fantastic. Although a popular appreciation of the NHS has been a consistent feature of British social attitudes surveys the preceding ten years of public sector austerity has been showed to of seriously damaged its capacities and capabilities. This period has seen a reduction in state funding compared to projections of need coupled to increases in competitive and commercial structures and reductions in core funding. These have led to increasingly fragmented and dis-jointed services and focus on outsourcing and efficiencies. And whilst the coronavirus might be precipitating a rapid roll back the marketisation and commercialised aspects of the NHS we are witnessing the consequences of when public austerity meets a public health emergency.

Global risks and national austerity

The national risk register recognises global pandemics as the most pressing risk in a world of growing systemic risks. Alongside these however are other systemic global environmental risks that threaten the UK — such as climate change and ecological degradation. Just as the NHS is accountable for mitigating against global public health risks (or at least managing the consequences) public environmental agencies are accountable for meeting the risks of global environmental risks. However, the last decade of austerity has seen these agencies similarly defunded with services increasingly fragmented and privatised to the private sector. Whilst these are normal and accepted aspects of the Thatcherism that has prevailed for the last thirty years. If however we can conclude from coronavirus that systemic challenges require collectivised responses that fragmented public agencies struggle to respond to, then we should be asking what have the impacts of austerity really been on these agencies, and what does this tell us about their capacities and capabilities in meeting challenges such as the climate crisis. Although one political narrative tells that ‘austerity is over’ others show how this only addresses the surface of the deep structural scars left by austerity on the human, social and technical resource capacities of public agencies.

Public environmental organisations and austerity

During austerity the Department for Food, Environment and Rural Affairs saw the largest (real terms) cut in budget of any Ministerial department — and these rolled onto non-departmental semi-autonomous agencies such as Natural England, the Environment Agency and others which saw budget cuts of up to 40%. These have led to internal re-organisations, rationalisations of services, retrenchment towards core functions, declining staff morale and potentially, increasing risk aversion in addressing complex or challenging problems. These have had deep impacts on their human capital, intellectual capital, and institutional capabilities retained within agencies. Certainly, these agencies continue to be staffed by bright, talented and hardworking public servants that have been innovating and trying to lessen the impact of funding cuts throughout the austerity period. However, it can’t be ignored that these agencies have been diminished and made less resilient by austerity. Whilst short-term injections of cash might help (see: The budget 2020), the diminishing of these agencies is not a situation that is easily or quickly rectifiable.  

Uncertain futures

As other blogs on this website highlight, coronavirus might end up as a gateway to social and political change away from the consensus of the last forty years. The consequence of which might be the rejuvenation of strong and resilient public agencies at a cornerstone of managing systemic global risks and mobilising collectivised national responses to those risks that can’t be fully avoided. In contrast others (the fiscal hawks) will argue that, despite the political consequences to the current administration, the cost of coronavirus and an impending contraction of the economy needs to be met through further longer-term rationalisations of public services and agencies. The key question becomes will coronavirus lead to more or less resilient public environmental agencies? A question that will likely be answered by which school of political thought comes to the fore in the current administration in the afterward.

Pandemipolitics and the (Potential) Unmaking of the Liberal World Order

By Gregorio Bettiza , The University of Exeter

The global politics of the current Covid-19 pandemic (i.e. ‘pandemipolitics’) intersects in complex ways with the making, ongoing crisis, and potential unmaking of the liberal world order. What the characteristics of this order are is a hotly debated issue in international relations. Rather than using a clear-cut definition, I tend to think about the liberal order as coming together around four interlocking features which constitute our contemporary, post-Cold War, globalized international system.

First, this order is characterized by a progressive growth of international institutions and rules designed to collectively govern multiple aspects of world affairs. Second, the liberal order is marked by the spread of capitalist modes of production and the forces of economic globalization, largely organized around neo-liberal logics which require the scaling back of the state and thrive on the (relatively) free movement of goods, finance, and people worldwide. Third, this order facilitates and legitimizes the global diffusion of liberal values and institutions, including democratic regimes and universal human rights norms, while simultaneously delegitimizing and stigmatizing non-liberal worldviews and identities. Fourth, and finally, driving many of these processes and structures, are ideas, practices, and interests largely stemming from powerful Western actors.

Flags of United Nations member states

The paradox of the coronavirus pandemic, as John Heathershaw already observes in his post, is that it very much flourishes on the forces which structure this order. International mobility and economic interdependence have contributed to the rapid spread of the virus outside Chinese borders. It is not an accident that some of the most open, rich, and globally connected regions and cities — whether it is Lombardy in Italy, London in the UK or New York in the US, — have been hit the hardest. The rolling back of social securities and healthcare systems in a neo-liberal age of austerity, privatization, and casualization have undermined the capacity of societies and states to respond adequately. Continued poverty and disparities in much of the Global South, are leaving the developing world particularly vulnerable as the pandemic moves in their direction.

Yet Covid-19’s diffusion and international responses — which unsurprisingly include important curbs on globalization and a reassertion of the state, — simultaneously intensify the current crisis of the liberal world order. This is especially the case as pandemipolitics interacts and accentuates existing forces which have been destabilizing this order in past decades: financial and economic crisis; ongoing power shifts, most notably from the West to the East; and the rise of populist, nationalist, and authoritarian politics across regions.

Global cooperation has been sorely lacking. Nationalism and xenophobia are on the rise, while countries compete for medical supplies, machineries and patents to protect their citizens at the expense of others. Borders have quickly hardened, even in the supposedly borderless Schengen Area. Collective European institutions have appeared slow, divided, and out of step with the challenges the situation is posing them. The festering cleavage between Northern and Southern European countries has rapidly reopened and widened, most notably in the context of the ongoing Eurobond debate. American and Chinese global rivalry has intensified even further.

Curbing the virus is requiring that substantial parts of the global economy come to a standstill. A recession, if not even depression, is in the making as businesses are going bankrupt, supply chains are being disrupted, unemployment is soaring, stock markets are tanking, and public deficits are ballooning. Meanwhile, the internetization of our lives and economies is accelerating. Under conditions of lockdown, online giants like Google, Facebook and especially Amazon are becoming even more powerful. Lesser known platforms like Zoom and Houseparty are finding their way into our lives (and data).

Liberal values and institutions are coming under considerable stress. Democracies, principally Western ones, have appeared incompetent and in disarray as they have struggled to keep Covid-19 at bay. According to the available statistics (as of early April), the US and many European states have all surpassed China in the number of cases and deaths. As economic crisis breads populism, the world may likely see further democratic backsliding. Hungary, where Prime Minister Victor Orbán now rules by decree circumventing democratic institutions and practices, may be a warning sign of things to come. Simultaneously, autocracies are appearing to many as more efficient systems and are seizing the (propaganda) moment. Despite bearing important responsibilities, China is effectively presenting itself as part of the solution rather than the problem to the global pandemic. Civil liberties are being threatened as states significantly expand their surveillance capabilities. Covid-19 is proving to be a further boon for surveillance capitalism too.

It may not be all doom and gloom. Another future is possible. As the coronavirus exposes the contradictions and accelerates the crisis of the liberal world order, opportunities for radically changing course may open up. These may include a newfound appreciation, rather than persistent delegitimation, of the state as the provider of public goods and social safety nets. We may see greater investments in healthcare and research, accompanied by a revived trust in science and expertise. Citizens may become increasingly conscious of and resistant to the ever more intrusive forms of surveillance modern technologies facilitate. Decreasing emissions and pollution in a world in lockdown, are likely to provide powerful new data and narratives supporting the fight against climate change. A renewed sense of interdependence and solidarity, that we are all part of a common humanity, could enable greater and fairer forms of global cooperation. A less Western-centric international system may emerge with other regions of the world contributing more actively to global knowledge and norms.

2020 is destined to become an important benchmark in the unfolding crisis of the liberal world order. What lies beyond it is yet unknown. Two different horizons of possibility were explored. A more pessimistic one of rising divisions, authoritarianism, and surveillance, born from an analysis of how current pandemipolitics potentially reinforce a series of ongoing, worrying, global developments. This assessment, however, should be interpreted more as a warning than a prediction of an ineluctable fate. Societies and polities have recurrently had the capacity in the aftermath of critical junctures to create a better world. Which scenario will materialize in the coming decade remains uncertain. What is likely is that today’s global pandemic will bring to an end — for better or worse — the liberal world order as we knew it.

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.