Extraordinary Measures and ‘Pandemipolitics’

By John Heathershaw, the University of Exeter

“Coronavirus is the most serious public health emergency that has faced the world in a century. We are all targets, but the disease reserves its full cruelty for the weakest and the most vulnerable. To defeat it, we are proposing extraordinary measures of a kind never seen before in peacetime.”

Matthew Hancock MP, 23 March, 2020
Matt Hancock, House of Commons, 25 March, 2020

With vivid speech, the UK’s Secretary of State for Health moved the truly unprecedented Coronavirus Bill. The virus was presented as akin to a biological weapon. Politics begat security. Hancock’s was a speech act animated by ‘the specific quality characterizing security problems: Urgency; state power claiming the legitimate use of extraordinary means; a threat seen as potentially undercutting sovereignty, thereby preventing the political “we” from dealing with any other questions’.

This definition speaks to the tension between so-called ‘traditional’ and ‘non-traditional’ security affairs which has defined the study and practice of security since before the end of the Cold War. Pandemics are non-traditional in that they are not leading matters of statecraft driven by rivalries between great powers. But they are also not new, even if they have been relatively neglected by IR journals. Plagues have plagued us for years. However, the closest comparator to Covid-19 — the so-called ‘Spanish Flu’ of almost 100 years ago — was dwarfed in political consequence by the Great War which preceded it, although this took far fewer lives.

A further tension, which our current crisis lays bare, is that between objective and subjective dimensions of security. Covid-19 is a matter of security. But it is not traditionally or naturally so. It is made so by political processes of the modern ‘risk society’ which seeks to manage every problem through expertise, management and planning. According to the logic of risk management, risks are technical and data-driven; but these techniques and data effectively politicise, and then securitise, and in so doing transform societies.

Compared to the Spanish Flu, which saw relatively few ‘extraordinary measures’ such as lockdowns, Covid-19 is a security object of far greater consequence. Few people doubt that the world will change dramatically because of the crisis we are currently living few. And yet the evidence so far, and the hope we all have, is that fatalities from the coronavirus will be a tiny fraction of the estimated 50-100 million lives lost from the flu epidemic. And it is not a simple equation of greater measures = fewer deaths. Our politicians cannot be sure whether their counter-measures will kill more than the virus itself.

Certainly science is a driver of these counter-measures but so are in-built, and often unacknowledged, political choices. When a politician condemns a critic of official policy as ‘politicizing a health crisis’, they deny the already-existing pandemipolitics.

This pandemipolitics is structural and long-term. In the UK this includes a history of under-funding and under-staffing which has led to a lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) and ICU beds, among other NHS weaknesses which make it a service of scarcity and efficiency not abundance and effectiveness. It is also individual, short-term and contingent on the choices of leaders to prioritise the economy and emphasise certain scientific ideas (e.g. ‘herd immunity’) over others (e.g. testing and quarantining) in the early stages of the pandemic.

Pandemipolitics are also matters of act and affect. Apparently strident speech acts for extraordinary measures may be undermined by other voices seeking to protect the economy. In sum, the referent objects of securitisation are multiple. As are the modes and means, be they image, sound, or text. This cacophony seems to have created a meta-securitising affect among some where combinations of fear and confusion reign. The emotional content of politics matters.

Pandemipolitics raises questions of gender and identity. So many of the authoritative global voices are strongmen and the language is often stridently paternalistic. In England, Amber Rudd asked Boris Johnson ‘where are all the women?’ in his all-male coronavirus team that has struggled to keep to a consistent line, in contrast to the all-female trio in Scotland. When it comes to global health, women are ‘over-represented in informal care roles and under-represented in leadership, decision making, and senior research roles’. It is clear that some groups — migrants, refugees, the homeless and uninsured of the global north, those subject to the healthcare systems of the global south, — will suffer most.

Pandemipolitics are also profoundly and non-traditionally spatial. The politics of Covid-19 are quintessentially transnational, although they beget traditional great power politics — such as the spat between China and America — and new nationalisms which reassert territorial borders. The virus may have originated in China but it is not in any meaningful sense ‘Chinese’. Viruses do not know the borders that are cleaved to by many. They are exacerbated by globalization but this is not a process which can simply or easily be reversed. How different spatial effects of globalization (migratory, financial, etc…) affect the pandemic is one of the greatest questions we face.

Pandemipolitics foreground environmental, economic, and societal security questions over political and military ones. The virus emanates from a zoological environment which is literally being consumed by the Anthropocene to the point that barriers to zoonotic disease have been increasingly eroded. The economic crisis has almost been simultaneous to the public health one as market crashes and unemployment have followed the lockdowns. Destructive nativisms and anti-Chinese sentiment have been countered by new local and global solidarities.

Finally, pandemipolitics raise great questions of state power. Very often, governments have followed the most vocal groups in society not led them. Apparently ‘bottom-up’ collective action has led supposedly ‘top-down’ government. At the top there is a troubling ideological dimension where authoritarian states have proven more effective than liberal democracies. But this has been overlaid by a tremendous regional variation where Eastern states, both autocracies and democracies like South Korea and Taiwan, most affected by SARS in 2003, have been far better prepared. Institutional memory matters.

All these questions and more deserve scholarly attention. This blog invites contributions which address all these questions and more, from students and scholars of International Relations and beyond. The politics of the crisis may seem like pandemonium but there is no way we can respond to the pandemic which is not political.