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.