Reconfigurations of Governance Regimes
Reconfigurations in Space and Time
Reconfigurations of Politics: Voice, Rights and Expertise
Reconfigurations of Social Policies and Inequalities
Global Challenges
Special Issue no. 1 | June 2020
Politics of the Coronavirus Pandemic
Global Challenges
Special Issue no. 1 | June 2020
Politics of the Coronavirus Pandemic | Introduction

Covid-19: A Modern Apocalypse or a Temporary Shock to the System?

Reading time: 5 min
Crossing the globe like the Black Death almost seven centuries ago, Covid-19 is the latest front in humanity’s long battle against infectious disease. In the contemporary context, it is the nation-state that has taken the lead in the fight against the pandemic. Almost everywhere governments have deployed a similar set of extraordinary public health and economic measures to contain the spread of the virus and mitigate its consequences. Such extraordinary measures, however, entail significant risks for fundamental human rights and pose radically new challenges for democratic institutions and practices.

The epic battle between mankind and microbes has been raging for millennia. Bacteria and viruses have, aside from famines and wars, proven to be the most lethal enemy of mankind in history.


Our collective memories are still haunted by images of the Black Death, the most devastating of all pandemics, which wiped out one third of the world’s population within a few years of its outbreak in 1346 and as much as half of the population in major cities such as Venice or London. The fear of microbes is inscribed deep inside our limbic systems. It is in our gut As a result, the fear of microbes is inscribed deep inside our limbic systems. It is in our gut.

The renewed global outbreak of a noxious virus travelling from East to West is a stark reminder of our powerlessness in the face of nature and death. At once unfathomable and ubiquitous, Covid-19 – though far less lethal than some of its predecessors – grips our minds and generates fear, helplessness and anger. Our disarray is all the greater as, in a sanitised and foreseeable world where risks are managed and brought under control, the idea of a free-floating virus wrecking havoc has become unbearable.


Belying the assumption that, like its cousins SARS and MERS, it would be contained to Asia, Covid-19 quickly spread across global hubs – following the trail of cosmopolitan travellers, jet-setters and business executives. From there, its dissemination was more capillary, from nodes to peripheries, from the urban to the rural and from the rich to the poor in an odd dialectic confronting the geographic diffusion of the pandemic with its economic, social and political consequences.

While, at first, complacence was the rule in Europe and the United States, the apocalyptic scenes of people left to die on the floor or in their homes had a catalytic effect, spreading dismay and panic. Scenes of unprepared medical personnel suddenly having to make demiurgic decisions of life and death exposed the thin veneer of civilisation and the immanence of chaos. A series of national health systems rapidly found themselves on the verge of collapse, revealing their advanced state of decrepitude and chronic underfunding. The global disruption of supply chains and closure of borders further illustrated how rapidly the course of globalisation could be reversed.

Supermarkets were transformed into war-like zones, as customers confronted empty shelves and, armed with hand sanitizers, masks and medical gloves, fought over social distancing and such scarce resources as toilet rolls or packs of pasta. Cold War images flared up as people queued feverishly in front of supermarkets, calling into question assumptions of endless supplies in the modern consumer society. Citizens locked up in confinement – some with privileged access to balconies, gardens or rural retreats – faced a prolonged period of introspection, the vagaries of proximity in domestic huis clos and the joys and perils of home office and schooling.


As global institutions – amidst growing suspicion, rivalry and infighting among nations – failed to deliver the necessary responses to contain the pandemic, the onus was on the individual states to solve the crisis. As a consequence, national sovereignty returned to centre stage, with governments primed to uphold functioning health systems.Mobilising their sovereigntist DNA, states rapidly developed a blueprint comprising a set of quasi-universal measures to contain the virus  Mobilising their sovereigntist DNA, states rapidly developed a blueprint comprising a set of quasi-universal measures to contain the virus, which – aside from a few outliers such as Sweden – they proceeded to reproduce mimetically: closing borders, confining and controlling populations, hoarding medical and other strategic supplies and investing in medical research and vaccines.

Governments set up technocratic crisis management cells assembling members of the executive, representatives of military or civil rescue forces and, most importantly, epidemiologists. The latter (Drosten, Fauci, Tegnell, Koch, etc.) rapidly achieved a level of fame and public notoriety usually reserved for rock stars, carrying out their own personal feuds through interposed and frequently conflicting statistical models.

Eventually, however, the public health crisis morphed into an economic one, forcing states to address the ghastly social and economic repercussions of the pandemic through buy-outs, fiscal rescue packages, monetary easing and interventions in the labour market. In so doing, governments were attempting to address the precarious dilemma of balancing public health and economic concerns; of choosing between saving lives and avoiding unemployment and chain bankruptcies.

Good, pragmatic governance played a major role in containing the pandemic and buffering its adverse consequences. If the jury is still out on the impact of the pandemic on populist leaders and illiberal regimes, it has brought to the fore some of their more grotesque blunders and crass incompetence. The wayward handling of the pandemic by Trump and Bolsonaro – who both initially downplayed or ignored the virus – has been described as dysfunctional and broken, with their countries facing the highest number of infected and dead worldwide. Many illiberals – such as Boris Johnson, who almost died from the pandemic – had to learn the hard way the cost of their fraught relation to expertise and their systematic bending of facts to their own liking.


The Covid-19 crisis has confronted liberal democracies with a series of immediate and long-term risks, at a time when they were already on the ropes.

Total confirmed cases of covid-19 per million people
Our World in Data / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)

First, many governments were forced to declare a state of emergency, investing the executive branch with extraordinary powers and temporarily suspending civic and other fundamental rights. The risks are high, as measures which are today devised in urgency and accepted for the sake of ensuring the survival of communities may tomorrow become accepted as the “new normal”. Many of the laws devised during the “war on terror” have been subsequently perpetuated in more or less surreptitious ways. Furthermore, states of emergency tend to reinforce the prerogatives of the executive branches and weaken balancing powers such as parliaments and courts – thus increasing the danger of illiberal slippage as in Orbán’s Hungary.

Second, there is a risk of increased nationalist tendencies as a consequence of Covid-19. Anti-internationalism, already on the rise prior to the outbreak of Covid-19, is likely to intensify further, as connectivity, and the foreign in general, are singled out as the main culprits for the crisis. The pandemic indeed triggered dramatic processes of reterritorialisation, finding expression in the setting-up of new fences, the widespread return of border guards, the mobilisation of paramilitaries and national guards, the immediate termination of freedom of movement and the rediscovered popularity of national TV and radio broadcasts. Increased nationalism may also find expression in continued discrimination against border workers – the vexed issue of the frontalier – or the portrayal of cross-border shoppers and holidaymakers as traitors to the national cause.

Third, the acceleration of ongoing processes of digital transformation in the wake of the pandemic is likely to have widespread repercussions for democracies. Surveillance technologies such as facial recognition and movement tracing have been further developed and tested under real-time conditions. States are hoarding data obtained through surveying, tracing, tracking and measuring, which, if used malevolently, could serve to repress political opponents or minorities. The speeding up of the digital revolution has also accelerated processes of delocalisation and digiwork, as firms have invested massively to enable home office on a vast scale. From home office to digital delocalisation, however, is only a short step.

Fourth, there is a danger that trust, central to well-functioning democracies, will further erode. As the pandemic persists, people seem to have become increasingly impatient with experts and their advocacy of lockdowns and restrictive measures. As a result, epidemiologists have been portrayed – sometimes justly so – as being instrumentalised to procure opportune figures and statistical projections for policymakers (e.g. providing alarmist figures to justify confinements or downplaying the contagiousness of children to justify the reopening of schools).

More generally, it has taken scientists a surprisingly long time to fathom the spreading patterns and symptomatology of the virus. Treatments and vaccines are still missing. Insights from previous pandemics seem scarce.The hermeneutical versatility of science has thus come to the fore, revealing its reliance on epistemic assumptions  The hermeneutical versatility of science has thus come to the fore, revealing its reliance on epistemic assumptions, trial and error and competing methods. In short, the pandemic has contributed to demystifying science, as medical doctors and scientists, after all, are human too.

Fifth, with skyrocketing unemployment rates and a lengthy recession looming, inequality and polarisation, both within countries and between the Global North and Global South, is likely to grow further. While some have called Covid-19 the virus of the rich, it is indeed the poor who are proving most vulnerable to the crisis, losing, oftentimes, their incomes and/or social and health benefits. Increasing inequality and polarisation is likely to trigger political and social unrest, as recently illustrated by the Black Lives Matters movement in the US.

As in medieval times with the plague, which fostered an excruciating string of pogroms, people have been quick to find scapegoats to blame for their travails. Discriminatory practices and discourses have flared up during the crisis, targeting the weak, the marginal or anything “foreign” such as migrants. In China, the virus has been blamed on Blacks, in India on Muslims. Women, for their part, have had to endure increased rates of domestic violence during confinement.

While the plague saw processions of flagellators roaming from city to city for penitence, the outbreak of Covid-19 has brought forth its own sequel of ominous prophets, moralists and augurs.While the plague saw processions of flagellators roaming from city to city for penitence, the outbreak of Covid-19 has brought forth its own sequel of ominous prophets, moralists and augurs  An eccentric, heteroclite and improbable conglomeration of conspiracists has formed globally, with varying local configurations, assembling cynics and anti-globalisation protestors, identitarians and anarchists, xenophobes and sovereigntists as well as enemies of vaccines or 5G.

These groups share an adherence to often abstruse and convoluted conspiracy theories, blaming their woes on governments and other elites at best, on racial minorities or strangers at worst. The risk for democracy is that most of them no longer want to be “part of the system” nor believe in it, and remain immune to objective reasoning. This is also the reason why most illiberal leaders continue to enjoy a degree of popularity despite their dismal handling of the pandemic.

In short, the present Dossier rests on the assumption that a pandemic is not just a medical emergency – it is also a political, economic and social crisis. It implies new challenges for democratic institutions and practices, for citizenship rights and for human rights. Some of the restrictions on civil liberties put in place by liberal and illiberal democracies may well outlive the coronavirus. This special issue explores the tensions and dilemmas of democracies faced with the current crisis. It addresses questions like: Has the political (temporarily) faded in the face of “expertise”? What will be the lasting impact of the rule by emergency introduced in many countries? How can we make sense of the ongoing reconfigurations of power? How has the Covid-19 crisis altered the relationship between citizens and the state? What will the long-term impact of the crisis be on globalisation, the welfare state and the (digital) transformation of work? How can we rebuild and strengthen international governance mechanisms to better prevent the outbreak of future pandemics?

To answer these questions, the Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy in collaboration with the Research Office has gathered in this special issue 16 articles, two video interviews and six podcasts from 26 experts of all of the Graduate Institute’s research centres and departments.

Reconfigurations of Governance Regimes
  • 1
    Stop coronavirus banner. Spartan shield, syringes and viruses. Vaccine development, combating the pandemic. COVID-19 (2019-nCoV) art. Protection of immune system. Medical background
    The Vaccine Race: Will Public Health Prevail over Geopolitics?

    Over $7 billion has been pledged worldwide for Covid-19 R&D, two thirds of which is earmarked for developing a vaccine. Examining the geopolitics behind the Covid-19 crisis, Suerie Moon argues that Covid-19 drugs and vaccines have become a vital strategic asset for companies and states alike, and suggests that key questions about who will control vaccine access remain unresolved.

  • 2
    Institutions under Stress: Covid-19, Anti-Internationalism and the Futures of Global Governance

    In many countries, populism and anti-internationalism were on the rise well before Covid-19. Exploring the challenges that this hostile environment poses for multilateral cooperation and international organizations, Nico Krisch contends that the Covid-19 crisis is likely to lead to a further weakening and transformation of global governance structures.

  • 3
    The Great Depression – Unemployed men queued outside a soup kitchen opened in Chicago by Al Capone.
    Covid-19 and Even More Unconventional Economic Policies

    Both governments and central banks have been forced to take unconventional measures in an attempt to limit the economic fallout from Covid-19 and both have intervened in the economy to an unprecedented degree. If a second wave of the pandemic materializes in the autumn, writes Nathan Sussmann, yet more unconventional measures may be required.

  • 4
    Covid-19 and States of Emergency

    Through quarantines and lockdowns, many governments have imposed extreme measures in an attempt to contain Covid-19. For Neus Torbisco-Casals, the key issue in this context is how to ensure that a state’s legitimate aim to protect its citizens’ health does not degenerate into a disproportionate interference with the exercise of freedoms inherent to democracy.

Reconfigurations in Space and Time
  • 5
    Pandemic as Revelation: What Does It Tell Us about People on the Move?

    Around the world, the impact of the Covid-19 crisis on migrants has been particularly severe. In this article, Antonio Donini and Alessandro Monsutti investigate how migrants are often the first to be stigmatized by Covid-19 and how at the same time governments are using the crisis to advance their own anti-immigration agendas.

  • 6
    Pandemic and Political Geographies

    Contagious diseases generally hit urban areas harder and Covid-19 is no exception. And yet some of the world’s most densely populated cities have escaped the current outbreak relatively unscathed. Michael Goebel examines this potential contradiction and explores how lockdowns and other restrictive policy measures can often end up having a geography that differs from that of the disease itself.

  • 7
    “The Plague in Rome” by Jules Elie Delaunay, 1869.
    The Western Flu: The Coronavirus Pandemic as a Eurocentric Crisis

    For Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou, the Covid-19 crisis and the solutions envisaged to resolve it have served to reinforce the North-South divide in international politics. By framing the public policy debate primarily in terms of the urgent resumption of neoliberal patterns, the author writes, Covid-19 has reminded us of the resilience of a problematic global health map divided between haves and have-nots.

  • 8
    A Gendered Perspective on the Pandemic

    Unlike other recent global crises, the Covid-19 emergency has required not only economic interventions, but also massive interventions of care. In this article, Elisabeth Prügl explores the marginalization of the labour and people involved in the provision of care and how the disease’s impact on carers – both physically and economically – has been particularly severe.

Reconfigurations of Politics: Voice, Rights and Expertise
  • 9
    A National-Liberal Virus

    The global spread of Covid-19 has increased the discretionary power of the nation-state, which has responded by closing its borders, locking down its population and imposing techniques of mass surveillance. For Jean-François Bayart, this response is best understood as part of a broader national-liberal phenomenon that has shaped our politics, economics and lifestyles for over two centuries.

  • 10
    Depoliticising through Expertise: The Politics of Modelling in the Governance of Covid-19

    Epidemiologists – and their models – have played an unprecedented role in determining public policy during the Covid-19 health emergency. Annabelle Littoz-Monnet examines the implications of this phenomenon and in particular how other voices, such as those of philosophers, sociologists, anthropologists and even medical doctors, may go unheard as a result.

  • 11
    Yayoi Kusama's “Infinity Mirror Room” in the Broad Museum, 8 August 2019, Los Angeles, California.
    The Politics of Covid Apps

    Almost every country in the world is currently developing and rolling out its own Covid-19 app. In this article, Anna Leander explores how intrusive technologies that know all about us also have the potential to be turned against us. Even once the health crisis is over, the potential they offer governments to intimidate, manipulate and control their citizens may remain.

  • 12
    Human Rights and Covid-19

    In many countries, lockdown has been accompanied by the most expansive police and military presence since World War II. Censorship is on the rise and governments are using Covid-19 as a pretext to silence critics and political opponents, writes Meg Davis. In this context, it is often already marginalized groups that are at particular risk of stigma and persecution.

Reconfigurations of Social Policies and Inequalities
  • 13
    Emergency Use of Public Funds: Implications for Democratic Governance

    Faced with the sudden need to provide large-scale emergency assistance, governments and international bodies worldwide have disbursed unspent public funds as Covid-19 aid. Deval Desai, Christine Lutringer and Shalini Randeria explore how the redirection of these funds can negatively impact the democratic safeguards designed to ensure the accountability of their allocation and use.

  • 14
    Unequal Impacts of Covid-19: Political and Social Consequences

    Drawing on the Brazilian experience, Graziella Moraes Silva investigates the implications of Covid-19 for the public health sector. She traces the wider historical evolution of public health service provision and suggests that crises like Covid-19 may be crucial for improving public health, as élites realize that their own health depends on the health of society as a whole.

  • 15
    Covid, Hysteresis, and the Future of Work

    As well as leading to massive job losses, Covid-19 has caused firms and workers to invest in several years’ worth of digital transformation in just a few months, writes Richard Baldwin. The author studies how this transformation could accelerate the trend of service sector jobs being outsourced abroad and software robots replacing certain office tasks at home.

  • 16
    Populism 4.0 and Decent Digiwork

    As a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, companies are increasingly outsourcing work to lower-paid workers in the gig economy. Maria Mexi examines this trend and explores how populist leaders in particular may be well positioned to benefit from the frustration generated by the unequal future of work.

By Dominic Eggel, Research Adviser
Christine Lutringer, Executive Director of the Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy
Marc Galvin, Executive Director of Research
The Graduate Institute, Geneva

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The issue has been produced by the Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy in collaboration with the Graduate Institute’s research office. It includes contributions from all of the Institute’s research centres and departments

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What hope for the environment? PODCAST with Joëlle Noailly

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PODCAST | The violent consequences of the Covid crisis in India, with Rahul Mehrotra

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Latin America and the Covid-19 crisis | PODCAST with Yanina Welp

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An Indonesian democracy at risk | PODCAST with Jean-Luc Maurer

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Democracy in coronavirus times | VIDEO with Shalini Randeria and Ivan Krastev

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