Covid-19: a matter of security

by Rafaela Figueiredo Garcia Guimarães (Master’s student in Human Rights at University of Minho)

We must declare war on this virus”, asserted the Secretary-General of the United Nations (UN), António Guterres, when commenting on the global response to the Covid-19 pandemic, on March 13, 2020[1]. On April 23, 2020, the Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), declared that “the war against Covid-19 is far from won by the Planet[2]. By the same token, Bruce Aylward, Senior Advisor on Organizational Change to the WHO Director-General, also stated at a press conference on March 26, 2021, that “we are at war with the virus, not against each other, and the common goal is to end the coronavirus[3]. Josep Borrell, the High Representative on behalf of the European Union (EU), in his declaration on April 3, 2020, proclaimed that “this is a time when we should spend all of our energy and resources in the fight against this common global threat – the coronavirus[4]. Likewise, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, in her speech to the nation on March 18, 2020, acknowledged that “there has not been a challenge like this since World War II, which depends so much on a joint action of solidarity[5], and the French President, Emmanuel Macron, on March 16, 2020, openly declared that “we are at war and that the enemy, although invisible, is here[6]. “This is a war! It is really a war we are dealing with,” assures the Portuguese President, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, on March 18, 2020, in his message to the Portuguese people[7]. Last but not least, the President of the United States of America, Joe Biden, on January 21, 2021, stated publicly the endorsement of a “large-scale war effort to fight the pandemic[8].

Since WHO’s public announcement, on March 11, 2020, the disease caused by the SARS-COV-2 coronavirus and on the fact that we were in the face of a pandemic, Covid-19 has been treated as a security issue, with coronavirus being the global enemy that needs to be tackled and eliminated. Thus, the health crisis Covid-19 gave rise to came to be considered a threat to global security.

Among the principles set out in the preamble to the WHO’s Constitution, health is considered to be a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity, and the health of all peoples is fundamental to the attainment of peace and security (…)[9]. Indeed, this corroborates the immediate link between health and security.

In the last few decades, there has been a significant evolution in the approach to global health security, an expression conveyed since the 1990s, which corresponds to the idea that a local health crisis occurring in any area of the planet could prove to be a potential threat to the world population, placing the national security of other countries at risk.

Such an approach to health as a security issue is underpinned by the Securitization Theory developed by researchers from the Copenhagen School of international security studies, namely by the original theorists – Ole Wæver and Barry Buzan – according to which security threats are socially constructed, by means of a speech (speech-act) made by a securitizing agent (usually an authority) addressed to a certain public (the audience) that considers the demand legitimate.

When securitizing an issue, it ceases to belong to the sphere of current politics to integrate emergency policy. Indeed, “a successful securitization thus has three components (or steps); existential threats, emergency action, and effects on interunit relations by breaking free of rules[10].

In summary, securitization refers to the intersubjective process in which a political issue is presented and accepted as an existential threat, as in the case of the successful securitization of terrorism, which, in view of its urgency, uses exceptional measures for its resistance and fight, with the purpose of guaranteeing the independence and the lives of the collective. And this exceptionality takes precedence over all other agendas, enabling the movement of extraordinary resources and powers that would not be justified otherwise. When the political issue is raised to the field of security, we are faced with its extreme politicization.

Placing diseases in the area of global health security allows authorities to tag them as “existential threats” when “characterized by fast-moving transmission, little scientific knowledge of the disease, no known treatment or cure, or high mortality or morbidity, or when they are associated with a particular visceral fear of pain or suffering. When a pathogen of this kind emerges, the legal and normative workings of the global health security regime (re)produce a particular policy response which is focused on preparedness for, detection of and response to acute infectious diseases[11].

In this sense, when health is securitized, exceptional measures are required, especially because of its urgency, which may lead to measures of containment, surveillance, suppression, coercion – that is, the state of exception, above the everyday standard policies and with a significant impact on the executive decision-making power.

In this area, it could be argued that the Securitization Theory is umbilically linked to the Theory of the State of Exception, in a schmittian rationale of the enemy.

There is no doubt that the Covid-19 pandemic has been securitized at a global level, both internationally (UN, WHO) as well as regionally (EU). That has also happened at a national level (several States), and the matter has been presented to the public as if we are in a real “war” against this threat, as evidenced by the various statements and actions of leaders all around the world, like the examples highlighted above convey. It is important to note that all these speeches (speech-act), made by the leaders (securitizing agents) were widely accepted by their populations (audience) who considered this “war” and the following restrictive measures legitimate (restriction or suspension of constitutional rights and guarantees), which materializes Covid-19’s global securitization process.

Several European States in the “fight against the coronavirus” have implemented the State of Exception, decreeing successive “states of emergency” (expression widely regarded, as each country adopts a nomenclature), in order to legally legitimize the suspension of some fundamental rights, notably mobility rights, business freedom, the right and freedom of assembly, among others.

In the Democratic State of Law, the Constitution is the metric of exceptionality, which contains the definition, principles, control, and limitation of the state of exception. With the Covid-19 pandemic, we have been living for more than a year in a continuous regime of exception, with several exceptional measures which suspend/restrict the enjoyment of fundamental rights being constantly enacted, a necessary approach at this moment to contain and control this global health crisis. However, one should be aware that this exceptionality is not designed to become a permanent state, as Giorgio Agamben warns, “the voluntary creation of a permanent state of emergency (even if not technically declared) has become one of the essential practices of contemporary States, even of the so-called democratic ones” and “it presents itself more and more as a technique of the government and not as an exceptional measure, as it also reveals its nature as a constitutive paradigm of the legal order[12].


[1] Information available at https://news.un.org/pt/story/2020/03/1707371

[2] Information available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w8w5L7-Ld90

[3] Information available at https://www.metropoles.com/saude/estamos-em-guerra-contra-o-virus-nao-uns-contra-os-outros-diz-oms

[4] Information available at https://www.consilium.europa.eu/pt/press/press-releases/2020/04/03/declaration-by-the-high-representative-josep-borrell-on-behalf-of-the-eu-on-the-un-secretary-general-s-appeal-for-an-immediate-global-ceasefire/

[5] Information available at https://www.dw.com/pt-002/angela-merkel-coronav%C3%ADrus-%C3%A9-o-maior-desafio-desde-a-ii-guerra-mundial/a-52829950

[6] Information available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NlcJTzuOLXw

[7] Information available at https://www.dn.pt/poder/marcelo-esta-e-uma-guerra-quanto-mais-depressa-formos-mais-depressa-salvamos-vidas-11951098.html

[8] Information available at https://www.dw.com/pt-002/biden-promete-esfor%C3%A7o-de-guerra-em-larga-escala-contra-covid-19/a-56308788

[9] WHO, Constitution of the World Health Organization, available at: https://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/handle/10665/44192/9789241650472_eng.pdf;jsessionid=27763A6AE4B24E1CD895E6A0CDC985C4?sequence=1

[10] BUZAN, Barry (et. al), Security: a new framework for analysis, London, Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1998, p. 26

[11] WENHAM, Clare, The oversecuritization of global health: changing the terms of debate, In: International Affairs, Vol. 95, nº 5, 2019, p. 1094-1095. Available at: https://academic.oup.com/ia/article/95/5/1093/5556752

[12] AGAMBEN, Giorgio, Estado de Exceção, trad. Miguel Freitas da Costa, Lisbon, Editions 70, 2018, p. 13 and 19.

Picture credits: leo2014

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