Why COVID-19 Needs to Be Political


Pandemic Science and Politics

In dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, a repeated message is that we ought not to politicize it. At the same time, social media are replete with stories about how the coronavirus will change the world because it has cruelly laid bare the frailty of our health care systems and underscores the need to build more resilient societies in anticipation of future shocks. What a predicament.

There are reasons to be hopeful for our post-pandemic world. As Daniel Sarewitz contends in “Pandemic Science and Politics” (online exclusive, March 25, 2020), we are converging around a shared concern of valuing life. We have witnessed acts of heart-warming solidarity, and many countries are enacting social-support policies that had been unthinkable just a short time ago.

Yet as discussions about how to emerge from lockdown are beginning to circulate, we hear the same old disagreements across the political spectrum about the substance, pace, and direction of post-COVID change. Environmentalists insist that we must give up flying and other excessive luxuries to enact deep ecological transformation. Conservatives are promoting sovereignty of nations over international cooperation. Free-marketeers demand contracts (and bailouts) for the private sector, while, equally predictably, anarchists proclaim the end of global capitalism.

Hopes of durable structural change are further tempered by our past experiences with worldwide systemic crises. In the wake of the 2008 global economic meltdown, financial institutions including the World Bank called for profound economic transformation. But these changes are as elusive today as they were then. The financial system largely returned to business as usual, and policy-makers made status quo choices at the expense of social considerations.

This should not make us cynical about the prospects for transformation, but it is important to bring these political and economic realities into the present debates about our post-COVID future. Developing a truly convincing response to the present crisis will depend on many factors, many of which are still unknown: the availability and cost of a vaccine; who benefits from the crisis in the short and long run; what we remember and what we intentionally, inadvertently, or carelessly choose to forget. Most important, it will depend on whether and how people fight for the changes they want to see, be it health care for all, universal basic income, more coordinated risk-mitigation strategies, a stronger role for government, or social and environmental protections.

We also must not overlook the politically directed changes already heading in a different direction than many people would like to see: the United States is rolling back environmental protection under the guise of getting the economy going again, Hungary has moved to dictatorship, and surveillance is likely to increase with greater contact tracing, whether accidentally or by design. Those who want to see durable change for the better need to act now by developing strategies and robust political alliances for sensible, equitable responses that can adapt to present and future uncertainties.

In our forthcoming book, Responsibility Beyond Growth, we argue for mobilizing these alliances around the notion of responsibility and adopting new thinking about how to organize the global economy “beyond the market.” By focusing on what different parties mean by responsibility and by innovating beyond the usual measures of growth (typically the gross domestic product, which is said to represent the total value of goods and services produced by the economy), we turn to politics in the purest sense of the term, the art of contesting and constituting power for social decision-making, not the argy-bargy of whose ego is most massaged.

Without this dedicated and sustained political engagement, the COVID pandemic will pass as just another crisis—an unfortunate calamity that has hit the world hard, but will not unleash the social and political change needed to build more responsible and resilient societies.

The authors are social scientists based in the United Kingdom and New Zealand. They study the relationships between the political economy, innovation policy and concepts of responsibility.

Cite this Article

Van Oudheusden, Michiel, Fabien Medvecky, and Stevienna de Saille. “Why COVID-19 Needs to Be Political.” Issues in Science and Technology (July 31, 2020).