The COVID-19 pandemic has unleashed pandemonium on a global scale, wreaking havoc across all levels of society and unquestionably taking top spot as the black swan of 2020. While issues of public health, scientific research and epidemiological modelling have advertently gripped our attention, the pandemic has also brought to the fore a number of meta-narratives. These meta-narratives speak to not only debates about the origins of COVID-19, but also to the multiple scenarios that would frame a ‘new normal’ replete with uncertainties and a flux of variables with far-reaching implications.
In the midst of proliferating conspiracy theories attributing the COVID-19 pathogenic outbreak to laboratory origins in the form of accidental leaks, scientists and researchers have discounted biowarfare arguments using whole genome sequencing and phylogenetic analysis that prove the zoonotic pathology of the virus. Nevertheless, the chatter around shadowy biosafety level 4 labs and clandestine scientific experiments with pathogens urge us to broach the uncomfortable discussion about biowarfare and biodefence and the history of lab accidents seen in cases such as the 2001 anthrax leaks in the United States and the 2007 leak of foot and mouth disease in the United Kingdom. Rather than obsessing over the grim prospects of a bioweapons arms race, our focus should be on biosecurity procedures and containment strategies when a leak occurs in future and what can be done to avert a global catastrophe.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also set in motion geopolitical shifts that have exacerbated pressure points in the global order. Chief among this is the lingering question whether the US and China can evade the Thucydidean trap? The US-China feud has sunk to historic lows, going by the ratcheting up of recriminations and scapegoating, tariff wars and propaganda battles to steer the narratives about responses to the pandemic. The power rivalry came to a head in May during the World Health Assembly where the US berated both China and the World Health Organisation (WHO) for their handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and threatened to cut US funding and withdraw its membership if the WHO failed to undertake substantive improvements within a 30-day period and to investigate China’s lack of transparency in the early phases of the novel coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan. As a countermove, China pledged $2 billion towards global efforts to fight the pandemic, in addition to dispatching doctors and donating medical supplies to developing countries.
China’s pandemic diplomacy and its efforts to fill the vacuum left by a disengaged US has raised critical questions about Beijing’s ambitions to elevate its global profile and consolidate its expansive sphere of influence across Eurasia, Africa and Latin America. In this regard, the global pandemic is also a test of China’s commitment to its ideals as a ‘responsible power’, particularly how it will conduct itself in the race for a vaccine, treatment of its debtors (amidst calls for interim suspension of debt payments), whose economies have ravaged by the pandemic and the trajectory of relations with the US amidst escalating tensions and extended competitive dynamics.
China’s missteps during the early stages of the pandemic when it supressed information about the onset of the outbreak and downplayed the risk of human to human transmission of the COVID-19 virus has led to global backlash and mounting calls for accountability in accordance with international law. At the World Health Assembly, more than 100 countries backed a resolution drafted by the European Union and Australia which called for ‘a stepwise process of impartial, independent and comprehensive evaluation of the WHO-coordinated international health response to COVID-19,’ including the effectiveness of WHO existing mechanisms and the implementation of International Health Regulations (IHR). China’s failure to adhere to transparency obligations outlined in Article 6 of the IHR, which requires states to communicate all public health-related information to the WHO in a timely manner in the event of public health emergencies of international concern (PHEIC), points to its liability and the grounds for a legal case. However, the consent-based character of international adjudication presents a jurisdictional challenge to holding China to account for its violation of IHR. Even in the highly improbable WHO referral of China to the International Court of Justice (ICJ), China may challenge the ICJ’s jurisdiction and given its permanent, veto-holding membership of the UN Security Council, which is the custodian of ICJ judgements, China will likely nullify any attempts to give effect any ICJ judgments against it.
The need for collective solutions to a global crisis has also underscored the demand for international cooperation and the attendant premium on trust and accountability of multilateral institutions. An online survey in 11 countries conducted by Edelman Trust Barometer on the levels of trust in different actors and their role in response to COVID-19 revealed a general decline in approval ratings for global actors, with respondents indicating an 11% increase in trust in their national governments in the period between January and May 2020. In this vein, the approval rating of WHO expertise also registered an 8% drop between March and May 2020. The disparity between high demand for international cooperation vis-à-vis growing dissatisfaction with multilateral responses to the current crisis is an indictment of the fragmented multilateral order set back by power rivalries and shortfalls in initiatives to bolster institutional capacities and resilience. The COVID-19 pandemic is a test for progressive internationalism while presenting an opportunity for middle-power alliances and regional initiatives to demonstrate their value to strengthening multilateralism.
The war-like narrative used to galvanise action in containing the viral outbreak and framing the COVID-19 pandemic as an existential threat necessitating emergency measures beyond normal politics has ramped up the securitization logic. In addition to highlighting the tension between objective and subjective dimensions of security, the securitization of COVID-19 foregrounds political dilemmas with regard to referent objects (security for whom?) and securitizing acts (privileging of emergency measures over certain individual liberties). An equally prescient issue is the question of de-securitization once the pandemic has been contained _ will states be willing to put the proverbial genie of expansive emergency measures back into lamp of ‘normal’ politics? Or will short-term measures be retained and implemented cumulatively?
As the first global crisis of globalization with compound, far-reaching consequences in an interconnected world, the COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare our shared vulnerabilities and the hubris of a neo-liberal model that has failed to deliver on sustainability, shared prosperity and growth. The strategic shock of the novel coronavirus pandemic, albeit with greater visibility, is a forerunner of the climate emergency and doubles-down on our imperative to change course away from the self-destructive practices of the Anthropocene and instead embrace sustainable and transformative planetary futures. One aspect of sustainability-oriented thinking is a re-assessment of our concepts of security and the need to elevate viral, ecological, societal and environmental security issues alongside military and national security ones.
Finally, another meta-narrative that invites deeper analysis is the portrayal of agency, particularly of Africa and the global South in tackling the pandemic. We need to counter parochial, Eurocentric narratives that persistently frame African countries as sitting ducks caught up in the perfect storm, exacerbated by structural, political, socio-economic and security challenges that portend catastrophe and disorder. The underreported elements of African agency is related to a range of bold moves by innovators and citizens to defy stereotypes about Africa’s incapacitation, whether it is through the re-direction of extant manufacturing industries to develop much needed medical equipment, the formulation of home grown test kits and remedies by African researchers; or the reinvention of welfare and food assistance mechanisms by citizen groups to reach out to the most vulnerable in societies, in attempts to plug in the shortfalls by the state-controlled channels and systems.
In sum, as the COVID-19 pandemic arguably accelerates towards dragon-king status as an outlier in terms of catastrophic impact, it has irrefutably proved that the only law of history is the law of unintended consequences. As the world picks up the pieces in the wake of the pandemic, the lessons about preparedness and resilience should take centre-stage in policymaking and risk analysis while taking into consideration the nuanced meta-narratives that will remain relevant in the post-pandemic new normal.