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…

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.