The securitization of health: on the protests against the Chinese “zero-COVID” strategy

By Rafaela Garcia Guimarães (Master in Human Rights from the School of Law of the University of Minho)

The approach to health as a security issue is supported by the theory of securitization developed by researchers from the Copenhagen School, according to which threats to security are socially constructed, through a speech act – whether oral, written, through images and other means of communication. Discourse acquires a fundamental role in the securitization process, as it is through the act of speech that the securitizing agent (usually an authority) exposes a demand to the public as a threat to its security – a threat that may or may not be real[1].

Health securitization occurs when a disease is presented to the public as an “existential threat”. This can happen with the onset of a disease with little scientific knowledge, no easily identifiable treatment or cure, high mortality or transmissibility, and especially when they are associated with a visceral fear of pain or suffering.

Securitization results in the adoption of exceptional measures, mainly due to their urgent nature, which may lead to containment, surveillance and coercion measures. Moreover, the policy of exception is presented to society as the only means of survival – and fear makes restrictive (and even suspensive) measures for the exercise of fundamental rights more easily accepted.

Thus, when an issue is securitized, it leaves the sphere of normal politics and moves into the sphere of emergency politics, characterized by confidentiality and disregard for normal institutional mechanisms – which usually legitimizes, for example, the use of force. In this sense, securitization can pose a danger to democracy and human rights.

Health, over the last few decades, has often been addressed as a security issue – as demonstrated by the responses to public health emergencies in the case of HIV/AIDS, Ebola and Zika.

In early 2020, a global health crisis erupted with the arrival of a new coronavirus, called SARS-Cov-2, which causes the disease COVID-19, which was barely known and highly transmissible. The speed with which COVID-19 spread across the globe had a strong impact on health systems around the world – which were overwhelmed, with a lack of inputs and sufficient professionals to deal with the health crisis.

Indeed, health systems – without the proper investments – collapsed, as they were not prepared for a crisis of such proportions. The scientific community had long warned of the advent of a pandemic, mainly due to climate change and the environmental emergency. In fact, it was not a “if” but a “when”.

Measures to contain the spread of the virus have brought society to a standstill in a way that is unparalleled in human history. Some of the globally adopted measures involved the mandatory use of face masks, social distancing, the implementation of a lockdown (with the closure of all non-essential activities), the adoption of the teleworking regime, the restriction of public and private meetings, the restriction on circulation within the national territory itself, demands to stay at home, restrictions on international travel (entry bans, tests, quarantine), etc. Some States have made use of population monitoring and control systems through digital techniques and Artificial Intelligence.

In any case, the seriousness of the COVID-19 pandemic – with its high transmissibility rate and the global crisis that had taken hold – was reason enough to resort to the security narrative, under the argument of exceptionalism, and from the binomial friend-enemy, facilitating its securitization process. Moreover, with the declaration of COVID-19 as a pandemic by the World Health Organization, the official narratives began to resort to metaphors of war – “invisible enemy”, “battle against the coronavirus”, “global war”. Now, war is a powerful metaphor. It is an effective, immediate and emotive tool for communicating urgency to the general public. It also conveys a sense of struggle and righteousness that can justify exceptional measures.[2]

Almost three years after the start of the pandemic – and in view of the progressive relaxation of response measures to COVID-19 in the West – there is a new increase in cases of that disease, which is why the European Medicines Agency has warned that Europe could face a new wave due to the new variants already in circulation.[3]

Faced with such a possibility, it is important to question whether Westerners would be willing to accept restrictive (or even suspensive) measures restricting (or even suspending) fundamental rights, such as those adopted earlier – namely, mandatory confinement. Or, conversely, would Westerners already be used to living with the “invisible enemy”, with the restriction (and even the suspension) of fundamental freedoms becoming increasingly difficult?

The recent protests in China against the “zero-COVID” policy – ​which imposed mandatory confinement and forced quarantines for people who tested positive – indicate that a new cycle of restrictions on fundamental freedoms could be much more difficult to implement in the West, especially after individuals have experienced a “return to normalcy”.

According to the media that accompanied the aforementioned protests – which are rare in that State, for reasons well known –, the demonstrators demanded that the suspension of movement and isolation measures be relaxed, regardless of the fact that the official record of daily infections by COVID-19 broke records.[4]

However, after a week of demonstrations, China began to ease the most severe measures – such as isolation in “quarantine camps”, replacing this solution with home isolation.[5] Such changes in the policy to face COVID-19 indicate that the Chinese will have to learn to live with the virus, as it happened in the West.

In any case, in view of the expansion of authoritarianism facing global society, it is important to consistently debate whether global securitization by COVID-19 happened as an unconditioned reflex, due to everyone’s fear of the unknown (including public authorities), or wether, on the other hand, the suspension of rights perhaps served an orchestrated intention, that is, to initiate the imposition of a “new security order”.

As Christian Enemark warns, if assigning safety status to the COVID-19 pandemic may have been a beneficial measure to gather additional resources and executive powers to protect the health of the population, on the other hand, disease control practices driven by a security imperative can be so burdensome as to be excessively detrimental to national economies and human rights.[6]


[1] Marina Guedes Duque, “The role of the Copenhagen School in international security studies”, International Context, vol. 33, no. 3, Rio de Janeiro (2009): 479, available at: https://www.scielo.br/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S0102-85292009000300003&lng=en&nrm=iso&tlng=pt#nt17 [07.12.2022].

[2] Federica Caso, “Are we at war? The rhetoric of war in the coronavirus pandemic”, The Disorder of Things, April 10, 2020, available at: https://thedisorderofthings.com/2020/04/10/are-we-at-war-the-rhetoric-of-war-in-the-coronavirus-pandemic/ [10.01.2022].

[3] EMA, “EMA regular press briefing on COVID-19 and monkeypox”, available at: https://www.ema.europa.eu/en/events/ema-regular-press-briefing-covid-19-monkeypox-0 [06.12.2022].

[4] BBC, “Security tightened in China after widespread COVID protests”, November 28, 2022, available at: https://www.bbc.com/news/live/world-asia-63776816. Diário de Notícias, “Protestos multiplicam-se na China contra a política ‘zero covid’”, November 27, 2022, available at: https://www.dn.pt/internacional/protestos-multiplicam-se-na-china-contra-a-politica-zero-covid-15392577.html [07.12.22].

[5] BBC, “China abandons key parts of zero-Covid strategy after protests”, December 7, 2022, available at: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-63855508, [07.12.22].

[6] Christian Enemark, “Policy dilemmas in a war on disease”, Australian Institute of International Affairs, April 2, 2020, available at: https://www.internationalaffairs.org.au/australianoutlook/policy-dilemmas-in-a-war-on-disease/ [07.12.2022].

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com.

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