Note: A shorter version of this post was published earlier on Duck of Minerva.
Politics, as famously defined by David Easton, is the “authoritative allocation of values”, such as welfare, security, and liberty. Politicians thus have to make decisions on hierarchies between these values – and they have to weigh values against each other in cases in which they collide. It is still too early for an in-depth analysis of the numerous norm collisions in the responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. And yet, we can already see how the previously found balance between the three aforementioned values, and the norms revolving around them, is destabilised.
In many countries around the world, the WHO is currently setting the agenda for a strategy to contain the Covid-19 pandemic. Its campaigns and recommendations on how to deal with Covid-19 are, though not entirely uncontroversial, widely distributed, while reaffirming one of its central roles: that of the epidemiological expert and crisis advisor, especially for poor countries.
Imagine the World Health Organization (WHO) had declared the outbreak of the mysterious lung ailment in the Chinese city of Wuhan a potential public health emergency of international concern already in late December 2019. Imagine it had immediately decreed a precautionary lockdown of the metropolitan area until the severity of the illness was assessed or the virus extinct. It might have been just in time to halt the spread of the disease which by now has become a supreme global emergency of unforeseen proportions.
Of course, this scenario was far from realistic given the WHO’s limited mandate and political authority. In reality, far from stopping the crisis dead in its tracks, its approach of appeasement and applause vis-à-vis China may have exacerbated the situation. The coronavirus crisis exposes deep gaps in the global governance of infectious diseases. Tragically, rectifying those problems would mean painful adaptations not only at the costs of national sovereignty, but also of democracy and constitutionalism.
As more and more people are voluntarily or forcefully retreating to their homes and isolating themselves from public life and social contact due to the ongoing global health crisis, it might be a good time to reflect on the circumstance that, according to estimates by WHO and UNICEF, in 2018 globally every five seconds a child or young person under 15 died of preventable infectious diseases, such as measles, or of complications in childbirth – many of them a consequence of unsafe births, lacking personnel, equipment, hygiene, infrastructure, and poor maternal health. A few days ago, I met an acquaintance, whose school-aged children have not been vaccinated against measles, carrying a stack of toilet paper packages in preparation for what was bound to come, the German-wide COVID-19 lockdown. The encounter made me aware of the imbalance between our plausible and humane concern for the safety and well-being of ourselves and those close to us on the one hand and a lack of awareness of our own role in preserving public health beyond COVID-19 on the other.