Five Thoughts on COVID-19 and International Affairs

Written by Peter J. Hoffman
Assistant Professor, Graduate Programs in International Affairs

COVID-19 is a defining feature of this political moment, beyond killing people and wreaking havoc on economies, it highlights core divides and reveals the importance of an education in international affairs. While the basic outline of the crisis is clear and raises obvious imperatives for urgent action —this highly infectious coronavirus causes a very dangerous respiratory disease known as COVID-19, and it is rapidly spreading around the world—it is also necessary to fathom the magnitude and meaning of this moment. While virtually all governments have failed to adequately prepare political, economically, and socially for this disaster, it is essential that we as citizens, scholars, and activists be prepared analytically to assess this situation and provide an accessible critique that informs and lays a groundwork for addressing immediate impacts and structural drivers.

In addition to what has already been written, in the future there will be innumerable articles, policy reports, and scholarship documenting the origins and dissemination of COVID-19. And, of course, these will be used in a political jousting over blame and the bounty of resources that will be brought to bear. But, this, too, will showcase deep gaps between the “haves” and the “have-nots” of the world—the wealthy have a far greater chance of receiving life-saving medical care than the poor—while “states of emergency” will give governments expanded authority to surveil and control populations and resources. These broad brushstrokes are central to looking beyond today’s headlines and triage, but they are really more of a direction for inquiry rather than specific points, there is much work to be done documenting and identifying what this means and what to do about it. To that end, I think it’s worth pausing for some introspection, to consider your own work in international affairs in analyzing COVID-19—connect what you know to what more you want to know and what significance it has to beliefs and behaviors, to policies and politics. Applying your intellectual inventory is useful for finding yourself, both your voice and career path, as well as making a contribution to combating the scourge of COVID-19. I know that may be a vague suggestion or perhaps a daunting prospect, so, I’ll set an example by going first.

Here are five recent thoughts I’ve had about COVID-19 and international affairs:

1. Scale of Direct Impacts: It is by no means certain how many will be sickened or killed by COVID-19, but many of the predictions by experts are unsettling to say the least. Some back-of-the-envelope math presents an overwhelming picture. World population is about 7.8 billion people. Some estimates state that between 40%-70% of all people will be infected—meaning that 3.12 billion to 5.46 billion infected. The fatality rate has not yet been determined and there are many factors that contribute to an individual being vulnerable to infection and their ability to recover; age, immunological issues, smoking, and access to medical resources (such as ventilators) have thus far been identified as key elements in the equation. Moreover, fatality rates can be hard to calculate, especially with COVID-19, as not all that are infected are tabulated as infected, which skews the fatality rate higher.

That being said, some projections suggest that the fatality rate may be quite high (in Bangladesh it is over 12%, in Italy it is nearing 10%), while others place it substantially lower but at still significant levels (China claims about 2.3%, and Germany at 0.5%). Continuing with the math, the range of overall numbers estimated to die is profound. If we take the high end, assuming 70% of the world’s population gets infected and has a 10% fatality rate, we arrive at the alarming figure of 546 million people. That is quite likely (and hopefully) a massively inflated projection. To take the low end, a 40% infected rate, with a 0.5% fatality rate, the resulting figure of 15.6 million is still an alarming number. After originating in China (a “first wave” of infections), the disease has since taken hold in the United States and Europe (a “second wave”), but we have yet to fully see and grasp its gravity in the Global South (a coming “third wave”), where feeble public health infrastructure and more sparse social services is endemic—when it hits refugee camps and informal settlements the figures are likely to skyrocket.

Disease has long been a bigger killer than war, but it rarely gets the media attention that violence does. For some historical perspective, from 1914-1918, World War I killed 16-17 million people (about half of which were soldiers) on battlefields. But the influenza pandemic in 1918 killed far more, between 20 and 50 million. In recent years, while there remains much drama around what are presented as very bloody armed conflicts, and even casting violence more broadly (that is, including homicides and terrorism) causes perhaps 550,000 or so deaths each year but disease persists as a much larger source of fatalities. Cardiovascular diseases is the biggest killer by far (approaching 20 million annually) with cancer being substantial but markedly less (nearing 10 million), however, COVID-19 has the potential to vault the death count for all respiratory diseases (usually around 6-7 million) to record levels and into the top source of deaths.

2. Second Order Effects on Humanitarian Action: Aside from the direct impacts of COVID-19, there are also other repercussions that are lurking such as how it will influence humanitarian relief. To begin with, concern over the spread of COVID-19 has led many countries to shut their borders and impose travel bans. Border controls and restrictions also prevents refugees from escaping the horrors they are fleeing—for instance, sea rescue operations in the Mediterranean that help those Africa attempting to get to Europe have been suspended—and halts resettlement initiatives that allow the displaced to make new homes. Further such impediments essentially limit aid workers from getting into crisis zones and disrupt the movement of aid material. With fewer supply chains into crisis zones, the price of aid delivery (transportation, logistics) is also increasing and it may take longer to get relief in. In humanitarian operations, time is precious, and even brief delays can cause enormous harm. A current example of this is the immediate need for food and pesticides to tackle a famine in the Horn of Africa that is compounded by a multiplying swarm of locusts. But there is also a dilemma, the alternative, letting foreign aid workers in, could also prove problematic should relief personnel bring this coronavirus with them as they would likely albeit unintentionally transmit it to very vulnerable populations.

Second, the practice of “physical distancing” during aid work has political implications—it contributes to a lack of understanding and undercuts a vital bond between aid workers and intended beneficiaries. Maintaining distance, regardless of its medical logic, sends an alienating message and ultimately makes aid work difficult, if not impossible. This is taken to a greater extreme with the evacuation of international aid workers, leaving relief to personnel drawn from local populations. However, there is a paradox in this outcome; while the loss of internationals may deplete human resources available to respond to a crisis and shifts the burden onto national staff, the result of this may be localization, a building of local capacities that gives agency to people caught up in crisis. COVID-19 may be conducive to ending the domination of humanitarian work by Western aid workers.

Third, funding and assistance that had been dedicated to addressing other disasters, from famines to wars, will be repurposed to fight COVID-19; in a competition for attention and resources between this virus and other afflictions, this virus will win. A microcosm of this is seen in a new surge in demand for drugs such as hydroxychloroquine (which has been used for malaria and lupus) and the anti-HIV drug Kaletra (a combination of lopinavir and ritonavir) despite that they have yet to be proven as effective and safe in curing COVID-19. This hasn’t stopped people from snapping up the available supply thereby depriving those suffering from those diseases from needed medicine. Another instance of this competitive dynamic was seen when relatively vast amounts of resources were dedicated to combating Ebola in West Africa while addressing other diseases was mostly abandoned. Although Ebola was surely lethal, other diseases in the region ended up killing far more. The UN has recognized the possibility of a competition between COVID-19 and other crises and thus has proposed a new $2 billion fund— $450 million for the World Health Organization, and the rest going to a Global Humanitarian Response Plan. But whether this is sufficient relative to the magnitude of the challenge seems doubtful.

Fourth, the delivery of humanitarian aid is often skewed by politics as gatekeepers to crises determine where aid goes and who receives it. Tragically, COVID-19 will present another opportunity for manipulation and enable those well positioned to let the virus harm their enemies while directing resources to save their allies.

3. Speed of Crisis: The tempo of the pandemic and the consequent reactions has been striking in how quick it has spread and yet how slow it has been brewing in its overall significance. Epidemiologists have calculated that it was likely only in early December that the first patient developed symptoms. After four months, the number of cases is rising dramatically and many governments around the world are increasingly instituting more measures to limit movements and promote isolation to control the spread of the virus. What is surprising about this is that we have become so accustomed to pivotal periods being brief and definitive. Most recent wars, even those with endless violence, have had turning points that could be defined. For instance in Syria, which has experienced civil war since 2011, when government troops with the help of Russian forces retook and secured Aleppo in December 2016, it became clear that Assad would not be toppled. Pre-eminent in the framing of rapid onset and rapidly recognized crises has been the conflict that has come be called Global War on Terrorism, which was initiated in the wake of the 9/11 attacks—from the time of the first plane hitting the World Trade Center to the last crashing in Pennsylvania was in total less than an hour and twenty minutes.

While the pace of the COVID-19 pandemic might have some parallels with slow-moving protracted disasters like climate change, its more easily seen impacts in people killed is different. COVID-19 as a crisis defies our impatience, it is a slowly ticking and exploding bomb. Its steady plodding nature combined with the immediacy of its burgeoning effects is exhausting and frustrating in ways rarely recently seen at the international level.

4. New Biopolitics: Michel Foucault’s work on biopower and biopolitics stresses the biological foundations of social-political identities—giving depth to the concept of a “body politic” by denoting society as an epidemiological community—and underscores governmental authorities’ control of populations by disciplining and regulating their bodies. Others from Critical Theory have also chimed in on this to posit that the state, predicated on sovereignty, invokes a “state of emergency” or “exception” to transcend normal politics and control life in the name of security. This allows the state to violate rights and avoid accountability to ostensibly protect a greater good, but, in fact, protecting itself from criticism and opposition. Large-scale outbreaks of disease are an occasion to implement this game-plan. Indeed, the securitization of health is a path in this direction. Such a turn might result in a look to technical approaches and security tools to achieve health goals and allow ignoring poverty, underdevelopment, and underlying political issues that may precipitate the origins and spread of infectious diseases. Thus, COVID-19 may foster the construction of an autocratic rule.

Yet, there seems to be a paradox in the current crisis in that it does not appear to be cementing authoritarianism of the state as other governance actors seem to be exert influence. For example, in the US, it has not been the federal government that has taken the lead, it has been state governments. In other countries NGOs and other subnational actors have also been at the forefront of efforts. Biopolitical agendas may be at work but it is in the context of a fragmentation of authority and governance, and thus we are witnessing a new form of biopolitics that strangely is not rooted in sovereignty.

5. Global Governance: The dynamics of securitizing health within states is also coupled with a global political dialogue on addressing infectious diseases, and the politics of expertise and authority at the global level plays out against the backdrop of the spread of COVID-19. It the past few years a xenophobic populism that denounces and renounces multilateral institutions has seemed ascendant, but this crisis is a strong reminder of the value of global governance. COVID-19 is a perfect illustration of the need for collective problem-solving at the international level—it shows the irony of nationalist impulses and blather because even the most strident in this regard will have to turn to global governance to protect themselves.

However, before touting how COVID-19 may contribute to the renewal of global governance, it is important to note how the complexion and content of global governance are changing. China has seemingly had much greater success than other countries in controlling the rates of transmission of the virus by instituting lockdowns. There are grave caveats to China’s experience, most notably that it is an authoritarian state that engages in heavy-handed repression and that its ability to curtail the circulation of the virus is directly attributable to its extensive surveillance and willingness to suspend human rights. To emulate China’s triumph this case of public health issues may lead other governments to embrace despotic practices. COVID-19 may prove to be another instance reflecting a shift in global status, whereby China, not democracies are seen as a role model. While the West has often wrongly monopolized international power and the arrival of other voices from other countries at the global decision-making table is long overdue, deferring to the leadership of oppressive regimes will not yield progress in terms of justice or security.

Some additional resources that may be useful:

The Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University has created a website to track global cases of COVID-19:

https://www.arcgis.com/apps/opsdashboard/index.html#/bda7594740fd40299423467b48e9ecf6

The World Health Organization has organized free, short (one hour) online classes on COVID-19:
https://openwho.org/channels/covid-19

Courses include: