Stephen L Roberts: Covid-19 and the crisis of international politics

Covid-19 is a global pandemic. It is also a diagnostic for understanding and evaluating the ongoing crisis of international politics. From the initial emergence of the novel coronavirus in Wuhan, China in December 2019, to the eventual classification of covid-19 as a pandemic, the ongoing public health emergency has elevated and accentuated deeply entrenched challenges and conflicts across affected regions. Covid-19 has become a zeitgeist, or a spirit of the troubled times of international politics.

Throughout the course of this global pandemic, covid-19 has exposed and emphasised an ongoing crisis of information in the ways in which populations access, perceive, and respond to changes or transformations in their communities, political structures and societies. Widespread smartphone usage and real-time social media access have been central to the global proliferation of viral misinformation, infodemics, and fake news as cases of covid-19 have increased globally. Widely-shared examples of fake news disseminated across social media platforms throughout the outbreak have included such false claims which assert that China had engineered the coronavirus, or that drinking bleach could cure covid-19. 

Yet, this proliferation of fake news and its impacts on events in international politics is not novel, nor has it only been observed within the context of the covid-19 global pandemic. Recent shock events including the 2016 Brexit Referendum, the 2016 American Presidential election, as well as the 2018 Cambridge Analytica scandal all have brought to the forefront new concerns of the growing authority of curators of fake news and misinformation to produce manipulated public responses to political events. The covid-19 global pandemic therefore can also be understood as the most recent case in a continuing cascade of global “fake news episodes” playing out across international politics, where powers to inform or deceive populations of unfolding events have become increasingly contested and digitised.

The covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated underlying geopolitical tensions between recognised global powers. We have seen this in Donald Trump’s referencing of covid-19 as the “Chinese virus,” China’s recent expulsion of American journalists from reporting on covid-19 in China, and concerns over Russian misinformation campaigns impacting global responses to combat covid-19. However, it is once more critical to understand via the study of politics, history and economy, the longstanding tensions and issues of trust and cooperation which continue to exist between geopolitical actors. Far from the exclusive site of political tension between state actors, covid-19 has become the most recent arena whereby the competing practices, politics, and ideologies of states play out and conflict across an international backdrop of rising state-centric populism, anti-globalisation, and authoritarianism.

The global spread of covid-19 has further propagated the rise of social malaises including racism and xenophobia. Racism and xenophobia have been co-conceptualised alongside the covid-19 pandemic as equally problematic outbreaks. Yet discussing the rise of racism solely in the contexts of the covid-19 outbreak misses a larger and critical picture. Racism and modes of xenophobia across societies are latent and deeply rooted in historical, political, social and economic arrangements. Linkages between populations, disease and racism are long established. In addition to covid-19, deeply troubling expressions of racism were also witnessed during previous public health emergencies including HIV/AIDS, SARS, and Ebola. While covid-19 has given rise to new channels in which racism can be more openly expressed, the persistence of racism as a long-standing global ill speaks first to the complacency or failure of many states to counter and eliminate expressions and practices of racism in non-outbreak settings.

Covid-19 has exposed ongoing resource inequities among populations in many affected regions of the globe. This has been most widely witnessed in the amassing of food commodities, drugs and medical products perceived as essential to avoiding exposure to covid-19 by populations with the ability and willingness to pay for such products. These trends in population behaviour and ability to obtain resources and health services during public health emergencies has led to claims that covid-19 prevention practices are far more accessible for better-off, financially secure groups. The covid-19 pandemic has not produced these chasms in global resource inequities among populations, but it has further accentuated and deepened these growing discrepancies in the 21st century.

Fake news and infodemics, geopolitical tensions, racism, xenophobia and growing global resource inequities. Beyond constituting a global pandemic, covid-19 also embodies the ongoing crisis of international politics of our times. Global efforts to further contain the numbers of infections and to end the current pandemic will be unprecedented on scale, labour and resource-intensive, and must be designed with a long-term planning and preparedness focus to respond to future pandemics after covid-19. Yet as analysis has shown, many of the most troubling elements of this outbreak have also been problems of politics, economy and society, which are historically situated, entrenched and persist.

The challenges identified within the covid-19 pandemic are pre-existent across states, societies, and economic systems and thus, the study of politics and the cognate social sciences within global pandemics has never been more vital.  

Dr Stephen L RobertsLSE Fellow in Global Health Policy, Department of Health Policy, London School of Economics (LSE)

Conflicts of interest: None declared.