In former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s recent article on COVID-19, he mused that “nations cohere and flourish on the belief that their institutions can foresee calamity, arrest its impact and restore stability.” More than a rush of blood to the head of anyone in power, this highlights the central role of politics in a disease as complicated and transcendental as this pandemic. Apart from being an epidemiologic phenomenon that has caused a global death toll that parallels, if not surpasses, that of previous plagues, COVID-19 exposes the powers of nations and their leaders. As of mid-May 2020, the total number of confirmed cases is at 4.8 million worldwide with around 318,000 deaths and 28,000 recoveries.
COVID-19 was first reported in December 2019 as a mysterious respiratory illness afflicting seafood market workers in Wuhan, China. Immediately, it spread to multiple countries and to date had ravaged the entire world with massive cases and deaths in its trail and immeasurable economic and social costs for our world to bear now and in generations to come. How did it start? Was it naturally occurring or intentionally released? Was there a delay in reporting? Was there a cover-up? What global cooperation strategies can be deployed? What nations will emerge victorious in the response? After this coronavirus pandemic, what superpower will change the world order? Which kind of politics will prevail? What will be the fate of global health governance? Which countries stand to gain? How will health systems be transformed? How will people benefit from changes in the global health security movement?
These are questions that can frame our understanding of politosomatics, which explores the links between politics and pandemics. As Mika Aaltola theorized, a “dis-ease” at the individual somatic body may be viewed as part of a bigger movement in the global political hierarchy. From the deadly Spanish Flu (H1N1) pandemic in 1918 to the hyped-up (because it proved benign later) Swine Flu (also H1N1) pandemic in 2009 to the coronavirus disease of today, pandemics, albeit invisible enemies, are real, tangible, and personal. Individuals and societies are often gripped by their resultant fear, distress, and anxiety.
Different countries with their differing levels of economy and health system capacities, nuances in ideologies and cultures, mixed with fear, paranoia, and indifference are fertile ground for pandemics. This “coming plague” storyline started in the 1990s when Avian Flu was all the rage. Initially a disease of wild birds in China that threatened the poultry industry, human practices with livestock and mutation allowed the Avian Flu virus to jump from animals to humans and the thought of migratory birds flying to many destinations and spreading the disease propagated a medico-security paradigm that looks at external health threats as an important security issue of any country.
The “yellow danger” biohazard sign to mark unsafe sites could not be more straightforward. This started the whole containment drama and military-inspired bio-preparedness tactics (think of Outbreak the movie) to mitigate the impacts of infectious diseases. Although disproportionately impacting the food security sector, the Avian Flu was enough to stir the health security discourse and trigger the pandemic fantasies of the world then.
With the US-led War on Terror gaining traction after the 9/11 attacks, the perfect disease storm, i.e., Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), emerged in 2003. Again, it started in China but the disease came as a surprise when it rapidly spread to major hubs around the world due to global interconnectedness through air travel and superspreaders—infected people who could unknowingly but exponentially infect many others—causing major economic losses and social disruptions in no time. In one fell swoop, SARS met the definition of a pandemic being able to shut down modern life support systems.
These interweaving threads of pandemics and politics underscore the need for individual countries, regardless of their positions and power in international politics, to develop capacities for preparedness and resilience to pandemics: the quintessential health threat to the world order. This is at the core of the International Health Regulations (IHR) and the global health security agenda. If the Philippines were to benefit from, if not change, the new world order after the coronavirus, then it should be strategic enough to leverage its political resources and people and work with global partners not only to respond to COVID-19, but also to do its role in shaping the future of global health security. There are two ways to go about it.
First, we need to democratize the politics of pandemics by relating it to our daily lives. We need to study political response and people participation in the pandemic. Who are the political actors? What are their interests and agenda? Why are they intent on doing COVID-19 work? How do they organize their political milieu and use people and resources? How do they use power, influence, knowledge, networks? We need to study the curious use of politics by these leaders – all in the name of alleviating people’s suffering from the common ill. As the governed, we have rights and the freedom to inquire about these. We also have our obligations to participate and do our part as responsible citizens of our society.
Second, we need to hold leaders accountable by setting clear expectations. We need a new brand of leadership that rises above the usual politics to do work that is necessary no matter how difficult, costly, and inconvenient. Putting people’s basic needs over political considerations in this pandemic should go beyond lip service. We need to perceive better ways of promoting cooperation and collaboration when leaders engage different kinds of people. Sincerity, transparency, and openness can go a long way in winning public trust and confidence. This is necessary if people are to adopt prescribed behaviors. Effective crisis communication could also play a role in informing our decisions and actions. We need to see results and get feedbacks whether positive or negative so we can all learn from lessons, adapt, and adjust our strategies to the new normal. Data sharing, information exchange, and joint planning and decision-making can empower both the leadership and the people to turn this challenging situation around.
In every epic story of battle, there will be villains and there will be heroes. Some will be recognized, and a few put on a pedestal; most will be relegated to our short-term memory, while some may be totally forgotten. If we do our part, global solidarity will win over national interests and humanity will prevail as the most important asset to health security. Politics, if done right, can change the world for the better after a pandemic.
Dr. Ronald Law is a physician, public health specialist and professor of public health at the University of the Philippines-College of Public Health. He obtained a fellowship in public health emergencies and emerging health issues at Griffith University, Australia and investigated the topic of health security at the University of Washington, U.S.A. as a US-ASEAN Fulbright visiting scholar.