The Political Implications of Pandemics

Pandemic: The word calls to mind images of facemasks and protective gear, hospital isolation wards and makeshift clinics over-run with patients. In the media, coverage and subsequent conversations regarding recent pandemics, namely avian flu and Ebola, have been cast through the lens of public health and safety, detailing the more immediate, sensational instances of incompetence and horror. The academic world has similarly followed suit, with multitudes of studies detailing the latest medical research, suggested public health measures, and even the origins of modern day pandemics. Comparatively speaking, very little coverage or study has been given to the political implications of pandemics. In some ways this is understandable, given the more nebulous and complicated nature of intra and inter state politics, the specifics of which cannot always be backed up by statistics and hard data, but it nonetheless leaves a gap in the public understanding of pandemics, and the impact that they have upon the politics and global image of countries that are at the front-lines of battling them, often with little resources.

Image courtesy of Geoff Stearns, © 2009, some rights reserved

Image courtesy of Geoff Stearns, © 2009, some rights reserved

The 21st century has increasingly seen the rise in prominence of issues that can be classified as transnational; namely climate change, terrorism, and pandemics. By virtue of the fact that they recognize no national boundaries, the measures or lack there of implemented by one state to address the any of these issues can and many times does clash with measures taken by neighboring states, leading to intra state conflict. With regard to pandemics, this conflict can be clearly seen at border crossings between states, especially when one state is more developed or politically stable than its neighbor, although the two tend to go hand in hand. A prime example of this is Senegal, which borders various states that have been affected by the latest Ebola outbreak. The comparative lack of development and investment in the infrastructure and economies of Senegal’s neighbors has led them to be less prepared, both politically and logistically, to deal with pandemic threats. This in turn has caused Senegal to enact a closed border policy towards its neighbors, even refusing to allow U.N. humanitarian planes to pass through its airspace with supplies from affected nations.

The closing of borders, and the quarantining of large populations in general, such as the actions of Senegal, have been a part of the response by many nations during previous pandemics going back to even before the Spanish influenza of the early twentieth century. While well intentioned, these measures have invariably exacerbated the political and thus developmental challenges facing quarantined countries and regions, as their political leaders struggle to meet the demands of an increasingly isolated and frustrated people. The recent responses in Thailand and Liberia to bird flu and Ebola respectively merit some review in this regard, as both serve to illustrate a central point; that in order for a government to properly control the public’s response to the fears and realities of pandemics, there must first be a basic level of trust between the people and that government. Both Thailand, with its history of military intervention in civilian life, and Liberia, with its continuing recovery from a bloody civil war, lack that mutual respect, although granted to varying degrees.

This variability in political implications is largely due to the impact of global development and investment, for although Thailand does have its own imperfect politics, they never spilled into outright conflict, leaving the country’s physical and systemic infrastructure advanced enough to adequately deal with pandemics early on, catching early cases and treating them quickly, considerably stemming the socio-political consequences of unchecked disease and preventing the cascade of panic that so often results from the possibility of pandemics.

However, for states whose recent history does include violent conflict and or extreme poverty, pandemics have the potential to stagnate political and developmental progress, both giving governments an opportunity to impose self-serving measures in the name of restoring order in the midst of panic, as well as making it harder for these states to form an attractive portfolio for economic investment, threatening to prevent them from being seen as multifaceted economies with potential for development and rather causing them to be looked upon by the international community as unwanted investments, only worthy of development aid and not to be taken seriously, thus continuing the patronizing cycle that has been employed, sometimes unwittingly, by industrialized nations towards the global south since the end of formally recognized colonialism in the 1950s through the 1970s.

Case in point: over the past six months in Liberia there have been quarantines of slums, and resulting riots in Monrovia, as well as intra-state conflict with the president musing about suspending elections and certain civil rights, resulting in push back by the country’s Supreme Court. All of this has threatened to tear apart the many incremental steps that have lead Liberia out of its troubled past, and already the narrative is becoming a single story; the cliché of the troubled African country that is simply unable to function on its own, thereby changing the political implications internationally for Liberia.

While transnational issues such as pandemics know no national boundaries, their impact is invariably more destructive to political stability and development in states that due to histories of exploitation, both colonial and modern day, do not have the infrastructure or means to properly control their spread. The international community would be best served to listen to what the people of these states want and help them achieve it in a sustainable way rather than looking upon them with pity and continuing the arrogant, decades old tradition of handing government officials more misplaced development aid for perceived needs and projects that have no tangible purpose.