Ahmad Rizky Mardhatillah Umar By: Ahmad Rizky Mardhatillah Umar
Doctoral Student, Political Sciences and International Studies
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23 Apr 2020 : The Cost of Over-Securitizing COVID-19

Of all IR theories that sought to explain COVID-19, perhaps "securitization" is the most popular one.

Yes, as the virus "escalates", many countries use tight measures to get the virus spread under control. Lockdown, self-quarantine, physical distancing, contact-tracing, massive testing and many other measures are undertaken. Citizens are requested to stay at home. Law is now increasingly tightened. All now seem to conceive COVID-19 as security issue.

Are these things bad? Not necessarily. Yet, these measures are necessary in order to get everything under control and make sure all health workers perform everything effectively. Securitizing the disease is considered necessary for this purpose, as long as there are trust and accountability to all policymakers implementing the policies. 

Yet, some want more. Trump has reportedly declared himself 'war-time president' (as if this could be considered as 'war'). It is worrying, but since the US has strong institutional network of experts, and also tough Governors who act decisively to contain the virus than their mercurial president, it seems manageable to some extent. Narratives of 'war' has been deployed by many people --within and outside  academia -- to show the way they handle the virus.

But things seem to operate differently in other countries outside of these big ones. "Securitizing" the virus, for some countries (like Indonesia) mean that security apparatuses should play more role. They played role in distributing aid packages, guarding the lockdown or physical distancing process, and even leading the policymaking process in the Disaster Management Agency. 

The case is more complex because it seems to become some 'pretext' or justification for crackdowns of activists or those who are considered too critical to the government policies. 

Today, a famous Indonesian NGO researcher is arrested for an accusation of 'spreading hate speech towards violence'. Everyone is shocked. Since a couple of weeks ago, many people has become more, and more, critical to the way the government handle the coronavirus. Authorities and elites - some of whom are from police/military backgrounds - appear to be unhappy of this. The arrest of this activist made clear that the use of 'force' is becoming more visible every days, giving way for a more authoritarian measure during (and) after the COVID-19 handling management.

The securitization of the issue seems to be inevitable; we all need to be secure from any health threat like COVID-19. But it doesn't come without cost. Over-securitizing issue could give way to the rise of new authoritarian regimes under the banner of 'post-pandemic stabilization'. It is particularly the case with the way many government (Brazil, Indonesia, US the most obvious case) handle the virus. For some countries, securitizing doesn't only mean tighter measure under effective leadership. There are some demands to justify 'military operations other than war' to combat COVID-19, which isn't only about restoring order after the pandemic; it also justifies broader military role in civilian affairs.

The problem is actually more complex than what I have mentioned above; some experts on Civilian-Military Relations seem to begin working in this issue. But perhaps it is important for us to highlight the cost of securitizing COVID-19: it could be some justifications for more draconian measures in the future. It's not good for the health of human rights and democracy; also not good for the future of civilian-military affairs.

How to get rid of these tendencies? I'm not yet sure about this, but as my colleague Jessica Kirk, has recently argued in her article, a reconceptualisation  of key concepts in global health security (i.e. 'exceptionalism') is important. Perhaps, also, to understand more fully the cost of securitization of health issue and avoid unjustified authoritarian rule in the future. It's the task of future IR research though - if we are to survive this pandemic. 

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