Unity in times of crisis? How power sharing societies respond to Covid-19

by Henry Jarrett, University of Exeter

Parliament Buildings, or ‘Stormont’; the home of the Northern Ireland Assembly, Belfast, Northern Ireland.

On 20 March 2020, Northern Ireland First Minister and Democratic Unionist Party leader, Arlene Foster, stated that tackling the Covid-19 pandemic is not an ‘orange or green issue’ and that the Executive is united in its approach to the outbreak . For many this comes as a welcome deviation from the traditional divisions of unionism and nationalism that have dictated politics in Northern Ireland since its establishment in 1921.

Unity at times of crisis in divided societies is not, however, a new phenomenon. As part of the Indian independence movement of the mid-nineteenth to mid-twentieth centuries, for example, members of many different religious and ethnic communities united to achieve an end to British colonial rule. Similarly, during the Arab Spring protests of the early 2010s, people of different groups and with often opposing positions came together to bring about regime change in several states in the Middle East and North Africa. In both of these cases, however, this consensus largely dissipated once the objective had been realised. So, can it be argued that crises can achieve unity in societies where power is shared between groups? And is Covid-19 such a crisis? 

Power sharing governments often struggle to be formed and are generally limited in their ability to effectively agree upon policy. In Bosnia-Herzegovina, for example, just 30% of legislation proposed between 2006 and 2010 was signed into law, while the Northern Ireland Assembly has only recently emerged from a three-year suspension largely caused by ethno-national disagreement. Perhaps more than any other issue in living memory, the Covid-19 pandemic requires a fast response that can only be achieved through unity in power sharing societies and attention will now turn to analyse if this is being realised. 

Despite Foster’s call for Northern Ireland’s response to the pandemic not to be dictated by unionist and nationalist division, when schools in the United Kingdom (including Northern Ireland) remained open, Michelle O’Neill — Deputy First Minister and Sinn Fein leader in the region — broke ranks with the Executive and argued that they should immediately be closed . While this was ostensibly a policy standpoint, many were quick to highlight that its implementation would bring Northern Ireland in line with the Republic of Ireland, where schools had already closed, and O’Neill herself stated that ‘we live on one island, we need one approach to this situation. We need to work together and be aligned’. 

Although there are likely to be genuine health concern driven reasons for O’Neill to promote this policy (which was indeed implemented in the UK soon after), it is also possible that she is using the pandemic as a vehicle from which to continue to promote the Sinn Fein objective of Northern Ireland’s increased alignment with the Republic of Ireland and eventual Irish unity. This example is evidence to suggest that the crisis caused by the Covid-19 pandemic is not at present bringing about a bona fide united response from the unionist and nationalist power sharing government in Northern Ireland. 

Power sharing governments are limited not only in their ability to provide a unified response to crises but also in their ability to respond swiftly enough. This is evident in the case of Malaysia — divided between the ethnic Malay, Chinese and Indian communities — which has been criticised for its slow response to the outbreak. Writing in Foreign Policy, Varagur argues that the political crisis caused by Mahathir Mohamad’s decision on 24th March to resign as prime minister delayed the country’s response to Covid-19 until after a new power sharing executive had been established . Although such delays are common in power sharing societies due to the fragmented nature of politics, they are particularly problematic within the context of a fast-moving pandemic. 

Lebanon faces similar obstacles. Since October 2019 the state has experienced widespread protests due to high unemployment, economic stagnation and corruption attributed to the ineffectiveness of its sectarian political system. Like in Malaysia, the Lebanese government has been criticised for its response to the outbreak, which is argued to be the result of claims that the country is unable to afford a shutdown similar to those implemented in many European states at a time of economic strife . The examples of Malaysia and Lebanon show that power sharing politics is often marred by political infighting and public protests that impact upon the ability of governments to effectively respond to crises, and the Covid-19 pandemic is no different. 

Covid-19 represents one of the greatest challenges for generations for governments of many states worldwide. It is, however, important to recognise that not all are able — or indeed willing — to respond equally. In many societies with power sharing we have until now witnessed  executives being unable to agree upon a unified approach or being limited in their response by factors related to the nature of sectarian politics. With the pandemic ongoing and showing few signs of abating at present, it remains to be seen if political actors in these societies can see the bigger picture of crisis management.

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.

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.

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.