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National fears and global cooperation: The political implications of Coronavirus

Alexandra Ming, Political Consultant | Dods Monitoring

5 min read

In light of fears regarding the coronavirus, Dods Monitoring's Alexandra Ming considers how the United Kingdom’s response fits within that of the wider international community.

The ‘Super-Spreader’. A quarantined cruise on the coast of Japan. Mass travel associated with the Chinese Lunar New Year, coinciding with a mysterious and infectious virus. News stories in recent weeks surrounding the coronavirus have seemed more akin to the plotline of Danny Boyle film than to real life.

When the COVID-19 virus was found to constitute “a Public Health Emergency of Immediate Concern” by the World Health Organisation (WHO) on 30 January 2020, media outlets across the Globe erupted in a cacophony of news stories and reports. With publications as diverse as Vogue to the Daily Star offering guidance and advice (aromatherapy and meditation, anyone?), national governments have sought to keep panic at bay.

Recommendations from the WHO have explicitly stated that chances of contracting the virus, unless members of the public have travelled to an area where COVID-19 is spreading, are “currently low.” What is more, many of the WHO’s press releases, such as their situational report from 24 February, have focused more on the significant threat of misinformation and stigmatisation. Despite this, fears inadvertently stoked by the media and inflamed by confusion have contributed to numerous negative results, such as increased Sinophobia and discrimination against those of East-Asian descent.

Conflicting messaging does little to alleviate concern

In the United Kingdom, the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) have made a concentrated effort to respond to the threat of the coronavirus. Ministers have been keen to present a sense of stability through clear messaging, sure actions and transparent advice. There have been a number of details within the Government’s response however, which could be deemed conflicting at face value and potentially contribute to feelings of unease, if clarification is not broadcast responsibly.

In one statement by the DHSC, for example, when the risk to public health had been raised from low to moderate by chief medical officers; the public were also told the “risk to individuals remains low.” For those working in the health sector, the distinction between risk to ‘public health’ and ‘risk to individuals,’ may seem clear. But for individuals looking to official statements or news for advice, much of this detail risks being lost.

Emergency legislation in a global health crisis

‘The Health Protection (Coronavirus) Regulations 2020,’ are a legislative mechanism the Government introduced with immediate effect on 10 February 2020. They were created to give the Government legal power to keep individuals in quarantine for the sake of public health. Legislation stated that the coronavirus was “an imminent and serious threat,” even though the risk to individuals remained the same.

This measure was taken after a person whom tested positive with COVID-19 was being held in quarantine on the Wirral and threatened to leave the premises. He said being held in those facilities against his will was a breach of the law and his human rights.

The introduction of these regulations are better understood when viewing the Coronavirus from a Global Health perspective. Requests to self-isolate, report to local officials, and assist with contact-tracing, are just one set of measure that fit that within a broader network of global health apparatus.

The World Health Organisation is a rare international body in how it has a legally binding mandate over member states. As part of their International Health Regulations 2005 (IHR), for example, there are “obligations on State Parties to notify WHO of events that may constitute a public health emergency.” Member states are asked to cooperate with the WHO, and with each other, to contain public health threats for the sake of the international community.

The response within the UK is like a miniaturised version of that which is trying to be achieved globally, in which countries report incidences to the WHO, minimise spread in their own countries, and contribute to efforts to prevent the virus developing worldwide.

International cooperation and transparency are key

The existential threat of a health pandemic has a catalysing effect on national and international politics. And if there is an optimistic note that can be found amidst the confusion and tragedy, it perhaps may be in the global response.

Although criticism has been waged against the slow or misleading reporting by some Governments, such as China and Iran, it is worth bearing in mind how the international community have responded to the coronavirus compared to other significant threats, such as climate change. Nation states are usually notoriously reluctant to share information; to follow and accept advice; or to quickly funnel money into communal funds. And yet, when bound by a shared health threat, lessons learned from the Ebola crisis and SARS demonstrate that cooperation is key.

In recognition that a virus does not discriminate on the basis of country, class, gender and race, it’s in every state’s best interest to bind together and communicate transparently and responsibly.


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