Comparative Responses to COVID19 : Interview with Duck contributor Sofia Fenner

Last month, Sofia Fenner wrote a terrific post for us on comparative responses to COVID19, focusing on regime type, state capacity, leadership, and civil society response.

Mark Leon Goldberg interviewed her for UN Dispatch to talk about the piece and further reflections. Embedded below.

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What’s wrong with the war metaphor

This is a guest post from Eric Van Rythoven (PhD) who teaches International Relations and Foreign Policy at Carleton University, Canada.  His work has been published in Security Dialogue, European Journal of International Relations, and Journal of Global Security Studies, among others.  He is the editor (with Mira Sucharov) of Methodology and Emotion in International Politics: Parsing the Passions (Routledge, 2019).   

As governments around the world grapple with the Covid-19 crisis several are reaching for the metaphor of war to convey the urgency and gravity surrounding the pandemic. 

There are obvious advantages to this strategy.  Historically, the language of war has functioned as a powerful mechanism for collective mobilization and emergency action.  It can suspend partisanship, free government agencies of burdensome rules, and activate extraordinary powers on behalf of the executive.  Even more, it can revive memories of shared sacrifice—as in World War 2—which can serve as inspiration and even comfort in uncertain times.

At the same time the war metaphor comes with a number of risks.  One problem is that it risks positioning militaries as the leading responders to the Covid-19 crisis.  As academics studying the securitization of AIDS/HIV have noted, this can lead to limited resources being diverted from public health systems and towards the military

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Doing PhD Research While Staying in Place

Last night, I taught another session of our Dissertation Proposal Workshop class, and the topic was the methodology section of one’s proposal.  That is, how am I going to research this question and how do I justify the choices I made?  This is after going through the other pieces–the question, the proposed answer, what other folks have said about this or have said about other stuff that you want to bring to this project, the theory, and the hypotheses.  How does one test the hypotheses was the question du jour (or nuit). 

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Deploying targeted digital health conversations to fight the twin pandemics of COVID-19 and misinformation

This is a guest post from Ben Bellows, PhD (UC Berkeley, epidemiology), currently a researcher at the Population Council in Washington DC and a co-founder and the Chief Business Officer at Nivi Inc., a digital health company empowering consumers in emerging markets. Nivi is supporting the COVID-19 response here.  

Background: the problem

Disease outbreaks are as much a social phenomenon as a biological one. Rumor, innuendo, and public sentiment drive disease transmission dynamics. Covid-19 is no different; the fact checking website, Snopes.com, has a dedicated “covid-19” tag to run the equivalent of public health containment and mitigation on misinformation.

As the World Health Organization reported 2nd February, this pandemic, similar to past epidemics like SARS in 2003 when the term was coined, risks spawning an “infodemic” that exacerbates disease control and treatment efforts (e.g. there is no high quality evidence that hydroxychloroquine leads to significant improvements in COVID-19 outcomes, drinking hot water will not kill the virus, and this video does not show mass COVID-19 graves in Italy).

Drawing lessons from the 2013-16 West Africa Ebola epidemic, we already see health authorities trying to balance centralized mechanisms to promote consistent and high quality messaging with decentralized programmatic communication that is flexible and adaptable to local needs, as Gillespie and colleagues recommended post-Ebola.

As a part of the global response, on March 20th, the WHO and Facebook launched a WhatsApp chat bot and resource page to improve information quality, allowing anyone with access to WhatsApp to learn more about coronavirus and receive updates. This proactive strengthening of health authority messaging pairs well with effective efforts to weaken transmission of misinformation on social media platforms (e.g. YouTube has a 24-hour incident-response team to remove misinformation and Facebook partnered with the International Fact Checking Network awarding grants to fact check Coronavirus misinformation).

National governments and corporate partners have also launched digital messaging services including in India, Kenya, and South Africa. These messaging services, and similar web platforms the US CDC Coronavirus Self-Checker, convey consistent and vetted health information intended to inform citizens and empower healthy decisions.

Next phase in pandemic response

Anticipating the next step in the COVID-19 response, digital health companies are launching consumer-facing COVID-19 messaging for specific populations. One company that I co-founded in 2016, Nivi, began to develop messaging after noticing an uptick of in-bound questions from its users.

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Public Health Research in Mainstream International Relations Outlets

Steve Saideman’s recent Duck piece on international relations scholars’ relative silence on issues of pandemics, and public health more generally, has ruffled feathers[1]and generated a lot of discussion: about marginalization of certain research outlets and methodologies, about the value of interdisciplinary work in a self-identifying-as-such-but-still-not-all-that-interdisciplinary discipline, and about what it means to say “IR as a field has little to say” vs. “individual IR scholars having said quite a bit.”

This all hits pretty close to home. As an IR scholar whose main area of specialization—climate change and conflict—has not received much purchase in mainstream political science and IR outlets, I can sympathize with feeling marginalized. And I’m sure I would bristle at the idea of someone saying “why don’t IR scholars study climate change”, though I’ve always read these pleadings as supportive of a broader platform for work in this area, not a failure to recognize the work that’s already being done. But I think the data are pretty clear: comparatively speaking, public health is not a widely published on topic in mainstream IR journals.

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Covid-19, remote learning and work-life balance

The Covid-19 pandemic has led to many useful discussions about public health, social responsibility, and tips for online learning. See the many great posts that have gone up here. One thing that hasn’t been discussed enough, in my opinion, is work-life balance. Given all the pressures of the modern University, how do we ensure the expansive demands of remote learning don’t swamp us and–for those of us with families–undermine our commitments to our kids or an equitable marriage?

I’ll start with my situation. My wife has been home with our kids (2&4) and was actually planning on going back to work outside the home this spring. So technically I could be working full-time, but out of recognition of the difficulties of never leaving the house, and to be there for my family, I switched to a 1/2 time schedule. I work 10-3 with a break for lunch, so I can help get the kids ready in the morning, put them down for nap, and play with them in the afternoon. It’s stressful, and I feel like I barely have time to get work done even as I barely have time to be with my family.

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Experts, Public Intellectuals, and the Coronavirus

This is a guest post from Peter Verovšek, a Lecturer (Assistant Professor) in Politics/International Relations at the University of Sheffield

The Coronavirus has turned us all into amateur epidemiologists. This desire for greater understanding makes sense in the face of a threat as novel and as dangerous as COVID-19. The shutdown of massive sections of the economy and state-mandated orders to engage in social – or, more accurately, physical – distancing has left the majority of us stuck at home, wondering when things will go back to normal and worrying that they never will.

As a result of this uncertainty, we are all breathlessly reading scientific reports on pandemics, such as the paper from Imperial College London, which serves as the scientific basis for government policy in the UK. Previously obscure experts on viral pandemics, such as Neil M. Ferguson and Nicholas A. Christakis, have built massive followings on Twitter almost overnight.

Clearly experts have an important role to play in combatting the novel Coronavirus by advising governments, informing citizens, and conducting the basic scientific research necessary to address the crisis in real time. In the words of Michel Foucault, these “specific intellectuals” are supposed “to pose problems, to make them active, to display them in such a complexity that they can silence the prophets and lawgivers” by making the severity of the crisis clear.

However, in addition epidemiologists and scholars of public health, many other researchers – including many political scientists and philosophers – have also sought to cope with the current situation by putting their thoughts down on paper (myself obviously included). In and of itself this is not a bad thing.

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Why Have Mainstream IR Journals Largely Ignored Pandemics*

* I have changed the title as I got plenty of pushback on twitter–that there is plenty of IR on Pandemics, not just in the major journals. And I will add an update at the bottom later to address the criticisms later.

People are wondering why there has not been much scholarship on the international relations of pandemics in the mainstream journals.


Not a scientific survey of the literature, but it gives you the basic idea.  I can’t really name any scholars that come to mind that are the pandemic experts, except strangely enough Dan Drezner thanks to his book Theory of International Politics and Zombies (the origin of that book was the blogging community reacting to a study by public health types who were wondering if countries would cooperate in the face of a pandemic and they used zombies as a placeholder for … something like this)  Which really is about IR theory and cooperation and not really about pandemics.  It is just the closest we got.  Which ain’t much. Why?

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Take a lesson from Hong Kong: don’t wait for your government, save yourselves from COVID-19

This is a guest post from Karen A. Grépin, Associate Professor, School of Public Health, University of Hong Kong

As cases of COVID-19 soar globally, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan have garnered accolades from the international community for having kept their epidemics relatively under control through mid-March – despite the incredible threat they all faced earlier in the year of imported cases from China. With all of the praise flowing to Hong Kong, one might expect citizens to also have good things to say about their government’s handling of the outbreak – but you would be wrong.

In fact, according to data from a recent public opinion poll (20 March 2020) conducted by the independent Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute (HKPORI) only a quarter of Hong Kongers are satisfied with the way that government has handled COVID-19.  While this represents an improvement in support since an earlier poll (14 February 2020) found that only 7% of survey respondents supported the government – an all-time low – it is clear that people here are not enthusiastic about the way government is handling the outbreak.

So, why are Hong Kongers so dissatisfied?  One thing that is clear, the seven months of violent protests that ravaged this city in the lead up to the outbreak undermined overall support of the government. But this is unlikely to explain all of the dissatisfaction: support for the government actually declined in February relative to January, even after the protests had largely quieted down.

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Over 1000 U.S. Political Scientists are Worried about Democratic Elections in November: Here’s Why

This is a guest post from Jeffrey C. Isaac and William Kindred Winecoff who both teach political science at Indiana University, Bloomington

Last Wednesday the two of us circulated an open letter from U.S. political scientists, expressing concern about how the crisis surrounding the COVID pandemic could endanger the November election, and declaring that “We Must Urgently Work to Guarantee Free and Fair Democratic Elections in November” (posted at bottom). The letter endorsed the excellent report produced by legal scholars at the Brennan Center for Justice, entitled “Responding to the Coronavirus Crisis.”

Within 6 hours 500 of our colleagues had signed. Within 48 hours over 950 had signed. Among the signatories were some of the most distinguished political scientists in the U.S.; many past-presidents of the American Political Science Association (and the current president as well); and hundreds of the most dedicated teachers of American politics in U.S. higher education. This is a pretty striking response. As the political scientists who circulated the letter, and who are in a sense “participant observers,” we think it is important to explain this phenomenon—the rather phenomenal worry of so many people who study and teach about politics for a living.

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Trump’s Coronavirus Response Shows How Much Leaders Matter

This is a guest post by Richard W. Maass, an Associate Professor at the University of Evansville. His research focuses on international security, US foreign policy, terrorism, and diplomatic history. He has a forthcoming book on how democracy and xenophobia limited US territorial expansion (Cornell UP, May 2020).

The international experience of COVID-19 will have many implications for international relations. Scholars have already begun discussing its implications for IR theories, hegemonic stability theory, and measures of state capacity. When all is said and done, I think the central lesson will be how much individual leaders matter.

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no, Realism cannot explain the international Covid-19 response

As the world rushes to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic, international relations scholars have a lot to say. We are not public health experts, or pathologists. But we can speak to the way states respond to common threats and the political process needed to formulate an effective response. One common reference is the realist idea of self-interest driving state behavior and undermining collective action. Yet, while realism as an inclination can explain what’s going on, Realism as a scholarly theory cannot.

Many scholars and general observers of international relations have reacted with frustration at state responses to Covid-19. The Trump Administration delayed testing and has provided insufficient information or help to states and communities. Britain’s Boris Johnson vacillated from doing nothing to locking down the country. China failed to be sufficiently transparent during the early stages of the pandemic.

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COVID-19 Breathes Life into Hegemonic Stability Theory

This crisis has us all having a lot of feelings.  I am feeling a bit nostalgic for Hegemonic Stability Theory. While Comparative Politics will have much to say about why countries varied in their responses (also see Max Brooks’s World War Z [the book, NOT the movie] to get a taste of the comparative politics of pandemics), it is the job of IR (and epidemiologists) to discuss why the disease spread as it did and why the international community largely failed. While there are many theories that may apply, I think that HST applies quite well.

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Duck podcast episode 3: Catherine Sanger

The third episode of the podcast is now live. Luke discusses with Catherine Sanger (Yale-NUS) the challenges and opportunities of moving teaching online as a result of measures to combat the COVID-19 outbreak. Both Luke and Catherine encourage listeners to leave thoughts and suggestions in the comments section on their own adaptations to online teaching.

For the article Catherine references in Times Higher Education, click here.

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Public Health and Religious Freedom in Korea’s COVID-19 Response: A Government Torn between Two Values

This is a guest post from Yongjin Choi, a PhD Candidate in the Department of Public Administration at Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy, University at Albany. His research focusses on evidence-based policy, Medicaid, and citizen participation. Before entering the doctoral program, he worked as a researcher at the Korea Institute of Ocean Science and Technology (KIOST) for several years. He is currently working as a research assistant at the Center for Technology in Government (CTG). Follow him at @TheYongjinChoi

While the COVID-19 outbreak in Korea, which as of March 16th reached 8,236 confirmed cases, appears to have turned the corner on new infections, it has also served to highlight ongoing socio-political tensions in the country between the government and religious groups that have grown increasingly politically influential.

The coronavirus began to spread nationwide in February, following community spread from a large-scale service of a doomsday “cult,” the Sincheonji church of Jesus, in Daegu (now the most affected region of the country), drawing attention to the risk posed by large, in-person religious services. In spite of the churches’ known role in the continued spread of the virus, the central government has been reluctant to issue anything more than voluntary guidelines urging churches, in particular, Christian megachurches, to move their services online and stop meeting in person demonstrating the growing political clout of these religious groups in Korean society. Below I review the Christian churches’ role in the spread of COVID-19 in Korea, the government’s response and provide some context to understand the growing political influence of megachurches in Korean society.

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Emerging Lessons from the South Korean Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic

This is a guest post from Heeun Kim, a PhD Candidate in the Department of Public Administration at Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy, University at Albany. Her research focusses on access to healthcare, disparities in health, and universal health coverage. Her current research projects include sexually transmitted diseases prevention in New York State, disparities in access to care under the Affordable Care Act in the US.

As the US struggles to ramp up its COVID-19 response amid what appears to be widespread community transmission, countries that appear to have turned the corner on new infections can offer lessons.

South Korea has been battling COVID-19 since the number of confirmed cases began skyrocketing in late February reaching nearly 8,000 confirmed cases with 67 patients deceased as of March 13. While Korea had, up until recently, the second largest number of confirmed cases after China, the number of newly confirmed cases has been declining for the last few days in the epicenter of the city of Daegu and adjacent regions (however, the number of community-level cluster transmissions has been gradually increasing in other cities). Moreover, its recorded case fatality rate is closer to 0.87%, rather than the 2-3% range reported elsewhere, which is likely to be more accurate than in other countries, due to widespread testing, but also possibly reflecting a more effective response or other underlying factors.

Notably, South Korea appears to have brought the outbreak under control in spite of an initially tepid political response, by adopting strategies that maximized transparency and access to testing, while managing to avoid draconian measures such as strong forms of social distancing and quarantine. It might be too early for an optimistic forecast, but these are some lessons from the South Korean case.

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COVID-19 and the Start of a Global Recession

This is a guest post from Brendan Skip Mark, an assistant professor in the political science department at the University of Rhode Island (URI). His work focuses on International Organizations and human rights. He is a co-director of the CIRIGHTS human rights dataproject. 

The official definition of a “recession” is a fall in real GDP for two consecutive quarters. It usually takes a while for the data to show this, yet it is already clear that production is falling globally and will continue to fall. We are in a global recession. It is still too early to tell how bad this crisis will be, and its severity will depend on how governments and international actors behave.

While the worst effects of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) are still to come, we are already seeing massive economic disruption. The Coronavirus has been declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO) and government efforts to contain it appear to be failing; German Chancellor Angela Merkel said 70% of the country may eventually be infected, and infections in China, the US, Canada, Italy, Iran and many other countries are proving a formidable challenge.

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State, Regime, Government, and Society in COVID-19 Response: Establishing Baseline Expectations

This is a guest post from Sofia Fenner, an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Bryn Mawr College. Her research explores co-optation under authoritarianism, with a regional focus on the Middle East and North Africa.

Much like the fall of the Soviet Union or the onset of the Arab Spring, the global coronavirus pandemic offers us intriguing variation: as diverse polities confront similar shocks, we see striking differences in how (and how well) different countries respond.

Though we are only a few months into the outbreak, we have already seen success stories in some countries—mitigated or even contained outbreaks—and horrifying failures in others: health systems overwhelmed, death tolls spiking, drastic measures seeming to fall short.

What explains this variation? Initial accounts have focused overwhelmingly on regime type, asking how democratic and authoritarian systems differ in their responses to a novel disease outbreak. But regime type is just one of several fundamental comparative politics variables that might determine the success of a pandemic response. I offer a preliminary exploration of how several key variables—regime type, yes, but also state capacity, leadership response, and societal buy-in—map onto the responses we have seen to date. 

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Flattening the curve

This is a guest post Jonathan Powell, an Associate Professor in the School of Politics, Security, and International Affairs at the University of Central Florida (Twitter: @prof_powell) and Christopher Faulkner, a Visiting Assistant Professor in the International Studies program at Centre College (Twitter: @C_Faulkner_UCF)

The general narrative is that preventative measures such as hand-washing and social distancing can slow the transmission rate of COVID-19. The importance of such efforts cannot be understated, but the reasons are often poorly understood.

For example, USA Today reports that slowing the epidemic can “help buy time to develop a vaccine and prevents the healthcare system from getting overwhelmed all at once.” And this is important as “flattening the curve” has become the global motto for addressing the ongoing crisis. Moreover this recommendation was a key feature in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) 2017 updated guidelines for addressing a potential influenza pandemic.

A discussion of the curve on CNN leads with the header that “It’s not about you; it’s about the people you will infect.” Though important, this misses two larger points. First, flattening the curve does not necessarily reduce the number of infections or death in the duration of the epidemic. Second, a potentially larger point that strains introduced by COVID-19 could dramatically worsen other health outcomes, perhaps to degrees worse than the direct impact of COVID-19 itself.

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Deconstructing the blob

“The blob” has become a common term during the Democratic Primary. The DC foreign policy establishment, so the argument goes, has an overwhelming effect on all who engage with it, sucking them in and spitting them out as appendages to its militaristic, status quo policies. There is some truth to this idea, but it has come to encompass too much, and the term is losing its value. It may be worth deconstructing what we meant by “the blob” and having a real, direct, debate on Demcratic foreign policy.

The Rise of THE BLOB

One of the more popular phrases flung around in the Democratic Primary (at least on the foreign policy side) is “The Blob.” The phrase was coined by Ben Rhodes, a speechwriter turned top national security aide in the Obama Administration. The blob is the “foreign policy establishment.” This includes “Hillary Clinton, Robert Gates and other Iraq-war promoters from both parties.” Basically, the blob represents the Washington foreign policy consensus pushing for a robust military presence around the world. Kind of a less refined version of Bacevich’s “Washington Rules.”

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