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.

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.