Why ‘it’ happens: Disease, non-humans, and political change

By Brieg Powel, University of Exeter

One of the central questions asked by policymakers and scholars alike is ‘why did X happen?’. Be ‘X’ a war, a revolution, the collapse of a party’s vote-share, or something else entirely, those who seek to understand, prevent, respond to, or replicate a phenomenon often try to understand how it happened in the first place. The coronavirus outbreak of 2019–20, however, forces us all to reassess how we go about answering that question.

An artist’s impression of Uruk around 3500 BCE. Source

Indeed, a striking feature of the Covid-19 outbreak has been its dramatic reminder to both policymakers and scholars of the need to factor non-human ‘things’ such as disease into our understanding of apparently ‘human’ affairs. This is not to say that they were entirely absent: for instance, back in 2008 the United Kingdom government identified ‘pandemic influenza’ as the one threat likely to have the most impact on public life and as being one of the most likely to occur. In 2019, the year that Covid-19 first appeared, the UK was ranked second only to the United States for overall preparedness for public health crises in the Global Health Security Index. Nevertheless, such high regard meant little as the UK’s reported Covid-19 death toll quickly overtook that of China’s, and the US became world leader in a much grimmer, league table of death. The fragility of even the apparently ‘most prepared’ health systems prompted leading public health and societal risk experts to judge that the UK was ‘wholly unprepared’ and that its response was scientifically flawed on multiple levels. The truth, as some were quick to point out, was that policymakers much prefer to spend money on fighting other humans than on more abstract non-human challenges, from our microbial competitors to climate change and biodiversity collapse. Human matters are elevated above the non-human, regardless of their interdependency.

Academic debates over ‘what causes “X”?’ are equally blinkered, albeit without the mortal consequences of governmental policy failures. Colleagues at the Duck of Minerva blog note the distinct lack of public health-focused articles in leading International Relations journals between 1980 and 2017, with American scholarship particularly weak in this regard. Issues such as interstate war and deterrence dominate despite the clear recent decline in such conflicts and the sometimes-seismic impact of disease on the human world. Within our scholarly communities, contemplation of the empirical and theoretical implications of non-humans in the social world has typically been limited to ecologically-focused work, with dominant approaches and theories preoccupied by human actors and human-centred explanations. Promisingly, scholarship around ‘posthuman’ international relations, actor-network theory, and new materialism has increasingly challenged such blind obsessions with humans at the expense of the broader world in which all human processes occur. Nevertheless, even these critiques often fall short of considering pandemics and their associated microbes.

What is needed is a more consistent appreciation of the transformative impact of non-humans on human life and society by policymakers and thinkers alike, along with policies and scholarship that recognise humanity as only part of a complex smorgasbord of interdependent life and chemical elements. After all, Covid-19 itself is a zoonotic disease brought about by the interweaving of human and non-human life (the first known human Covid-19 variant is specifically related to a virus found in bats and pangolins). All human relations are embedded in and continuously shaped by things beyond the human, including disease.

Moreover, human relations have long been so, and by researching across disciplines we can arrive at a fuller picture. As medical microbiologist Dorothy Crawford noted, microbes and pathogens have always been humanity’s ‘deadly companions’ over the millennia. The DNA of many of modern humanity’s ‘childhood diseases’, such as measles, dates their emergence to the very same time and place as the intensification of farming and urbanisation in Mesopotamia around 5000 BCE. Work by archaeologists on the first ‘international systems’, such as the ‘Uruk world system’, may be significant for identifying the importance of ‘international’ factors in the evolution of the first ‘states’. This ‘system’ was driven by trade and the exchange of goods and ideas between increasingly settled populations from the Caucuses to the Persian Gulf, and the Iranian Plateau to the eastern Mediterranean. Yet as anthropologist James Scott observes, it also spread the new diseases ever further, making state extinction de-urbanisation (as populations fled disease-filled cities) as much features of the era as state formation and urbanisation. Humanity and politics have thus been shaped by disease and the natural world just as we have shaped them.

Similarly, viral and bacteriological pathogens have often played a pivotal role in many ‘what ifs?’ of international relations. Dysentery, for one, has long been and remains a powerful influencer of armies’ potency, thereby influencing some notable political processes. For instance, the French Revolution faced a real prospect of defeat before it had the chance to establish itself as, in 1792, the armies of key European powers under the First Coalition invaded France to quash the revolution. Their efforts soon floundered, however, as the Coalition army led by Prussia (a leading military power of the day) was decimated by dysentery. As historian David Bell explains:

Many Prussians suffered so greatly that they could not even drag themselves to the latrines, turning their bivouacs into mephitic “shit camps”. Of the 42,000 who crossed the French border, fully a fifth did not even make it to the site of the first major battle, and many of those who did could barely stand.

The climactic battle at Valmy was a rousing French victory, and the first French Republic was declared two days later.

Such cases are important reminders of the susceptibility of politics to disease and the formative role pathogens have played on socio-political processes, from state formation to revolutions. More broadly, they reinforce the need for us to think of ourselves not as all-powerful masters of the universe, immune to non-humans, but as one part of a co-evolving set of connections and relations wherein sometimes, perhaps more often than we realise, non-human factors such as disease play a key role in why ‘it’ happens.

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.

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…