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

By Elena Gadjanova, University of Exeter

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

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

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

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

Executive overreach

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

Human rights and civil liberties

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

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

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

Electoral integrity

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

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

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

Polarization and inequality

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

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

In sum: accelerating divergence

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

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

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

By Angela Cassidy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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

by Henry Jarrett, University of Exeter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

COVID-19 and the Politics of Responsibility

by Beverley Loke, University of Exeter

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

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

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

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

Individual and Social Responsibility

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

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

National Responsibility

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

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

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

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

International Responsibility

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

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

Moving towards a Post-Pandemic World

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

COVID-19 and the Contradictions of Interdependence

by Patrick Holden, University of Plymouth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

State of exception: balancing democratic freedoms with public safety, managing the Coronavirus outbreak in Italy

By Saipira Furstenberg, University of Exeter.

Italy, a country known for its convivial outdoor lifestyle, is today shuttered by the coronavirus. I am in Trieste, located in the northeast of Italy between the Adriatic Sea and Slovenia’s peak. The Italian port city, usually packed with tourists and local noisiness from Piazza dell’Unita, is today deserted. Its streets are empty, all shops and restaurants are closed except for newsagents, pharmacies and supermarkets.  There are few people on the streets, trying to avoid each other by staying one metre apart, as per the health authorities’ guidelines. The anxiety is palpable.

Since the outbreak of the virus, the government has introduced extraordinary measures to contain the epidemic and stop its further contamination. The government has effectively securitised the outbreak by imposing draconian measures such as banning public and social gatherings, closing schools and universities, and limiting travel nationwide which further restricts freedom of movement.

A house in Italy during the Covid-19 lockdown. Source

For weeks, the entire population have remained at home and only permitted to go outside only for emergency reasons such as attending medical appointments or to purchase basic provisions. Police has been deployed on the streets to enforce the government’s measures. These are the largest limitations on freedom of movement in the country since the second world war.

Italy quickly registered the highest reported death toll and number of confirmed infected cases behind China. However, the problem is not in number of death or people tested positive for the virus, the real issue is in number of beds available in the intensive-care units. As the head of Lombardy’s intensive-care crisis unit, Antonio Pesenti reports: “some of the best hospitals in Europe are in Lombardy, yet they are  on the brink of collapse”, “ we have to set up beds for intensive care in hallways”. The situation in Italian hospitals in the North has been described as  ‘war like’ with doctors having to choose who to safe from death. The fear is that the epidemic will run out of control and will move towards other parts of the country.

The virus has disrupted travel and halted manufacturing in the country. To mitigate the consequences of the national quarantine, the government has offered aid package to help to families and businesses. Yet such measures might be insufficient to support the country’s already fragile economy.

If nothing else, the crisis has created a sense of unity in Italy and abroad. Across social media the hashtag #iorestoacasa (“I’m staying at home”) is trending. On the radio celebrities are encouraging the public to take the government measures seriously. 

The extraordinary measures introduced by the Italian government are a test for our democratic values balancing freedom with public safety. The lockdown has already led to instabilities in the country with riots breaking out in prisons, after visits were banned, as a part of broader government’s effort to curb the spread of the virus. Shortly after the release of the leaked draft limiting travel in Lombardy and regions in North of Italy, thousands panicked and rushed in train stations or jumped into their cars to flee South.

Since the outbreak of the virus, the Italian prime minister Giuseppe Conte said that the country faces a ‘national emergency’. Such declarations in political science reflects broader theoretical patterns of state of exception. The idea of state of exception introduced by Carl Schmitt refers to a situation where a state is confronted with a moral threat or state of emergency which allows the state to transcend the rule of law in the name of the public good, thus to violate its own sovereignty principles to save itself. As Agamben notes (1998, p. 174) it enables the ‘creation of a space in which the normal order is de facto suspended’. While the state interventionist measures might be justified exceptional can be also subject to abuse: who decides on the exception? Whose interests it serves? And how can we reverse to the normal situation once state of exception is over?

Both Agamben and Schmitt define the concept of sovereignty as the one who possess the power to initiate a state of exception. As their readings demonstrate, there are paradoxical nondemocratic features of sovereignty power. There is no doubt that state of exception in Italy extends democratic governing principles to authoritarian practices with the imposition of a police-state to ensure public safety. In the long term, prolonging the state of emergency might lead to damage the rule of law and civil liberties. Yet the state has also the responsibility to protect its citizens against threats that might affect their security, health and welfare. Additionally, the fact is that states are increasingly embedded in global web of interconnections, where the action of one state can inherently affect the domestic affairs of another state. As such, the respect and the integrity of sovereign nation might be compromised if it puts other nations and their population at risk. In the present context, the threat of coronavirus is stateless in origin, however it is transnational in scope. Therefore, the drastic measures adopted by the Italian government to contain the virus justify its exceptional interventions. What the current crisis demonstrates is that the decision to contain the virus lies on its people and their willingness to collaborate with the government. In times of crisis it is the government’s duty is to protect its people, it is now down to people to trust their government.

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.