Meta-Geopolitics of Pandemics: The Case of Covid-19

Meta-Geopolitics of Pandemics: The Case of Covid-19

Meta-Geopolitics of Pandemics: The Case of Covid-19

By Professor Nayef Al-Rodhan, Head of the 'Geopolitics and Global Futures Programme'

From the early days of our civilization, pathogens have claimed lives and destroyed livelihoods, triggering long lasting impacts on social, political and economic systems. During Antiquity, the Antonine Plague killed approximately 5 million people hastening the end of the Pax Romana. Later, global interconnectedness and urbanization increased the spread of diseases, and triggered serious geopolitical consequences.

After the First World War, the Spanish Flu claimed at least 50 million lives; it however triggered significant steps in global health governance such as the creation of the League of Nations’ Health Organization which later became the World Health Organization (WHO). Similarly, more recent epidemics and pandemics caused by HIV (AIDS), A/H1N1 or the Ebola virus, supported the enhancement of international cooperation and preparedness.


As other pandemics, the recent Covid-19 outbreak will bring significant transformations.

Traditional geopolitical frameworks focus on the hard capacities of states to analyze the consequences of an event. This realist conceptualization fails to acknowledge the multifaceted nature of modern statecraft, which is critical to navigate an ongoing crisis and forecast its implications for global order.

I analyze the recent Covid-19 pandemic using the seven state capacities paradigm (social & health issues, domestic politics, economics, environment, science & human potential, military & security issues) defined in my comprehensive meta-geopolitics framework.


  1. Social & Health Issues

The COVID-19 pandemic uncovered the limits of national healthcare systems worldwide. The level of preparedness and adaptability of numerous countries was severely tested. Limits in the provision of ventilators, sanitary products and protective gears further put citizens and health workers at risk.

Additionally, the confinement measures exposed inequalities and individuals dependent on the informal economy become particularly vulnerable. These trends could be mitigated by the emergence of new solidarities at the local level (e.g. charitable efforts), but they risk making governments appear unable to rise to the challenge.


  1. Domestic Politics

The fears triggered by the pandemic exacerbate nationalism and populism. The measures taken by many governments at the outset of the crisis supported xenophobic narratives, and endangered fundamental freedoms. Globalization processes are openly criticized, and extraordinary powers have been granted to governments without significant opposition. These decisions coupled with a lack of international cooperation reinforce counter-globalization and counter-liberal ideals.

In addition, trust in policymakers is also tested. The spread of fake news through social media reinforced inaccurate scientific claims.


  1. Economics

170 countries will see their GDP per capital fall by the end of the year. According to the IMF, the global GDP could fall by 3 percent , and pessimistic forecasts expect a decrease by 31.9% of world merchandise trade.

On the other hand, the digital economy has thrived as numerous entities have shifted their activities online.

However, most countries cannot rely on a strong digital economic sector. The recent oil collapse due to the abrupt lack of demand exacerbated the situation for several international companies, employment and economies. According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), the pandemic could cause 195 million job losses worldwide.


  1. Environment

The economic downturn triggered numerous positive effects on the environment. Pollution is notably, temporarily, decreasing due to the reduction of traffic (air, land and sea).

States could also take this opportunity to re-launch international cooperation in this domain – despite the fact that the COP26 conference is for now postponed. However, the inevitable austerity measures coming could diminish investment on sustainable energies or other costly technologies required for an ecological transition. Such fears have notably been formulated regarding the European Green Deal.


  1. Science & Human Potential

The Covid-19 outbreak allowed for greater investment in research and development to produce efficient treatments and vaccines, with 70 vaccines being currently tested. Additionally, the increased use of new technologies in the development of medical tools but also in the practical response to the pandemic, promise significant progress in this field. For instance, artificial intelligence has been used to accelerate the sequencing of the virus and potentially forecast responses to it, and big data tools use tracing apps to better identify cases and their contacts to slow the spread of the virus.

The challenge for states will be to ensure efficiency while protecting the fundamental freedoms of citizens.


  1. Military and Security Issues

Covid-19 has brought significant security and military challenges to statecraft. Indeed, the coming economic crisis could re-activate tensions pre-dating the pandemic. Cyber-criminality and cyberwarfare will certainly become more common and aggressive.

In the face of these new threats, we could expect significant cuts to military budgets due to austerity measures, although the rise of international tensions and nationalism might compel some governments to justify higher security and military expenditures.


  1. International Diplomacy

International diplomacy, which is central to statecraft, is strongly impacted by the pandemic. Regional and global cooperation has been tested with poor results. There has been a return to national reflexes and bilateral cooperation in humanitarian aid. The crisis has also been used as an opportunity for power projection by some states, which actively communicated on the assistance they sent to other countries. International organizations have been particularly challenged by these trends, which exposed their limits as independent actors.

Moreover, the crisis transformed the very core of diplomacy and diplomatic practices. The need to limit physical contacts promoted a turn to digital diplomacy.


Implications for Global Order

International politics is threatened by increased tensions, blame and finger-pointing between the United States and China. It is also likely that nativist/populist blocs worldwide will be reinforced and enhance current fears to reduce cultural understanding.

The global economic environment will suffer from a weakened industrial globalization. Isolationism coupled with environmentalist positions supporting a de-growth theory, could impact policies.

Finally, global security will be affected in the short/medium term. The rise of inequalities risks bringing numerous countries on the verge of collapse. Additionally, the predicable race in cyberwarfare capabilities risk exacerbating tensions while non-state actors could find the development of biological weapons attractive.

It is here that international organizations could become critical. The UN system, and more precisely the WHO, though weakened by the crisis, remains an important pool of expertise. The IMF has been responsive by providing increased lending capacity, emergency financing and debt service relief. NATO provided efficient humanitarian cooperation tools for member states. The EU, however, failed to live up to its ideals and commitments; and so, a real and urgent repair mechanism is needed to fix its credibility. It is probably through small steps at the regional level that international cooperation will regain its legitimacy in a context of rising isolationism.


Policy Recommendations

For States

  • Improving pandemic preparedness is crucial. Measures need to include: increasing hospital bed capacities, stocks and manufacturing capacities of drug treatments, health technologies (like ventilators), testing kits, vaccination research, bioinformatics, etc.
  • Response plans should also be improved through pandemic scenarios.
  • Strong social, economic and political recovery plans should be designed.
  • States should re-value expertise and fight disinformation vigorously, and national scientific councils should be the primary source of information.
  • Economic support programs like a universal basic income (UBI), should be enacted by various governments as a social and economic safety-net.


For International Organizations

  • International organizations should reinstate their role as agenda setters, and improve their ability to influence states’ behavior and preparedness.
  • Enhancing budget resilience appears critical and could take the form of internal re-structuring, increased level of talent or additional funding options, without losing impartiality.
  • Finally, creating new tools to foster cooperation notably in the digital, security and health sectors will be an essential task.


The full version of this article was published in The Global Policy Journal.

Professor Nayef Al-Rodhan is a Philosopher, Neuroscientist and Geostrategist. He is Head of GCSP's Geopolitics and Global Futures Programme and Honorary Fellow of St. Antony's College at Oxford University, Oxford, United Kingdom.

Prof Al-Rodhan began his career in neuroscience and neurosurgery before shifting to the field of Global Security and International Relations (IR) in the early 2000s. He holds an M.D. and a Ph.D. and was trained at the Mayo Clinic, Yale University and Harvard University.