Governance for global pandemics

A departures board is seen at Brazilian International Airport amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Brasilia, Brazil, 25 March 2020 (Photo: Reuters/Adriano Machado).

Author: A Chong, Singapore

Much of the public alarm triggered by the outbreak of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) is greatly bound up with the management of cross-border security threats. COVID-19 resembles a 21st century medieval plague in terms of how little we understand its character and how vulnerable we are to its effects.

The Director-General of the World Health Organization has openly admitted: ‘You can’t fight a virus if you don’t know where it is. That means robust surveillance to find, isolate, test and treat every case, to break the chains of transmission’. The virus is known to transmit through direct contact with respiratory droplets and residue on cool surfaces, which suggests that infection at room temperature is likely. Most standard medical advisories published by national health authorities include strong recommendations for regular handwashing, avoiding handshakes and hugs, and social distancing. Meanwhile those with suspect or confirmed cases are quarantined.

These drastic measures have spread panic and fear among the public, despite government calls for calm.

Addressing the pandemic should not be left only to medical professionals. The coronavirus crisis is emblematic of the difficulty of constructively extending good governance across borders. An effective response requires governments, medical authorities and civil society to consider a new spatialisation of threats to human security when making decisions.

Tourists, migrant workers of all skill levels and businesspeople are the daily agents of globalisation. They bring much-needed services to their host populations. Their spending delivers the most visible benefits of open borders, lifting local incomes and fuelling industrial supply chains.

But when these human agents of transnational movement carry pathogens, governments are compelled to close their borders. Whole towns restrict or deny entry to outsiders, entire ships and their passengers and crew are embargoed offshore, and even peaceful arrivals are blocked by …continue reading