Walking the tightrope between health protection and foreign policy goals

A doctor walks near an ambulance at the Life Care Center of Kirkland, a long-term care facility linked to several confirmed coronavirus cases, in Kirkland, Washington, United States, 5 March 2020 (Photo: Reuters/Lindsey Wasson
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Author: Nicholas Coatsworth, ANU

Health and foreign policy have been intimately connected for longer than the principle of state sovereignty itself has existed. The recognition of the impact of trade and travel on the spread of plague was recognised with the imposition of a 40-day quarantine of ships in the 14th century, well before the Treaty of Westphalia. The COVID-19 epidemic has since produced similar vigorous restrictions in an attempt to stall the spread of the virus. As the World Health Organization (WHO) and governments attempt to contain its spread, diplomatic tensions have emerged from health protection measures.

COVID-19 has created a tightrope that requires governments to balance between protecting their own citizens and maintaining diplomatic relationships. Some measures, like the travel restrictions imposed by over 70 countries, may have slowed the international spread of COVID-19. But other measures, like the quarantine of the Diamond Princess cruise ship, may have amplified its spread. The implementation of policies such as travel bans seems out of place in keeping with the subtle practice of diplomacy between nation states that usually falls to the foreign affairs departments.

Despite calls from the WHO for a globally coordinated response, international approach to COVID-19 stands in sharp contrast to the 2014–2016 Ebola outbreak. Bilateral and multilateral assistance to contain Ebola came in the form of very visible ‘boots on the ground’ in West Africa. But in 2020, governments are instead choosing to evacuate their own citizens from China with much less visible bilateral cooperation — partly perhaps due to China’s desire to demonstrate control without obvious international assistance.

This raises the question of how governments are calculating the trade-off between health protection and diplomatic relations. The answer lies in the pragmatic approaches that are …continue reading