State of exception: balancing democratic freedoms with public safety, managing the Coronavirus outbreak in Italy

By Saipira Furstenberg, University of Exeter.

Italy, a country known for its convivial outdoor lifestyle, is today shuttered by the coronavirus. I am in Trieste, located in the northeast of Italy between the Adriatic Sea and Slovenia’s peak. The Italian port city, usually packed with tourists and local noisiness from Piazza dell’Unita, is today deserted. Its streets are empty, all shops and restaurants are closed except for newsagents, pharmacies and supermarkets.  There are few people on the streets, trying to avoid each other by staying one metre apart, as per the health authorities’ guidelines. The anxiety is palpable.

Since the outbreak of the virus, the government has introduced extraordinary measures to contain the epidemic and stop its further contamination. The government has effectively securitised the outbreak by imposing draconian measures such as banning public and social gatherings, closing schools and universities, and limiting travel nationwide which further restricts freedom of movement.

A house in Italy during the Covid-19 lockdown. Source

For weeks, the entire population have remained at home and only permitted to go outside only for emergency reasons such as attending medical appointments or to purchase basic provisions. Police has been deployed on the streets to enforce the government’s measures. These are the largest limitations on freedom of movement in the country since the second world war.

Italy quickly registered the highest reported death toll and number of confirmed infected cases behind China. However, the problem is not in number of death or people tested positive for the virus, the real issue is in number of beds available in the intensive-care units. As the head of Lombardy’s intensive-care crisis unit, Antonio Pesenti reports: “some of the best hospitals in Europe are in Lombardy, yet they are  on the brink of collapse”, “ we have to set up beds for intensive care in hallways”. The situation in Italian hospitals in the North has been described as  ‘war like’ with doctors having to choose who to safe from death. The fear is that the epidemic will run out of control and will move towards other parts of the country.

The virus has disrupted travel and halted manufacturing in the country. To mitigate the consequences of the national quarantine, the government has offered aid package to help to families and businesses. Yet such measures might be insufficient to support the country’s already fragile economy.

If nothing else, the crisis has created a sense of unity in Italy and abroad. Across social media the hashtag #iorestoacasa (“I’m staying at home”) is trending. On the radio celebrities are encouraging the public to take the government measures seriously. 

The extraordinary measures introduced by the Italian government are a test for our democratic values balancing freedom with public safety. The lockdown has already led to instabilities in the country with riots breaking out in prisons, after visits were banned, as a part of broader government’s effort to curb the spread of the virus. Shortly after the release of the leaked draft limiting travel in Lombardy and regions in North of Italy, thousands panicked and rushed in train stations or jumped into their cars to flee South.

Since the outbreak of the virus, the Italian prime minister Giuseppe Conte said that the country faces a ‘national emergency’. Such declarations in political science reflects broader theoretical patterns of state of exception. The idea of state of exception introduced by Carl Schmitt refers to a situation where a state is confronted with a moral threat or state of emergency which allows the state to transcend the rule of law in the name of the public good, thus to violate its own sovereignty principles to save itself. As Agamben notes (1998, p. 174) it enables the ‘creation of a space in which the normal order is de facto suspended’. While the state interventionist measures might be justified exceptional can be also subject to abuse: who decides on the exception? Whose interests it serves? And how can we reverse to the normal situation once state of exception is over?

Both Agamben and Schmitt define the concept of sovereignty as the one who possess the power to initiate a state of exception. As their readings demonstrate, there are paradoxical nondemocratic features of sovereignty power. There is no doubt that state of exception in Italy extends democratic governing principles to authoritarian practices with the imposition of a police-state to ensure public safety. In the long term, prolonging the state of emergency might lead to damage the rule of law and civil liberties. Yet the state has also the responsibility to protect its citizens against threats that might affect their security, health and welfare. Additionally, the fact is that states are increasingly embedded in global web of interconnections, where the action of one state can inherently affect the domestic affairs of another state. As such, the respect and the integrity of sovereign nation might be compromised if it puts other nations and their population at risk. In the present context, the threat of coronavirus is stateless in origin, however it is transnational in scope. Therefore, the drastic measures adopted by the Italian government to contain the virus justify its exceptional interventions. What the current crisis demonstrates is that the decision to contain the virus lies on its people and their willingness to collaborate with the government. In times of crisis it is the government’s duty is to protect its people, it is now down to people to trust their government.

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…