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Governance ‘of’ and ‘by’ COVID-19: the Spotlight on Private and Non-State Actors

Saqar ' M Al Zaabi25 May 2020

Written by Eija Meriläinen, Postdoc at the Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction (IRDR) and the Institute for Global Health (IGH)

In the response to COVID-19 pandemic, the doings and undoings of nation-states and public authorities have captured the spotlight, if Finnish and Anglophone media coverage is anything to go by. In this blog, I argue that fixing the attention on governments alone can obscure the extent to which private and non-state actors influence how disaster governance unfolds.

While SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus can be viewed as a hazard, according to UNISDR’s definition, the actual disruptive impacts can be referred to as a disaster. How a disaster is viewed is an important element in identifying what actually needs governance.

Various disaster researchers have strived to bust the myth of ‘natural disasters’, drawing attention to the social and political root causes of disasters. Related to the ‘unnaturalness of disasters’, it cannot be emphasised enough that the impacts are not equally faced and suffered. Quite the contrary, people who are in the status quo marginalised in society, are likely to face the heaviest toll from disasters. Those who are most vulnerable to disasters are also disproportionately likely to be those facing the dire effects of urbanization, economic globalization and global environmental change. As vulnerability does not exist in a social vacuum, it is a product of unequal social processes. Therefore, addressing it means addressing the socio-economic conditions underlying its existence.

Graffiti expressing unequal socio-economic conditions, Beirut 2016. Copyright Eija Meriläinen

When looking at the unequal impacts of disasters, we should not only be looking at the marginalized and vulnerable but also at those who are not deemed vulnerable. Facilitation is an important phenomenon that refers to how individuals and actors with power and resources can insulate themselves from hazards’ impacts, and even reap benefits from disasters. With respect to COVID-19, as one level of generalization, while it initially may have been the more affluent people travelling across the globe and catching the disease, as a social group they are unlikely to be the ones whose lives suffer most as a result of the pandemic. Within and across the countries, people with precarious livelihoods and poor living situations are the ones who are repeatedly exposed to the disease, without appropriate access to healthcare – whether we are talking about the homeless or the low-paid essential workers.

Disaster governance can be split between two strands: governance of exception and governance by exception. The first refers to how a hazard is mitigated against, prepared for, responded to and recovered from by various actors. This definition comes close to typical DRR activities though the focus on governance highlights the diffused nature of the undertaking. For instance, response to COVID-19 involves practices of quarantining and social distancing as well as developing a vaccination. Meanwhile, governance by exception refers to the ways in which exceptional circumstances are leveraged to drive political measures, that may do very little to address the impacts of the disaster on those affected, let alone the patterns of marginalization and facilitation. For instance, the emergency powers granted to Hungary’s Orban and Fidesz-led government with no end date in sight have been criticized for being a way to extend their power and crackdown on the opposition, rather than per se address COVID-19.

Antofagasta, 2015. Copyright Eija Meriläinen

Governments, national or local, continue to be central actors in both stands of disaster governance, having, for example, the power to declare a state of emergency. In the case of COVID-19, we have seen that while states have been hollowed out, they still have a tremendous power to restrict the rights of citizens. However, their resources and influence in relation to other actors have been on the decline in many contexts. Furthermore, while intergovernmental agencies, like the WHO, are central actors in facing transnational disasters such as the pandemic, the precarity of their existence has been recently exposed, as the president of the U.S. has halted the funding to the organization. This is worrying in a situation where, according to Society for International Development, only 20% the WHO’s budget is for its core mandate, while the remaining 80% is earmarked by donor countries for specific projects.

As a whole, non-state actors, such as businesses, NGOs and think-tanks, increasingly influence how disaster governance unfolds. They may directly assume the responsibilities previously associated with the role of the state, or shape the context as a whole, for instance, through deploying certain discourses. They could also act as suppliers to governments. We have seen this in COVID-19. For instance, the nationally widely publicized face mask escapade led to some reshuffling at the Finnish National Emergency Supply Agency. A major issue with this increasing power of private and non-state actors is that disaster governance efforts might become increasingly diffused and fragmented. Despite this fragmentation, some powerful actors can also gain disproportionate influence over disaster governance within and across national borders.

In the case of COVID-19, it would be important for the media and researchers to shine the spotlight not only on governmental actions but also in the ways in which private and non-state actors are entangled into the governance of and by disaster.

2020 Virtual IRDR Spring Academy

Lucy K Buck21 May 2020

The annual IRDR Spring Academy is usually held at a beautiful country house. Here all the members of the IRDR gather to catch up with each other, find out what others are working on, brainstorm future work, discuss possible collaborations and attempt Ilan’s infamous pub quiz.

This year was a little different. With members of staff and PhD students signing in online from their living rooms the Spring Academy was off to a slightly different start than usual.

This years theme was ‘trending’ with trends in disasters, communication, experimental work and field work being discussed.

Five main trends identified were:

  1. Are there more or worse disasters? This depends on how disasters are recorded, measured and communicated. There was a reported decrease in volcanic eruptions between 1939 and 1944 – was this due to less eruptions or a distracted media?
  2. People’s behaviour. Panic, fatigue due to false alarms, looting, rioting etc are reported to be rare at a local level but disaster capitalism by corporations and individuals not directly effected tends to be more common.
  3. Observations and reporting can create perceived trends which do not exist in actuality.
  4. How disasters are communicated and how this influences decision makers. The rise of populism and reactionary policies based on public opinion rather than science is happening globally.
  5. How can this be corrected? In particular when the misinformation comes from someone in a position of authority and trust. This is crucial and we, as researchers, must be careful. Especially ensuring we get the basics right; there is no such thing as a natural disaster, people may not agree that they are victims and may not want to be described that way or an accident may not be entirely unintentional.

At the IRDR we aim to create the trends, not follow them.

Why No Coronavirus Diplomacy?

Saqar ' M Al Zaabi7 May 2020

Written by Ilan Kelman

Hands together, Salamanca, Spain. Copyright Ilan Kelman

Could the global disaster of the Covid-19 pandemic bring warring parties together to improve diplomacy? Based on events so far, the wider conclusions from disaster diplomacy work conducted at IRDR are holding: No new and lasting peace is emerging from coronavirus.

This analysis provides two levels. First, the cooperation and offers of international aid are either part of already existing diplomatic initiatives or else are being conducted for political rather than humanitarian purposes. Second, typical diplomatic spats and violent conflicts are continuing, sometimes using the disease as an excuse to continue them.

A sampling of reported coronavirus-induced cooperation and assistance is:

– China and Russia sent aid around the world, including to the US. China is in a drive to overcome the blame it receives for being the origin of, and for its initially lackadaisical response to, the new virus. Russia is trying to position itself as a friendly giant given the current sanctions against the country.

– Cuba provided medical aid and personnel to numerous countries, a continuation of Cuba’s long-standing medical diplomacy efforts.

– Taiwan donated medical equipment and supplies to several countries, including some which have been more aligned to China.

– Turkey sent aid to Israel, although the two countries have a long history of disaster-related collaboration.

– Ceasefires were offered in Yemen and Afghanistan to support addressing coronavirus, following similar patterns of temporary peace for combatting disease such as through polio vaccinations.

Mexican truck and workers helping clean up tornado damage in Rosita Valley, Texas. Copyright Ilan Kelman

None of the descriptions above precludes altruism. They indicate that any selflessness fortuitously coincides with desired political gain, a typical trait of public diplomacy including for disaster-related activities.

A sampling of reported political and violent conflicts related to the Covid-19 pandemic is:

– Boko Haram ramped up violence in the area around Niger, Cameroon, and Chad.

– The US President criticised and pulled funding from the UN’s World Health Organization, although he has never been a UN supporter.

– Italy lambasted the EU for the lack of support, which is not unfamiliar territory given other member states expressing similar concerns during disasters, such as the economic crises in Greece and Cyprus.

– The governments of China and the US ripped into each other over the pandemic, continuing the usual diplomatic spats between them.

– Iran declined aid from the US, a continuation of the two countries’ hostilities.

Fundamentally, as is typical for activities preventing and dealing with disasters, political entities have their pre-set political pathways and they will not use disaster-related work to deviate from their already established decision. Where they had reasons for supporting others and pursuing diplomacy, the pandemic disaster gave them one excuse among many to do so. Where war, conflict, or enmity were preferred, the pandemic disaster gave them one excuse among many to do so.

Two principal research questions for disaster diplomacy emerge, extending to wider discussions of health diplomacy, medical diplomacy, and pandemic diplomacy:

  1. Are there counterexamples to the observed pattern, showing that coronavirus diplomacy does create new and lasting cooperation?
  2. Do options exist for parties, within governments or not, to insist that disasters should create cooperation?

Corona Wars: The Cost of Calling Disasters ‘Wars’

Patrizia Isabelle Duda4 May 2020

Written by Patrizia Isabelle Duda and Navonel Glick

War on Coronavirus poster

On March 17th, U.S. President Trump began calling the Covid-19 pandemic a “war”, to wide acclaim by supporters and scathing condemnation by critics.

The reasons for using the war metaphor are straightforward. By calling the pandemic a war, Trump is appealing to a familiar scenario that we feel we ‘know’ how to relate to. It ostensibly simplifies the crisis, mobilises the public, and calls for unity.

The war metaphor is a powerful and effective tool that is often used in politics, but it is also pervasive in the world of disaster risk reduction and response. The historical links between disaster management and the military are well-documented. Today, from operational frameworks like the Incident Command System (ICS) that were inspired by military management structures, to the extensive use of military terminology like ‘deploy’, ‘mission’, or ‘surge’ by even the most ‘military-averse’ NGOs (e.g. IRC, Plan International), the connection remains.  Even the widely revered (and much maligned) ‘logical framework’, meant to improve transparency and accountability in the aid sector, originated in planning approaches for the U.S. military.

At first glance, the war metaphor makes sense. The chaotic images from disaster areas that make the headlines are reminiscent of war zones, and the associated urgent, high-stress, life-and-death decisions demand composure, bravery, and decision-making attributes that we have learned to equate with our armed forces.

Yet, the analogy quickly crumbles. For one, as most disaster practitioners would confirm, the period immediately following a disaster which might require such an approach, at best, represents only a fraction of any disaster response effort, let alone long-term recovery or disaster risk reduction (through sustainable development).

In addition, as our experience in the field shows, armed forces are notoriously poor at interacting with vulnerable civilian populations, particularly in complex situations of unrest. More importantly, the war analogy is plagued by a core contradiction. While it can be argued that armies engage in war to ‘defend’ or ‘protect’ a population, destruction is often their main tool for doing so. This is not what disaster response or humanitarian aid are about, much less how one reduces disaster risks and builds disaster-resilient communities.

So why does the war metaphor continue to dominate the field? The simple answer may be because it works. It appeals to the pleasure-pain principle, triggers our basic fight-or-flight instincts, and provokes a reaction.

Yet, this strategy may be poorly suited to pandemics. We rightfully celebrate our health-care workers and other front-line personnel as ‘heroes’—yet another war term—and many of them may be faced with ‘war-like’ situations of urgency and life-and-death situations. But for the rest of us, “wash your hands” and “stay at home” are woefully anti-climatic ‘weapons’ to ‘fight’ the ongoing coronavirus ‘enemy’.

Photo credit: hairul_nizam / Shutterstock.com

Furthermore, the ‘war metaphor’ may succeed in the short-term during a crisis, but such bursts of energy (or adrenaline) cannot be maintained over time. Pandemics are not addressed by acute, short-term measures or bursts of adrenaline, but instead, by a complex web of systematic health and public health initiatives, drawn out over a long period of time.

The most damning trait of the war metaphor is, therefore, the focus on the disease itself, instead of the systemic issues that allowed it to become a pandemic. Diseases, much like earthquakes or hurricanes, are natural hazards. They only become disasters when we are left exposed and vulnerable to them by insufficient preparedness and poor risk reduction measures. Thus, tackling the underlying social, economic, and political systemic issues that drive disaster vulnerability should be our priority.

The analogy of a marathon instead of a sprint comes to mind, except that in this case the race has no end. In fact, it never was a race to begin with. This may be the biggest fallacy with using the war metaphor for disasters: wars are arguably won or lost; at least they (should) end. Disaster preparedness and reducing risks do not—they are an ongoing process of achieving and maintaining sustainable practices.

The war metaphor, therefore, from the very beginning, begs to disappoint, because there will not be the closure it promises. Calling our health workers and other frontline workers ‘life-saving heroes’ is an admirable title they deserve, but were they any less worthy of it before the pandemic? And will they not continue to perform the same essential role once the coronavirus pandemic has passed?

In this time of acute crisis, when the lack of preparedness and risk reduction is painfully exposed, we may be glad to have the war metaphor for the action that it catalyses. But by continuing to prioritise response over prevention, and perpetuating the myth of the ‘race’, what social habits will we continue to reinforce, and at what cost?

What would an alternative look like?