Experts Weigh In


graphic: simple globe with longitude and latitude lines - a magnifying glass looks in on the North African and Middle East region  ANALYSIS – The Elliott School of International Affairs

COVID-19: Regional Responses to a Global Public Health Crisis

The 2019 Novel Coronavirus, or COVID-19, is a new respiratory virus first identified in December 2019. Elliott School experts weigh in on how regions around the world are reacting to the pandemic. The Elliott School and affiliated institutions have held events and interviews to discuss the impact of COVID-19.


Elliott Experts Weigh In Event Series    IIEP COVID-19 Interview Series


Coronavirus Exposes the Limits of Pan-European Solidarity

Kimberly MorganDirector, European and Eurasian Studies program, Professor of Political Science and International Affairs, Elliott School of International Affairs.

Europe has been especially affected by the novel coronavirus. European economies are deeply integrated in the global economy, with growth powered by international trade, finance, and tourism. Although we do not yet know exactly how the novel coronavirus arrived and why it quickly spread in some parts of Europe, global travel and commerce were surely at the root of it. Yet because of the virus’s capacity for efficient and silent spread, it took weeks for governments to recognize the danger. Italy was hit hard, early on, perhaps because of the prevalence of multi-generational households and contacts in Italian society. Some speculate that the young helped spread the virus to the old and that Italy’s aging society is especially vulnerable to the disease.

Once the scale of the threat became apparent, the Italian government’s responses were swift and dramatic. The government shut down economic and social life, initially in the North where the virus was most widespread, and then across the entire country. Faced with rising numbers of infections, governments in other European countries have been adopting a similar tool kit: closures of schools, child care centers, and other public facilities; lockdowns of entire cities, regions or countries, once the limits of encouraging voluntary social distancing became apparent; mobilization of health care infrastructures, which includes prioritizing care for the seriously ill; and the expansion of economic supports for individuals and businesses. Public and private research centers also have ramped up testing capacities, working to manufacture supplies, expand test availability (e.g. drive-through centers), and speed up delivery of results. In Italy, over 130,000 people have been tested so far (compared to only 25,000 in the U.S.), while in Germany, some credit early initiatives at widespread testing with having kept down the infection and death rate, compared to its neighbors.

In one of French President Emmanuel Macron’s speeches to the nation about the pandemic, he stated that because the virus has no nationality and knows no borders, Europe should confront it as Europeans, not as individual nations jealous of their own interests. Some EU institutions have taken coordinated action, including a recent effort by the European Central Bank to purchase hundreds of billions of dollars of public and private assets across the Eurozone. The aim is not only to try to prop up sagging markets, but also to prevent the health crisis from turning into a financial crisis, with Italy once again at the epicenter as investors grow restive about the country’s large public debt.

Yet, the response to the virus has so far revealed the limits of pan-European solidarity. Many countries have reintroduced border controls that had been eliminated under the Schengen Agreement, and did so unilaterally. An Italian government request to trigger an EU mechanism that should deliver supplies to countries overwhelmed by a national disaster was met with a deafening silence by other EU states; instead, countries imposed limits on the export of crucial medical supplies. China has stepped into (and taken advantage of) this leadership void, sending shipments of ventilators and other supplies. European integration, in its current form, may prove to be one of the many casualties of the pandemic.

United States: Export Restrictions Will Result in a Loss of Trade and Trust

Susan Aaronson. Director of the Digital Trade and Data Governance Hub, Research Professor of International Affairs, GW Cross-Disciplinary Fellow and Senior Fellow at CIGI

Since its first days in office, the Trump Administration has adopted economic nationalist policies in the belief that such policies would return jobs and investment to the US. Specifically, they have used tariffs, export restrictions, supply chain regulations, and disincentives to foreign investment. Meanwhile, the US has adopted restrictions on the export of needed medical supplies, which has led other governments to adopt similar restrictions on masks, drugs, etc.… However, export bans send inaccurate signals to market actors and force other countries to carry adjustment costs. Such export controls have historically led to retaliation, a loss of trade and trust, and to outcomes where everyone is worse off. Governments should collaborate and share resources, as ironically China is now doing. Finally, the Trump Administration imposed specific tariffs on Chinese medical products that appear to have contributed to shortages and higher costs of vital equipment at a time of nationwide health crisis. As a result, according to economist Chad Bown, “The US medical establishment faces looming trouble importing these necessities from other countries, which may be hoarding them to meet their own health crises.”

What would a better response look like?

  1. The US should unilaterally suspend all tariffs, trade restrictions, and investment disincentives. If Trump is unwilling to act,  Congress could pass legislation suspending these tariffs generically. Such a policy would instantly lower costs to consumers and producers in the US, enabling those with limited funds to make those funds go further. Moreover, it would provide clearer signals to market actors.  
  2. The US should collaborate with other nations sharing information and training as the virus wanes in China and South Korea. The US should fully fund the World Health Organization and cross-country research collaboration on pandemic and disease mitigation.
  3. The US should issue a call to Americans to serve their nation in innovative ways as Americans did during the Depression and World War II. We are all fighting against this virus, but we need leadership to coordinate and inspire us. As the New York Times opined, “The United States is again faced with a crisis that calls for a national response, demanding a mobilization of resources that the free market or individual states cannot achieve on their own....” The US should mobilize its own people. As example, libraries, factories, and individuals have 3D printers which could be utilized to produce more masks or small parts. The newly unemployed could be trained and employed by USG entities to build and sanitize hospitals or screening areas. Volunteers could video call and serve the elderly who are homebound, doing their shopping and making sure they are not lonely or needy.  By rebuilding trust among Americans, the US might also reclaim its long tradition of international cooperation and leadership.

Post-Soviet States: Making or Breaking Authoritarianism?

Marlene LaruelleDirector, Institute for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies; Director, Central Asia Program; Co-Director, PONARS-Eurasia; Research Professor of International Affairs, Elliott School of International Affairs

Madeline McCannProgram Coordinator, PONARS-Eurasia

Despite shared borders with China and Iran, high levels of internal population mobility, and frequent interactions with Europe, many of the states of Eurasia currently show some of the lowest coronavirus case rates across the continent. This suggests a serious underreporting of cases, consistent with decades-long traditions of concealment and secrecy. 

In a new PONARS Eurasia Policy memo, Marlene Laruelle and Madeline McCann analyze post-Soviet states’ political—and ideological—responses to the coronavirus outbreak (accurate as of at least March 20). They categorize Armenia and Georgia as early responders; Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Moldova, Ukraine as later responders; Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan as laggards, and Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Belarus as deniers, with leadership that denies the importance of the crisis and its potentially devastating impact on public health. Russia belongs to the first two categories of early and late responders. It was quick to close borders with China, introduce quarantines for newcomers, and place Moscow under special safety measures, but has only recently addressed the issue in a more political way at the higher level, by Vladimir Putin himself. 

The COVID-19 pandemic will generate a whole wave of new research on how societies will transform in the wake of the trauma and how states will adapt to prepare for future public health crises. For the Eurasia region, previous literature has shown how much post-communist regimes’ legitimacy relies on the ability to manage natural or industrial disasters. It thus remains to be seen if a health disaster may challenge, reinforce, or weaken popular support for the authorities. Literature on crisis management and communication has explored how authoritarian states manage partial accountability and how citizens may organize their own responses in the face of a lack of state efficiency. Here too, the current crisis will offer a unique opportunity to study in real time how biopolitics evolves. 

Depending on the level of the crisis—which has yet to peak at the time of this writing—the Russian state’s ability to present itself as having effectively managed the crisis could have deep political impacts. Faced with a growing urban activism by an active segment of the population, and a population already on edge as a result of recent welfare state and pension reforms, the authorities’ policies will be closely scrutinized. They could either increase support for the strong state as the provider of security—based on the examples that Asian countries have faced the COVID-19 crisis with more success than Europe—or, on the contrary, accelerate the delegitimization of the regime.

United States: Ventilators for coronavirus patients: Why automakers aren’t the right source

Ivan Oelrich. Non-resident scholar of the Elliott School of International Affairs and non-Resident Fellow at the Council on Strategic Risks

The number of those stricken by the Corona virus continues to grow. In the coming weeks, perhaps days, the nation will need more ventilators for the seriously ill than it has at hand. The government has taken measures to rapidly expand manufacture of new ventilators. President Trump has pushed the car companies into the role. But there is no reason to think that they are best suited to the job. It is important to make this decision right the first time because time is short. There are several criteria to meet. Flexibility and creativity, at least as close attention to parts suppliers as to assembly, and an appropriate manufacturing culture will all be needed.

Read Ivan Oelrich's full article for Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

It’s not too Late to Stem the Third Wave of the Coronavirus Pandemic: Bottom-up Approaches to Pandemic Response

Maryam Zarnegar Deloffre. Senior Research Fellow, Center for Global Cooperation Research

"It’s a matter of time before the Corona virus (COVID-19) pandemic engulfs the developing world in its third wave. Crisis-affected and developing countries in the Middle East, Africa and South America with weak health care systems and capacity; low levels of basic water and sanitation facilities; crowded urban centers, slums, and refugee camps; poor disease surveillance; and weak government capacity will struggle to contain the pandemic. Social distancing is not possible in a refugee camp, and it is ineffective without adequate testing and contact tracing; hand-washing is not feasible without soap and running water. These underlying conditions, existing vulnerabilities, and low levels of resilience make fertile ground for disease spread. The medical emergency will devastate the fragile economies, food security, and development outcomes in these already vulnerable countries. Yet the cataclysmic potential of this third wave has garnered very little global attention and even less global action. It is painfully obvious that global cooperation to fight the pandemic is necessary, but also, unlikely. The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed long-standing weaknesses in global humanitarian and health cooperation, however, decades-long reforms in both sectors provide three bottom-up solutions states can support to mitigate the effects of the third wave: build on existing coordination structures, flexible funding and localization."

Read Maryam Zarnegar Deloffre's full analysis for the Center for Global Cooperation Research.

COVID-19: Could this be the 'wake-up call' we need?

Shaista E. Khilji. Professor of Human and Organizational Learning & International Affairs

In recent weeks, COVID-19 has brought ‘our way of life’ to a screeching halt. Since the World Health Organization (WHO) declared it as a global pandemic, we have been asked to exercise ‘abundant caution’ amidst school/ business closings, and soaring unemployment rates. In this Medium article, Professor Khilji reflects on the rapid pace with which COVID-19 continues to disrupt our lives, and argues that it may be the wake-up call we need as a global society to rethink 'human progress'. She advocates a move towards compassionate communities, ecological balance, sustainability, and responsible organizations and leadership.  

The Problem of Imagining the Real

Hugh Gusterson. Professor of Anthropology & International Affairs

[...] Human beings are very good at using their senses to detect threats in their immediate environment. The animal growl in the dark, the shark’s fin in the water, the burly man following too closely on a dark street at night, the putrid smell of rotten meat—these all excite immediate protective responses. That is how humans are wired.

Humans are not so good at being aware of more abstract threats, even though they are often far more serious. Nuclear weapons that might extinguish all human life are only witnessed through the occasional newspaper articles or movie references. Climate change, which threatens to kill and dislocate millions, is hard to discern in the ebbs and flows of daily weather. And who outside the rarified world of finance can understand the dangers of an over-leveraged banking system, like the one that cost 10 million Americans their homes in the 2007–2009 recession?

As social psychologist Robert Jay Lifton put it, nuclear weapons and other abstract threats pose the challenge of “imagining the real.” How do we make an abstract or remote danger seem compellingly present, as if it were a shark’s fin a few yards away?

This is one of the challenges posed by COVID-19—especially in the politically fractured environment of the United States, where everything from gender pronouns to trade policy is deeply contested, and a collective imagination of risk seems out of reach.

Read Hugh Gusterson's full article on Sapiens.

Failed or Failsafe? Global Pandemic Response as Polycentric Governance

Maryam Zarnegar Deloffre. Senior Research Fellow, Center for Global Cooperation Research

As scholars of global politics grapple with the Corona virus (COVID-19) pandemic and its implications for the world order, they stress the failure of centralized policy response at the global level. Analyses of the death of multilateralism, the decline of American hegemony, and the end of a global neoliberal order abound. A polycentric approach to global governance shifts our mindset to look beyond the failure of centralized action and instead consider how multiple actors, working across different scales provide global emergency governance, which includes humanitarian crises and pandemics. These failures spark adaptation, innovation and learning, which then become the architecture of global governance and provide a failsafe for ensuring emergency response. To understand how global emergency governance works, we need to shift focus from centralization and efficiency, to examining the actors, mechanisms, and scales that build redundancy and resilience to failure.

Read Maryam Deloffre's full article on the quarterly magazine for the Centre for Global Cooperation Research.

Doing Social Science Research in a Disaster

Robert Orttung. Research Professor of International Affairs & Director for Sustainable GW

Given the ongoing COVID-19 crisis and the growing prevalence of hazards in the world, many GW faculty and researchers are launching projects that deal with disasters in various forms. While the pandemic is the most pressing problem at the moment, there is growing concern with fires, hurricanes, earthquakes, and the overall effects of climate change. 

Some of the recent initiatives around GW include efforts to study the response to the pandemic in Eurasia, Michael Keidar's work to develop new medical equipment, and endeavors to understand how the crisis is affecting the Arctic. Keidar recently won a NSF RAPID award for his research to decontaminate the environment and to reduce the risk of transmission of the virus.

A key question for social scientists working with human research subjects is how to conduct research in crisis conditions. A couple of recent articles provide some good advice.

Red Professor Orttung's full article on Planet Forward at GWU.

Covid-19 and Chinese Soft Power in Africa: Q&A with Ambassador David H. Shinn

David Shinn, Former U.S. Ambassador to Ethiopia and Burkina Faso

[...] Ma Tianjie of Panda Paw Dragon Claw: China has a long history of providing medical assistance to Africa, which constitutes a major component of its “soft power.” The Covid-19 outbreak is supposed to be a moment when China demonstrates to Africa that it is a “friend in need.” How do you evaluate China’s overall Covid-19 response in relation to Africa this time?

Amb. David Shinn: I agree that China’s medical teams in Africa have been one of its most successful programs. The fact that they date back to 1963 in Algeria and today are found in nearly all African countries makes the case. In 2014, China also made a useful contribution to combatting Ebola in Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea. Covid-19 is different than Ebola, however, in that the former originated in China and the latter in Africa. This puts a different face on Covid-19 and, in the minds of some Africans, there may be a tendency, fair or not, to blame China. With Ebola, China could assist without concern about any connection with China. With Covid-19, Chinese assistance is a reminder of the origin of the virus. Nevertheless, China’s assistance, especially that from Alibaba founder Jack Ma, seems to have been well received in Africa.

Read Amb. David Shinn's full Q&A with Ma Tianjie on Panda Paw Dragon Claw

If you have a subject you would like our experts to weigh in on, contact the research team with your suggestion for consideration.