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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *