The Geopolitical Risk of Disease: COVID-19

Anastasia is a third-year International Relations student with a keen interest in geopolitics and pandemics.

On the 12th February 2020 the World Health Organisation (WHO) warned that the novel coronavirus (official disease name COVID-19) poses a greater global threat than even terrorism[1]. The disease has so far infected approximately 44,600 people and killed over 1,100[2]. This has thrown into the spotlight concerns regarding the management and impact of cross-border health issues. The acceleration of globalisation since the 1990s has brought about the increasing international movement of people, who act as the perfect vectors for the spread of infectious diseases. Disease has been increasingly linked to issues of conflict and development, with an overall impact radiating past merely the number of those infected. The novel coronavirus detected in the Wuhan province in China during late 2019 is a perfect example for analysis of the wider impact of cross-border health issues. This article will introduce the links between geopolitics and health and will briefly analyse the relationships between disease and political legitimacy, social stability, and state development. The case of the 2019 novel coronavirus will be analysed in its impact on internal and international legitimacy, society, and corporate stakeholders.

The Geopolitics of Disease:

The acceleration of the processes of globalisation throughout the 1990s and 2000s led to the identification of cross border health issues as posing significant threats to international interests and security[3]. In 2020, commercial air travel, economic interdependence, and offshore business supply chains are more frequent, entrenched, and common than ever. These factors produce heightened vulnerabilities from the infectious spread of diseases, which do not respect borders or discriminate against nationalities. The geopolitical ramifications of cross-border health issues are multifaceted and often intrinsically related to the capabilities of states according to their developmental requirements. This article notes three key consequences of cross-border health threats. Firstly, the management (or mismanagement) of infectious diseases has the potential to erode political legitimacy in both national and international terms. For example, the Chinese government’s management of the 2003 SARS epidemic generated widespread criticism for its delayed response and lack of transparency[4]. Secondly, the spread of infectious diseases can have dramatic consequences for social stability. Social cohesion can be negatively impacted by misinformation regarding the spread of the disease in question, and higher levels of societal fragmentation have been observed when a disease is associated with migrants from a particular country or region[5]. Finally, the impact of cross-border health issues varies depending on the economic development of the state in question. Low income, developing economies have felt the bite of epidemics in recent years. With fewer resources to spare and therefore greater opportunity costs present in decision-making, epidemics such as that of Ebola in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) have justified the postponement of elections in opposition-led areas and have diverted resources away from crucial developmental programmes[6]. In higher income, developed economies, meanwhile, improvements in healthcare mean that although the general population is unlikely to be at great mortal danger from infectious disease outbreaks, the reliance upon international imports, trade, and business produces key vulnerabilities. The following section will analyse the 2019 novel coronavirus outbreak and its impact on legitimacy, society, and corporate actors.

The Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19):

The first impact of cross-border health issues such as the novel coronavirus is on state relations and legitimacy. Lessons have clearly been learnt from the SARS epidemic of 2003, during which China came under fire for attempting to conceal the extent of the outbreak[7]. Lack of transparency impeded the ability of states and global health organisations such as the WHO to implement a coherent, informed response program. Not only was cooperation impacted, but the mismanagement of the SARS epidemic affected China’s legitimacy in the eyes of the international community. Comparing the cases of the 2003 SARS epidemic and the current novel coronavirus epidemic highlights key improvements made, as well as issues of ongoing concern. Unlike during the SARS epidemic, China took decisive action through the swift imposition of mass quarantines – of up to 70 million people – to contain the spread of the virus and has funded the rapid construction of specialist hospitals[8]. Although this has been hailed a ‘stunning’ logistical move, the human rights implications of quarantining entire cities are troubling[9]. Furthermore, the now-diseased Dr. Li Wenliang had been punished for attempting to warn colleagues of the emergence of COVID-19 in late December 2019, and it has been suggested that the extreme quarantine measures undertaken by the Chinese government would not have been necessary if concerns had been made public sooner. Indeed, by the time Wuhan’s transport links were cut on the 23rd January 2020, approximately five million people had travelled out of the city to celebrate the Lunar New Year, some carrying the virus with them[10]. The lack of trust in the Chinese government with the management of the coronavirus has also stoked resistance in Hong Kong. Although protests have simmered amidst fears of disease transmission, hundreds of healthcare workers went on strike earlier this month demanding the closure of its border with mainland China[11].  It is clear, therefore, that although a more coordinated response has emerged in 2020 than in 2003 – transparency, communication, and trust in the Chinese government is still lacking.

The spread of infectious diseases also impacts social stability and community cohesion. The novel coronavirus has increased the social stigmatisation of Chinese or South-East Asian communities. This has been seen in the verbal and physical abuse of individuals, and the sharp downturn of consumer business for a number of Chinese restaurants, particularly in Western cities. The reason for this social stigmatisation is largely due to stereotypical racial assumptions and misconceptions regarding the nature and transmission of the virus. Efforts have been made to mitigate the social effects of the disease, evident in its name: COVID-19, which lacks reference to any particular community or region. It must be noted that sensationalised media reporting intensifies fears despite the fact that the real threat to life for the majority of the population in developed economies is likely to be minimal if containment is achieved. For high-income countries, panic and misinformation are ‘more dangerous than the virus’[12]. Without adequately addressing myths and racial stereotypes, social fragmentation and stigmatisation may discourage helping others or reporting incidents of the disease. For developing economies, the dangers to social stability are more tangible. Social stability, to a great extent, depends on the ability of the government to respond, and the degree to which community expectations of response are met. Across Africa, particularly in areas hit by the recent Ebola outbreaks (such as the DRC), healthcare systems are already at capacity, and the coronavirus reaching the continent may stretch an already strained system past breaking point, posing massive consequences for communities[13].

Finally, global economic impacts of the novel coronavirus have already been observed. The imposition of travel bans from a variety of major airlines to and from mainland China has seen short-term depressions in both the natural resource and tourism industries. The reduction in demand for diesel and jet fuel by the world’s biggest crude oil consumer has led to a slump in oil prices. Multiple states have reported downturns in their tourism industries. For example, New York has been missing out on business from Chinese tourists who represent the ‘second-largest group of foreign travellers’[14]. Moreover, Macau, which obtains 80% of its tax revenues from its gambling sector, announced the closing of casinos for two weeks. This was a significant blow to the gambling sector, which largely profits from tourists celebrating after Chinese New Year. As well as disruption in the travel and tourism industries, automobile and tech-firms have also been affected. Nissan ceased production at a plant in Japan due to shortages in car components typically received from China, whilst Hyundai has announced the suspension of all production in South Korea[15]. Firms reliant upon suppliers located in mainland China, particularly the industrial hub of Wuhan, have been advised to consider diversifying their supply chains, or at least attempt to source new suppliers in the short term[16]. Bearing in mind future resilience against disruptions, long-term supply chain diversification remains the ideal recommendation for maintaining business continuity. The current coronavirus outbreak is also likely to put to the test broader aspects of organisation resilience. Firms should engage in dialogue with operations teams and departments in mainland China and South East Asia more broadly, whilst stakeholders should be reassured and provided with current information. Multinational corporations operating in Wuhan such as Apple, McDonalds, and KFC have already suspended operations, restricted business travel and closed down corporate offices[17]. Despite the Chinese state council pushing for a return to business as usual, local governments have extended holidays or implemented work from home arrangements[18]. It is clear, therefore, that the novel coronavirus is presenting widespread impacts for local and global firms in a variety of sectors. Although there is hope that it can be contained, analysts are wary when predicting long-term impacts on global growth, with expected forecasts ranging from a global decrease of 0.3% to change at all from the previous forecast of around 3.3% global growth in 2020[19]. The prospect of no impact at all on global growth, however, is becoming increasingly unlikely as the recent explosion of new cases threatens investor confidence and may lead to the continued suspension of operations.

To conclude, the spread of infectious diseases has become a significant threat in our globalised and interconnected world. With the emergence of COVID-19, the geopolitics of disease has once against been brought into the spotlight. Although advancements in the international coordination of response have been achieved and applied, there are multiple areas for improvement. It is recommended that infectious diseases are destigmatised on an interstate and a local community level to encourage transparency and dispel common myths. In communicating risks clearly and carefully, rates of transmission may be reduced as members of the public adopt protective behaviours. Furthermore, effective communication would ensure that organisations are aware of their vulnerabilities — for example to disruptions in supply chains — and so can take measures to promote business continuity where possible. Analysts disagree on the long-term consequences of the coronavirus on the global economy, and the following weeks will be crucial in determining the confidence of investors and overall impact.


[1] Connor Sephton. “Coronavirus Poses Greater Global Threat Than Terrorism, Leading Doctors Warn”. Sky News. 12th February 2020.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Alan Ingram. “The new geopolitics of disease: between global health and global security.” Geopolitics 10, no. 3 (2005), p.253

[4] Elizabeth M Prescott. “The politics of disease: governance and emerging infections.” Global health governance 1, no. 1 (2007), p.2

[5] Keiji Fukuda. “Emergence of novel coronavirus: global context.” EMHJ-Eastern Mediterranean Health Journal, 19 (supp. 1), S5-S6, 2013 (2013), p.55 ; Prescott, “The politics of disease”, p.4.

[6] The, Lancet. “Was DR Congo’s Ebola virus outbreak used as a political tool?.” Lancet (London, England) 393, no. 10167 (2019): 104.

[7] Kelly-Leigh Cooper. “China Coronavirus: The Lessons Learned From The Sars Outbreak”. BBC News. 24th January 2020.

[8]Jeffrey Wasserstrom. “China’s Response To Coronavirus Exposes A Dangerous Obsession With Secrecy”. The Guardian. 11th February 2020. ; John Sudworth. “China And The Virus That Threatens Everything”. BBC News. 11th January 2020.

[9] Wasserstrom, “China’s Response To Coronavirus Exposes A Dangerous Obsession With Secrecy”.

[10] Sudworth, “China And The Virus That Threatens Everything”.

[11] “Coronavirus: Hong Kong Hospital Staff Strike To Demand Closure Of China Border”. 2020. BBC News.

[12] Maïthé Chini. “Coronavirus In Belgium: ‘Panic Is More Dangerous Than The Virus'”. The Brussels Times. 4th February 2020.

[13] Anne Soy. “Coronavirus: Are African Countries Ready?”. BBC News. 7th February 2020.

[14] James Barron. “Coronavirus In N.Y.: Without Chinese Tourists, Business Sags”. Nytimes.Com. 4th February 2020.

[15] Alice Woodhouse et al. “Coronavirus: WHO Warns Of ‘Concerning’ Transmissions In Europe — As It Happened”. Ft.Com. 10th February 2020.

[16] Phillip Braun. 2020. “Why The Coronavirus Impact On Business Goes Beyond Current Contagion”. Forbes.Com. 4th February 2020.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Woodhouse et al. “Coronavirus: WHO Warns Of ‘Concerning’ Transmissions In Europe — As It Happened”.

[19] Ibid ; Phillip Inman. “Will The Coronavirus Outbreak Derail The Global Economy?”. The Guardian. 10th February 2020.

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