When COVID-19 ends as a pandemic, what will be the political repercussions?
Will there be lasting consequences for states and their relationships with citizens, markets or societies more generally?
How about the following as suggestions?
- Western states will for the duration of the pandemic become inevitably more authoritarian, getting used to restricting freedom of movement and association, and this may create surprisingly long-lasting legacies.
- Health policies in western societies are already politically salient, but the pandemic could forge a consensus that makes the role of states in health care dominant. Should we begin to speak about a ‘re-nationalization’ of western healthcare systems? States may also explore developing health policies through an ‘an emergency policy’ paradigm to respond to future pandemics.
- Global tech giants that dominate the online marketplace will plausibly emerge from the pandemic with their market share enhanced: all that home working, video conferencing, online shopping and downloads will mean their huge commercial power is strengthened. The case for state regulation (break-up?) of them might grow, but the same could as easily be sidelined as our extraordinary dependency on ‘surveillance capitalism’ will be magnified by the crisis. International tech giants working closely with increasingly authoritarian national states is one possible future.
- How China emerges from the pandemic will be important for global international relations, and our wider understanding of how states should interact with markets, firms and citizens, or whether globalization will be reversed, slow down, or re-cast. If China emerges as a ‘model’ of how to defeat the pandemic, it will, regrettably, probably reinforce the already emergent interest in hybrid forms of ‘state-capitalist authoritarianism’, or just enhance the global leadership role of China, probably at the expense of the USA.
First, we need to understand that COVID-19 might be with us for some time.
It is tempting to hope that it will all be over by mid-summer, but it is possible that some form of the virus will continue as a serious public health problem until a workable vaccine is found, of which several are under development. This could be as early as the autumn of 2020. However, it might also be a lot longer emerging, possibly not until the spring of 2021. In any event we in Europe are only at the beginning of the crisis: one source writing of the Italian situation suggests that the projected peak of their crisis would actually be in April, four weeks from March 11th.
Indeed, it appears the British scientific debate has stressed a different approach to managing the crisis, which is to look to the much longer-term, meaning how the virus will become a new normal (like other flu strains), that we have to live with over the next few years, and how best to manage that. The central development there is the expectation of the emergence of some kind of ‘herd immunity’, but that will take months, and possibly, years, and is often an approach that is adopted in tandem with vaccination, which for now is not an option.
In the meantime (and even if that happens), significant numbers of people across many industrialized advanced states will require hospital care, and some of these up to intensive care unit (ICU) standard. The inevitable conclusion is hospitals in western societies will experience a crisis in simply managing the extra numbers generated by COVID-19. For poorer, less developed states, their public health challenges will be likely much worse, and in some cases, drastic.
The political implications of the Lock Down: The sudden death of free movement?
I will not get drawn into whether the British are correct to delay what is now being called the ‘lock down’ response, which anyhow seems rather varied. Britain have not yet closed their schools or creches. The Dutch held out until Sunday March 15th but then opted for a comprehensive closure of all non-essential retail, schools, and universities. The Italians have gone the furthest of any liberal democracy, by closing all shops and businesses, except food retailers and pharmacies, while other countries have opted (for now) to close down schools, large gatherings, or even relatively small ones (over 100 people). Most countries have imposed sweeping travel restrictions, which within an EU context, means the suspension of free movement of people is becoming a new normal, and when it returns is an open question. One stark implication of COVID-19 then is that it has already dismantled a core feature of the EU in a way that Brexit never could.
To be fair, drastic restrictions of free movement of people have only been really imposed in Italy, with an attempt to restrict people to their home and locales. China did much the same, although its important to note from a context where China was already an authoritarian state with very high levels of monitoring and control over internal population movements. The result was that China was able to quarantine about 50m people from January 23rd 2020, and by the middle of February this aggressive approach was yielding apparently impressive results in steady reductions of new cases.
It is possible, but not certain, that other western societies will follow Italy, and if that happens, a critical question is for how long such measures can be realistically implemented or even can they be enforced? If a state seeks to enforce such, it will inevitably mean the policing coercive power of the state will come to the fore in a way that is only associated with wartime.
Indeed, a key insight offered here is that most western states will steadily begin to use power in ways that approximates to wartime emergencies. That does not necessarily mean soldiers patrolling on the streets, which in wartime is anyhow rare, but rather a steady deployment of all forms of state policing power and control, in particular over movement and association of citizens.
Control over the supply of essential medicines and foods may follow. As I write this, supermarkets are all already applying their own form of rationing to stop panic buying for certain goods (e.g. one per customer, etc.). If that remains a problem then some form of state rationing or control on over consumption is possible, but that is probably something states would prefer to avoid getting into. However, during wartime, rationing systems were inevitably introduced, and once put in place they were often slow to be removed. The British did not fully suspend rationing for certain foodstuffs, clothes and petrol until the late 1940s and in some cases up until 1954!.
Some states may decide and be able to sustain a political consensus for a much longer period of ‘lock down’, even of greater severity. One might suppose it all simply depends on the impartial medical advice. However, it is likely public acceptance of measures will also be an important variable. Other states for these reasons may decide to lift the most draconian measures, allowing people to socialize and move around again.
However, the inevitable risk is a resurgence of COVID19 cases and ‘Re-pandemic’ fears. We could then easily see ‘stop-go’ lock downs emerging over a period of the next few months, although they may be more finely tuned to certain regions or classes of people based on risk, but equally they could be re-runs of what see in Italy if the numbers of cases appears out of control.
In summary, western states are shortly going to get into the habit of extensively restricting free movement and association of their citizens, and indeed they may have to do so repeatedly over the coming months, and possibly years. The latter seems unlikely, but we have no way of knowing how long or how disruptive this pandemic will be.
This will inevitably make western states more authoritarian, just like they were in wartime. In this regard, states get into the habit of doing things a certain way, which means they can be cautious to revert. We might wonder then if ‘lock downs’ become a normal thing over the next 12 months and beyond, will states simply continue on with the habit of restriction?
I think it is very unlikely western states will want to restrict their population moving freely and socializing, chiefly because of the economic costs. However, it is very plausible that even if the virus slows to a pause during the summer, states will want to keep in place restrictions and controls on free movement at ports and airports. The cherished EU free movement principle could become highly conditional and qualified, and the wider ease of travel upon which much of the recent model of globalization exists will become a more selective freedom.
China for instance is now very worried about westerners traveling to China bringing the virus with them undermining their domestic draconian effort to limit it. I think an analogy here would be the impact of the 9/11 attacks on global aviation and travel: it did not stop the industry but traveling into the USA has become much more securitized, controlled, monitored, and simply made more difficult. States will become cagier about who they let into their countries and they will likely want to keep emergency measures ready to be reactivated at the first signs of similar diseases. Borders will become more controlled, conditional and securitized than they already are.
Re-nationalizing Health Care and the rise of an emergency public health paradigm
In all western states, health care is a key issue with voters and health expenditure is among the very largest item of public expenditure. This pandemic is only going to increase those two trends, including in ways that may have lasting consequences. However, the crisis may also mark a return to a much older mode of health governance in how states historically focused on mitigating public health pandemics in rather draconian ways, treating them as threats to order and requiring coercive measures to ‘quarantine’ persons and cargoes.
The city state of Venice established in 1423 on the island Santa Maria di Nazareth an isolation zone, styled as a plague hospital or “lazaretto”. That type of institution became very commonplace across the world, and not just in medieval or the early modern period. During the early period of globalization during the 1830-1850s there were repeated epidemics of cholera which saw a resumption of quarantine practices. Ship captains who had illness onboard were required to quarantine their vessels, crews and cargos for 40 days, and vessels that had no symptoms, but came from ports infected with a disease, were quarantined as well.
Will we see states rebuilding physical quarantine islands and similar types of institutions?
It is possible, depending on how severe this pandemic turns out to be (which already is about as bad as anyone one could have feared). It also depends on scientific advice about the scope and intensity of future pandemics, or mutations of this virus. One of the bitter ironies of the current pandemic is that in many ways it was entirely predictable. Experts working in the field of transmissible diseases have for long stressed the probability of a major flu like virus, sourced from China, spreading havoc across the globe. A 1997 paper by Robert Webster predicted that another major influenza pandemic was a certainty, although he did not specify it would be like the COVID19 virus.
We easily forget the sheer number of flu like or related virus events that have already happened: Avian flu A(H5N1) in 1997; SARS in 2003; A(H1N1)pdm09 in 2009, the latter which spread globally in a matter of weeks. There were also less serious flu pandemics in 1957 and 1968, quite apart from the well-known Spanish influenza of 1918-1919 which was lethal in its consequences killing probably as many as 50 million people globally. As Chen et al. (2020) explain, modern pandemics are a structural phenomenon that have been repeated and accelerated by globalization, and what perhaps this crisis represents is a turning point in understanding this:
“we must recognize that we have had a new major coronavirus epidemic every decade in the twenty-first century—SARS in the 2000s, MERS in the 2010s, and now COVID-19. It is, therefore, a global security priority to advance and stockpile coronavirus vaccines, and to identify international funding mechanisms to support their development, manufacture, and storage.” (Chen, et al. 2020)
It may well be that this pandemic creates a resolve for states to build more resilient emergency health infrastructure to deal with future pandemics, or the tailwind of this one.
Since the 1970s there has been a clear trend towards greater levels of pandemic planning and centralization of leadership, direction and power for this, at least in the USA. For example, a strategic stockpile of influenza vaccines has been established which could treat up to 25 per cent of the US population and the US Center for Disease Control also stockpiles thousands of mechanical ventilators, a type of medical device which will become of significant political importance in any larger pandemic. Unfortunately for this pandemic there is no vaccine, which means one of the four pillars of pandemic response (surveillance; vaccines and anti-viral medicines; emergence response and communication) is missing making the whole effort much weaker.
However, I don’t think states responses will look much like the isolation islands of old, not least because people move today mostly by aircraft. Some states might invest in emergency quarantine facilities near airports or cities but having standby facilities that remain mostly unused is a very expensive contingency.
Instead, the likely future trajectory of quarantine practices will be to use technology, especially data analytics, to create ‘smart’ quarantine systems, that will be triggered in a targeted and precautionary way based on information received in real time. This would work by targeting specific flights and airports for quick shutdowns, to stop the spread of contagion globally. Locally, within states, key individuals at risk would be identified and tracked using mobile phone technology and these persons would be isolated, perhaps in their homes with associated monitoring.
Aside from the freakish ‘big brother’ dimension to all of this, an obvious problem is the initial reporting of symptoms and health problems which correspond to a likely virus incident. If these are slow, haphazard or suppressed, such a system won’t be effective which will probably push national governments towards greater levels of monitoring and control over primary health care interaction, augmented by ‘big data’ monitoring of trends that are likely to correlate with a viral incident, such as increased doctor visits and purchases of flu medicines, etc. If these indicators spike, the alert system would be triggered, but rather than operating over 40 days this would be a system that would kick into force in less than 40 hours, although it would also be very prone to many ‘false positive’ alarms.
Moreover, as Tognotti (2013) has noted, any system of quarantine is far from politically neutral and allows states justifiably greater control over peoples’ movements, their status as citizens, and their ability to assemble or socialize. In the past, quarantine regimes have unfortunately targeted minorities, scapegoated certain ‘undesirables’ and have been used as an expedient justification repression when regimes face challenges. There is every reason to expect this will continue, although now with a high-tech edge and precision.
In the short term, states will also be forced to become much more assertive over health policy and because of the requirement for urgency, much of this investment might require extensive state control, direction and regulation. It could look like what states do in war but in the health sector. Requisitioning of buildings will take place to build emergency overflow wards. Land could be simply acquired by compulsory order and planning permission waived for new ICU facilities, with construction firms directed to build ‘in haste’ and normal tendering practices set aside. Suppliers of medical equipment would be asked to increase production of key essentials 24/7, and if they failed to do so, one could see in extremis states stepping in and simply taking over production capabilities for certain key goods. Prices for medical supplies and devices might be fixed (to stop profiteering) and it is interesting that several European states have expressed a desire to club together to buy medical supplies collectively, to reduce costs and also stop competing with each other against private suppliers.
There is a significant scope here for the European Union to play for the first time a major role in health policy, by co-ordination of essential supplies or information and allocating funds for especially the smaller and poorer member states. The EU has promised up to €25bn in support and other measures (such as limiting export of face masks outside the EU!). This amount should be taken as an early stage transfusion and its worth recalling that the EU stimulus package agreed for the fiscal crisis of 2008-2013 was about €112bn agreed in 2009. Whether in fact the EU raises to the COVID-19 challenge is unknowable and we should recall that its legal powers in this area are supplementary to national governments.
My point here is that these measures are likely to amount to a sudden and dramatic ‘bringing of the state back in’ to healthcare, although in many countries medicine is already a social good that is partly or mostly nationalized (as for example with the British NHS, or also in Canada, and many EU states). The state has never left! However, over recent years what the modern western state has typically sought has been regulator and partner roles with other health care players and its objective has been almost always to control costs.
Power in health policy has been shared between the state with the medical professions, the medical devices and pharma firms, charitable bodies, associations and trusts (sometimes religious or secular) and often private medical insurers. Also, important have been patients themselves who increasingly exert some influence in where spending will go and on what.
However, a pandemic pushes any state into a much more dominant if not authoritarian role vis a viz the other stakeholders, with a deliberate priority set on public health over other health concerns. This pandemic will require that western states must start allocating resources decisively and quickly. That means providing new funds, but also directing staff and patients to do what is required. Private insurers and their customers will be obliged to simply take second or third place in the line for procedures and bed space, and accept costs being displaced on to them.
States won’t likely ban private medicine, but as the system overall becomes focused on public provision for a pandemic the available space for private medicine becomes more truncated. If the pandemic persists for months, some elements of private medical activity may be simply postponed whole scale. Nurses and doctors may have to accept being assigned duties rather than choosing what type of specialism in medicine to follow and where. And when the new vaccines eventually emerge, it is plausible states will have to get heavily involved as well: how much will they cost, who will get them first and who will pay?
As the pandemic ends (one hopes by this summer), it does not mean national health policies can relax and return to normal. After 9/11, airports, airlines and the entire associated systems of civil aviation were forced to change their core practices: we now go through elaborate and annoying security checks that were unthinkable before 9/11, and that was almost twenty years ago!
Apart from the ‘smart quarantine’ systems described above, which are not yet in place, there may also be an issue about increasing scalable capacity to cope with pandemics-the ability to dramatically increase staff and resources. Unfortunately, healthcare is not the same sort of thing as an army, or even the retail sector: you call up reserves or hire extra part-time workers if a big unexpected surge in demand arrives. Part-time shop workers don’t have to be especially skilled, whereas nurses and doctors do. The analogy of military reserves is interesting. I don’t know of any health system that has a voluntary cadre of reserve workers that could be mobilized in an emergency (although retired nurses and doctors have been called in and play a vital role). However, we could see states invest in greater and more sophisticated paramedic or emergency medical services that can be mobilized in the event of a pandemic, and these might be ‘owned’ by voluntary ambulance services, civil protection and civil defence forces, or even military medical reserve formations.
Yet the most economic response is obviously early awareness and prevention by intervention, which means some sort of a ‘smart’ system of public health monitoring that is much more proactive and powerful, and probably more forensic and targeted at detecting key individuals of risk, and then acting decisively to limit their exposure. Should Italy have banned all flights to and from China as early December 31st when the Chinese authorities officially admitted a new virus and reported it to the WHO? They could have then tracked all individuals in their state who had been in China, to place in quarantine. Draconian? Yes! Effective by hindsight? Possibly. Of course, Italy did not have that sort of public health surveillance capability then, but therein lies a lesson.
The point here is that western health systems will possibly evolve towards a permanent emergency paradigm, actively expecting future pandemics, just like after 9/11 further attacks were expected, and in some cases these materialized. A large permanent Homeland Security bureaucracy was created in the USA and it remains. This pandemic will also create lasting institutional reflexes.
Public health authorities are likely to be pushed to become much more invasive, proactive and powerful. They will have to become organizations that increasingly monitor and analyze vast amounts of real time data. For that they may well turn to private corporations to ‘mine’ mobile phone traffic or other forms of big data to track, monitor, identify and then isolate individuals of potential risk on a precautionary basis. Whatever this would be, it would look and feel like quite a different type of health system than what we have known heretofore.
How the pandemic should further empower the global tech giants and surveillance capitalism.
If populations in most western societies are forced into a lock down for 1-2 months, or longer, including possible ‘repeat lock down’s, this can only benefit the global tech giants who dominate the online economy.
We can expect online food delivery services to boom (unless stopped on health grounds, which the Chinese authorities did in some places at the peak of their lock down). We might expect online gambling to surge. More prosaically, online conference calls and displaced office work from home will increase demand and profitability for platforms that sustain all this. If it goes on for longer than a few months, it may create patterns of work that become semi-permanent. Some firms might decide they don’t need such a large physical office presence in central Dublin, London or New York.
Not being able to socialize normally will push more and more people to connect using whatever tools the modern web offers, skype and other video calls, and for some through heavy use of social media. Now cometh the hour of TikTok, Twitter, Netflix as peak boredom sets in! Facebook may enjoy a new lease of life, or be thoroughly unseated as brutal competition between social media platform kicks in. For Amazon, an extended month of lock down could generate traffic equivalent to another Christmas, certainly if the pandemic continues to require such ‘stay at home’ approaches.
It is possible online retailers will also suffer as peoples’ discretionary income dwindles because of the inevitable economic recession the pandemic will leave in its wake, and some of the tech giants will themselves experience workers suffering from the virus, but this is unlikely to upset their practices too much. In the case of Amazon and others who dispatch physical goods, it will strengthen the drive towards automation, robotics and associated systems-reducing the human in the loop further.
None of this neutral as regards profits, market share and also the wider social power enjoyed by such firms or their model of business which has been described as “surveillance capitalism”. This type of economy is one where the most important and valuable marketplaces increasingly move online and are “there” controlled or shaped by the larger global tech firms. The logic of exchange within these markets is as much about trading information, as it is tangible goods and services. Moreover, this is inevitably an exchange dominated by those who control the technology and market-place, extracting surplus value from their aggregate knowledge of consumer habits, and their ability to shape preferences and control demand in subtle ways. It is a comprehensive monetization of the micro habitus of daily life. With this pandemic, the decline of the bricks and mortar retail high street will presumably accelerate apace, and some of the old-fashioned services that trade on social contacts (cinemas, restaurants, coffee shops, hairdressers, and much of the entire tourist sector, etc.) will be especially badly hit.
The question is how long it all goes on for. A month or maybe two could be for some of these types of businesses just about survivable, but beyond this, many of these ‘bricks and mortar’ enterprises will fail or retrench to much lower levels of viability. Their economic crisis will likely be a boom time for at least some firms in the online economy. Previously exotic, if not potty ideas, such as drone delivery for coffee, could finally get their big opportunity, driven perhaps by the sheer boredom of consumers.
When the household dust settles as the pandemic ends, or just pauses, the giants of the online economy (Facebook, et al.) and those who enable it (Google, mobile internet providers, mobile phone firms) will emerge even more commercially powerful than before. It would be naïve to assume some of that will not translate into greater political influence. They will have more revenue to invest in subtly shaping public and elite opinion, or just crude but effective lobbying. The tech giants will have so much more data to mine, analyze and commercialize with greater degrees of fine tuning and freakish precision, all of which is not an accidental but rather central part of their business model.
The argument that global tech giants like Google or Facebook are now so powerful that they should be broken up is one that has gained some traction. Elizabeth Warren in her failed presidential bid made it one of her signature policies. However, would this be a vote-winner or even as feasible in the aftermath of the pandemic? What voters will vote to curb Netflix after having binge-watched it for weeks?
Government and state interests are as likely to be much more interested in controlling social media from producing panic as much as breaking up the big internet firms or the platforms that basically help distract and keep large segments of the population busy (but not necessarily happy). Indeed, a nexus of shared interests are suggestive between more authoritarian nation states and the global online tech giants, which lie in keeping the online economy very much open for business while at the same time gaining greater abilities to monitor, and if need be, censor activities prejudicial to public order.
Cueller and Huq (2020, pp18-19) have argued that the role of the state should be seen as central in this evolving economic order, not least because the internet evolved from a high tech military industrial complex of research, development and procurement. The primordial internet this complex spawned, has long since been reversed engineered for commercial gain, but the sinews of state influence and at times open attempts at state control, are never far away. This has been evident over the essentially political panic created by mobile 5G network dominated by Chinese firms. Similarly, Fuchs argues the surveillance interests of states will likely find a good match with how tech firms operate and their purely commercial agendas.
The result may well be an unsteady lurch towards what could be termed the ‘surveillance capitalist state’, where tech giants and national governments work closely together to ensure online business gains in salience, while also allowing states the type of tools for monitoring and control, notably of individuals likely to be of risk in future pandemic crisis, as mentioned before.
This does not mean the formal autonomy of the state dissolves as the tech giants simply turn nation states into their puppets, but rather we can expect opaque partnerships between tech firms and states to become so normalized and functional that a blurring of boundaries and interests between them becomes routine. The result may well be a nationalization of hybrid public/private surveillance capitalist systems as some states try to exert greater control over online, digital and high-tech forms of information sharing, value added and wealth creation, if only to ensure that their abilities as states to extract “rents” and ensure territorial control remains effective. Controlling and monitoring vast data flows to prevent the next pandemic will be the perfect justification for such projects. The pandemic state will be emphatically, a surveillance state.
China as a global model and leader after the pandemic?
It might seem odd that China could become a role model for dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, not least because the virus originated from there but especially because it appears the initial Chinese response was to suppress the medical experts who broke the bad news. Since then, the authoritarian Chinese state system has been deployed to its full extent, with draconian restrictions on movement and also a policy that effectively saw large parts of their economy shut down by state order or ‘voluntary’ suggestion.
The Chinese public health authorities have it seems learned as an institutional reflex from the previous SARs epidemic to act boldly, and that appears to be paying off. If the trend continues for lower Chinese infections, it will undoubtedly embolden other states to copy the Chinese approach, although it remains to be seen whether western societies will submit to such measures as they have been deployed in China.
The truth is that it remains early days yet to judge China’s approach as an avowed success. It is possible that China could see a future rise in infections as restrictions are relaxed justified by an initially lower spread of cases. Moreover, it remains to be seen just how much damage has been done to the Chinese economy.
Yet if we extend our gaze out to a year or more from now, it is possible that China could come out of the crisis with its political standing and much of its economy intact, if not actually enhanced. The apparent “success” of their authoritarian system will be sharply contrasted with liberal democracies, and especially given Sino-American rivalry, with the US response. It will matter greatly then the comparative economic and human costs of the pandemic and how different states have mitigated these.
The assumption has usually been that freer societies are more efficient and innovative overall because information is less restricted. Yet conversely democratic societies may lack suitably coercive means to enforce strict quarantine provisions for extended periods of time, nor the means to socially mobilize and allocate resources very quickly in such an emergency. A case in point is the Chinese approach to building not just one, but two emergency hospitals in Wuhan from scratch, both apparently completed in around a week, although it is unclear to what extent these are being used and whether this was an exercise in propaganda as much as an effective crisis response. As Bardhan has pointed out while the Chinese system of governance may be good in a crisis, it has also a tendency to systematically over-react and over the longer term the openness of information flows in democratic systems seems a better bet. Given that suppression of information was an early contributory cause in making the pandemic much worse in China, it is not impossible that data from China now is not free of some levels of state manipulation, although it appears the WHO are broadly very satisfied with Chinese co-operation and information sharing now.
In any event China has declared an initial victory over the virus, in the sense of stabilisation, and is engaging in active ‘pandemic diplomacy’ which consists of lambasting the USA on the one hand, while on the other, approaching individual countries such as Italy with offers of aid. As the Chinese factories return to work, the Chinese state will have the ability to offers millions of protective and testing kits, and apart from being of help for Italy or Greece (two EU countries they have strong commercial ties with) it will likely reinforce the growing importance of China in weak Africa states who presumably will shortly face what Europe has faced (although perhaps higher temperatures in some regions will limit the extent of the virus). China will not be slow in capitalizing on their ‘Pandemic leadership’ for other global problems, nor on simply gaining goodwill with many smaller states who will lack the capacity to deal with the pandemic.
Ultimately, because we don’t know how the pandemic will play out, we cannot say how countries will stand after it. The deaths and chaos of the virus will be quite one thing, the economic recessions it engenders will be quite another. Yet the relative status of China in the international community is clearly in question with the virus.
For example, if the pandemic returns, and if Chinese draconian measures are viewed as having failed, this will likely produce a profound internal political crisis within China, and the economic dislocation will presumably continue well beyond a few months. Many investors and economic partners who had previously invested heavily in China may decide to fundamentally limit their exposure to a large market that is structurally prone to such risks that are likely to be repeated (if we remember SARs). Western supply chains may decide they need to return more production and manufacturing to other locations, and in some cases home countries, to protect themselves from the next pandemic or from instability within China.
Whatever happens, the big lesson of the pandemic is that our futures as western societies are now much more closely bound up with whatever happens in China than we have realized. We are more structurally interconnected with China for ill or good. Of course, people understand their phones, trainers and even some of their food now comes from China, but western societies have become dependent on China as more than just a supply hub. Chinese economic demand is more generally important for the rest of the world, and Chinese political and regulatory decisions have an impact on not just western economies but also on our social life. What we are now seeing is a mode of emergency governance being exported in stops, fits and starts, all with local western variations. Yet the core western response, the lock down policy, is as “Made in China” as your phone.
It would be too far fetched to suggest western governments will start adopting the Chinese approach to ubiquitous mass surveillance (several of whom already run their own quite effective covert mass monitoring programs it seems!). The argument here is not that western societies will adopt Chinese practices or institutions and throw out democracy whole scale, but rather it seems plausible that the balance between authority and freedom will shift decisively towards the former as regards western voters’ preferences and elite priorities.
There was a fashion a few years back for some academics to suggest China’s model of hybrid ‘authoritarian state-capitalism’, sometimes called the ‘Beijing consensus’, might become attractive to failing western states, after the last financial crisis of 2008-2013. That now looks much overstated and moreover China’s standing before this crisis was badly dented by economic woes, pollution problems, and above all political outrage over attempts to exert control in Hong Kong and the mass incarceration of a substantial number of the Uighur minority. Conveniently for the Chinese government the crisis has distracted attention from these ongoing issues.
It is however possible that already non-democratic or quasi-democratic states in much of Africa, Asia and the Middle East will be greatly encouraged and renewed by the example of an authoritarian China that has (apparently) got to grips with a global pandemic. They will use the example of the pandemic, together with Chinese soft and hard power assistance, as legitimation to prop up their authoritarian regimes. Moreover, when the pandemic is over, as regards global leadership on complex issues, who will western citizens or governments find more compelling, worth listening to or fruitful to negotiate with, the Chinese government led by General Secretary Xi Jinping or the Trump, or even the Biden, administration?
Conclusion: the inexorable rise of the Pandemic State?
There is nothing inevitable in politics (death and taxes excepting) so we can’t say any form of state in inexorable. Moreover, the obvious rejoinder to the suggestions here are that societies and states revert quite quickly after wartime, or analogous crises. There is also the argument that there are long path-dependencies that shape the nature of states. They are creatures that are reluctant to change, or else modifications only happen slowly and by increments. A simpler observation is that the crisis might now feel like an eternity for those in lock down, but after a few months it could be all over and swiftly forgotten. If that is so, we can all bask in the return to normal and perhaps changes to our states and societies will only be marginal, and commentary such as this will be viewed as exaggerated. Let us hope that is the case!
The alternative view is that sharp shocks, crises, wars and related phenomena do sometimes produce significant changes in states and societies. The modern US federal state was directly shaped by the mobilization for wars (of which there were many in the 19th and 20th centuries) as were other states that were previously fundamentally limited fiscal states. This crisis will be for many western states analogous to the experience of waging and perhaps losing a short but very intense war-lasting several months in duration. The number of lives lost and the cost in ‘treasure” will be similar to that type of event. Even short, sharp, nasty wars leave states with a legacy.
A modern concrete example may also be instructive. In the UK, the Foot and Mouth epidemic of 2001 produced significant and lasting changes in the British ‘deep state’ civil service: the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food was blamed for mismanaging the crisis and was promptly abolished and replaced by a new Department Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which had a different focus and set of priorities, even if some of the staff were recycled.
We have no way of knowing who or what will be blamed for poor performance in this crisis, or perhaps certain state services will receive great praise, extra funding and improved status for their efforts. However, it is plausible a severe global shock will produce some significant changes in western state activities, and these cumulatively may produce a pattern of state interaction which is also significantly altered for the longer term. What states actually do, what voters expected from them, and how they govern will all be likely changed by the crisis to some extent, and some of those resulting practices may be surprisingly long-lasting. As Dingwell (et al. 2013) have argued: “Emerging diseases disturb our assumptions of a known universe of risk. A new hazard disrupts our established strategies for managing our everyday lives”. They might have added it also changes the risk assumptions and threshold of states.
When Joseph Tainter wrote the conclusion of his classic book, The Collapse of Complex Societies (1988), he tried to extrapolate for today’s world what lessons could be drawn from his historic survey of how various ancient empires and societies experienced societal breakdown. We are far from societal collapse with this virus, but one of Tainter’s themes is that collapse is a multi-faceted and dynamic process, rather than simply a type of once-off catastrophe. According to Tainter, collapse comes about because of the diminishing returns of complexity in social terms, which becomes eventually an impossible cumulative burden and there is then a reversion to simpler social patterns.
Moreover, one feature he believed would be different in today’s world was that because of globalization and the interconnected nature of our societies, any collapse in one part of the global systems would spread by contagion to other states and thus we would be fundamentally linked in facing what would be a global crisis. We saw some of this with the financial crisis of 2008-2013 and we are seeing it again, literally, with COVID 19 contagion. In some ways, he believed this trend would promote redundancy, as states learn from and help each other, but in other ways it might also merely facilitate a faster spread of problems and an overloading of states all at the same time.
The punchline of his book is that a new equilibrium is usually quickly reestablished, which is typically a simpler set of social and economic relationships to replace the burdens of overly complex social forms. With this we might add, likely comes a simpler form of the state as well. At its most primordial, states seem to have evolved from offering effective protection in discrete, logistically manageable, territorial packages, and this would include by analogy, protection today from pandemics and other current threats. The type of states we mostly have in the west in this era, are, as Bob Jessop describes them, ‘a restructured territorial state’ that shares power with other modes of organizing power (such as the EU, IMF, etc.) and above all, with global capitalist firms. However, western and other states immediately focused on fear of pandemics, which challenge their basic order, may become increasingly focused on exercising what territorial control they have, and may be less inclined to share power with other actors. They main return to their core business of delivering ‘protection’ in discrete territorial blocks.
This also suggests one obvious point of reversion today would be a retreat from globalization and a return to more national or regional patterns of trade, politics and interaction, although its crucial to understand that globalization is not a uniform phenomenon, nor is how states respond to the negatives of globalization a straightforward and easy to predict trend. An entire pause in globalization and certainly active de-globalizaton, would not likely be triggered by a single event such as the COVID19 pandemic, but a succession of related events could mean the gains of globalization might steadily come to be seen as outweighing the risks and costs, pandemics being among the most tangible. Early eras of globalization were decisively reversed by the shock of interstate wars and later, the great depression. If this pandemic shares some features with those historic events, it will likely at least dent the forces of globalization.
This sort of logic is suggestive of a surprising renewal of the relatively small nation state within the evolving 21st century international system, an entity whose obituary has, prematurely, been often written about by academics. Yet as regards internet governance, cyber security and reliance on mobile or web-based technologies, all of which will be central to the core activity of the ‘Pandemic state’, some nation states, such as Germany, are busy creating digital national territory online, and both China and Russia have achieved a large measure of oppressive control over “their” internet.
Given that the state is a ‘social relation’, reflecting as much as shaping underlying social and economic trends, is it not plausible that the nature, form and activity of western states will in the short term be significantly altered by this crisis? We can, certainly in this short-term, speak of the rise of the ‘pandemic state’. Whether some of these features continue on after the crisis, and the extent to which these amount to significant changes in state relations with their citizens, markets and societies, remains less clear-cut, but it is arguably, a plausible outcome of this pandemic.
If this happens, even to a limited extent, the ‘Pandemic State’ may well then outlive the pandemic itself.
Originally posted on PoliticalReform.ie
Brendan Flynn is a lecturer in the School of Political Science & Sociology at NUI Galway. Brendan studied at the University of Essex for his Masters and PhD degrees, his doctoral thesis having the title: "Subsidiarity and the Evolution of EU environmental policy", with Prof. Albert Weale, as his supervisor. He has taught a wide variety of undergraduate courses on topics in the areas of Irish politics, introduction to politics, and European Politics. He has also offered specialist third option courses in Environmental Policy and EU policy. His primary research interests include comparative environmental policy, with a special focus on EU and Irish developments. He also retains an interest in wider EU policy and European politics developments. He is the author of The Blame Game: Rethinking Ireland’s Sustainable Development and Environmental Performance (2007, Dublin: Irish Academic Press).