The pandemic and north-south divides

By Irene Fernandez-Molina, University of Exeter

‘The coronavirus is poised to spread dangerously south’. The global trajectory and mapping of the COVID-19 pandemic suggests a two-stage advance from east to west, and from north to south. Gramsci’s ‘southern question’ could not take long to be raised on all possible scales, from its Italian birthplace to EU politics to the world stage. To what extent is the so-called north-south divide — or divides in plural — a relevant lens to capture some of the current ‘pandemipolitics’?

A passenger has his temperature checked at a South African airport. Image source

There is indeed a very tangible, chronic global north-south gap in health capacities, including both universal health coverage and health worker density. In Africa, the COVID-19 pandemic has called attention to serious shortages of hospital beds, intensive care units, ventilators, surgical masks, medicines and even medical professionals, due to prolonged brain drain. The picture is more mixed when it comes to health emergency preparedness, as some low- and middle-income countries benefit from the experience of dealing with other recent epidemics, such as Ebola in western Africa (2014–2016), in close accordance with WHO guidance. This learning, coupled with awareness of their health system’s fragility, has led many of them to en strict containment measures, including travel restrictions and lockdowns, in very early stages of the pandemic compared to western Europe and North America (is there an additional north-south dimension to social trust, including self-perceptions and assumptions about citizen responsibility?). Also, the population ageing divide between the global north and south is likely to play in the latter’s favour.

More as a side effect but very strikingly, the sharp global north-south (im)mobility divide has suddenly levelled out due to the avalanche of border closures around the world. By the second week of April, 194 countries and territories had enforced mobility restrictions of various sorts. The first African air and sea travel suspensions to prevent access from European countries in mid-March were celebrated in social media with some sense of karma. Since then, as temporary as this might be, the pandemic has in fact put citizens from all states on equal footing in terms of passport power, and even some unheard-of reverse clandestine migratory movements have been reported across the Mediterranean.

Fewer surprises may be expected in relation to the north-south economic capabilities divide. If anything, COVID-19 has brought to the fore a global division of vulnerability whereby the weaknesses of northern economies are increasingly attributed to their neoliberalisation and deindustrialisation, while those of southern states stem primarily from dependence, lack of fiscal space and informality. Over reliance on foreign investment, exports the north, migrant remittances and tourism means that, even if southern countries managed to mitigate their own public health crises, they would still heavily suffer the repercussions of the north’s recession, as happened with the 2008–2009 financial crisis. In other words, they are doomed to pay a double economic price: the cost of domestic containment plus the cost of dependence. Meanwhile, high public debt will hinder the implementation of extraordinary measures to cushion the immediate socio-economic impact of social distancing and lockdowns as well expansionary, stimulus policies to revitalise the economy subsequently.

Finally, the pervasive role of the informal sector in global south economies, especially in terms of employment and inclusion, adds to the lack of a social safety net for much of the population. Upon this background, popular protests against social distancing have erupted in countries ranging from India to Lebanon. Ultimately, the dilemma between dying of the coronavirus and dying of hunger is what draws the line between the global north and the global south in the pandemic’s context. This, of course, distinctly includes the bits of the global south that are present within the global north, and has huge political legitimacy implications.

Two approaches in IR that may help unpack policy responses to this situation. The determinants of the global south state responses can be explored from the perspective of Ayoob’s ‘subaltern realism’ and ‘Third World security predicament’. Looking at the intersection of structural economic dependence and primarily domestic security dilemmas in which ‘the security of the state and the regime become closely intertwined’ yields two interesting observations. First, southern states appear to be now prioritising tackling the public health emergency over economic concerns, which might be unprecedented in history. Second, from Chile to Algeria to Iraq, the ruling authorities of not a few of them have seized mass gathering bans as an opportunity to pause or stifle significant political protest movements, which points towards a conflation of state/human and regime security. Still, whether this temptation is limited to the global south and/or to more authoritarian states within it remains unclear.

Southern state responses to COVID-19 can also be examined as part of north-south burden-sharing in the provision of the global public good that is health. In this respect we can distinguish between the burden of containment, which involves interrelated political legitimacy and economic costs in the short to medium term, and the long-term financial burden that will result from sharp rises in the level of public debt. How are the two burdens going to be distributed? The containment burden is currently weighing on most of the world’s states, albeit not evenly, and particularly less intensely in a few global north countries that have opted for limited social distancing measures. Southern countries are generally shouldering their part, primarily out of self-interest — as their health system’s fragility leaves them no alternative — but also as an indispensable contribution to the global control of the pandemic. The latter expectation transpires from many current comments, which raise the spectre of COVID-19’s potential re-transmission from the southern hemisphere back to the north in the winter of 2020–2021.

Global north states could compensate for the southern states’ disproportionate containment burden by stepping up their contribution in carrying the financial burden. By mid-April, 90 countries had applied for emergency support or debt relief from the IMF. The IMF has in turn called on the G20 to ‘do their part’ as creditors, easing the debt burden of poorest states, and as donors, building up contributions to international financial institutions. However, for the time being the G20 has only agreed a ‘time-bound’ suspension of debt service payments, and has refrained from any new financial resource commitments such as for the IMF’s special drawing rights.

In short, global burden-sharing in the COVID-19 crisis is likely to be asymmetrical in the sense that southern states have little choice but to cooperate in containment, while there is no compulsion for northern states to contribute more financially.

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