We are usually told that state power lies in its capacity to provide security. The more capability a state have to secure the state interest, a more powerful they are. The debate is of course more complex than that. There are complex theorising as to what constitute state power, how the states are categorised into a particular hierarchy (i.e. Great, Major, Middle, Small Power etc), or how smaller state (in size or capacity) are able to influence international order.
In this view, security matters the most; all others would follow.
But the pandemic brings complexity to the issue. We have great powers who are confused in the beginning but are able to cope with crisis, though in the process spreading the virus around the world because their inability to prevent the outbreak. We also have great powers whose dead tolls are increasing day by day, not because they don't have enough scientists, but simply because of over-politicisation of issues and dire effects of neoliberalising healthcare systems.
We have small countries who are able to tackle the virus with various massive measures; and of course middle countries who struggle to combat the virus.
This is an interesting variation to be explained; and I am sure that there will be numbers of articles in major IR journals who will deal with this issue once the pandemic is over (which we don't know when). But it brings us some important questions as to what constitutes state power in dealing with pandemic. We have seen so far that state capacity is not determined simply by size of security and military power, but effective leadership and right measure in tackling the crisis, whilst having a good welfare system to save the economy from collapsing.
So we could see that the use of military forces - or, to put it broadly- security apparatuses in dealing with crisis will lead to weird result.
Indonesia provides a vivid example of this case. We have so far witnessed a variety of weird measure to deal with pandemic. It starts with negligence of the outbreak and the denial of scientific advice in the beginning. When public began to criticise the government over the handling, the government securitise the issue by pointing out another potential threat - not of the virus itself but of civil security and the alleged anarchist movements who are claimed to provoke disorder amid the pandemic. There are also some notions on 'total war' in pandemic - a security doctrine originated from the guerrilla war that was aimed to mobilise civilian forces in countering multiple security threats.
Indonesia is not alone in this case. Brazilian President, in another case, even join efforts to return the military dictatorship in the country despites of the COVID-19 pandemic and the increasing number of positive cases in the country. The United States, with its erratic leadership from Donald Trump, even did worse by calling some tendentious notion of "liberation" to states who imposed lockdown and resisting opening the economy.
Recently, Owain Williams called these trends 'Pandemic Authoritarianism'.
Nothing wrong from such efforts. The deployment of security forces are common during pandemic; and of course intelligence community are working with their own ways to help accelerate the effort to end the pandemic. Military and police needs to prepare for the worst scenario in the crisis. But without a proper understanding over what we are currently facing during this pandemic, such efforts will lead to nowhere. The experiences of many countries - South Korea and Taiwan in particular - shows that trust and transparency is the key in dealing with pandemic, and listening to scientific advices from medical experts will help is important to face the crisis altogether. It does not mean that military does not play role; they actually play important role in mitigating some potential problem related to state security that might be emanating from the pandemic. But to deal with crisis, the leading role should be science, medical capacity, and leadership capacity from policymakers.
This COVID-19 pandemic is unprecedented; no country prepare well to deal with the crisis. So does our conception of security and (perhaps) IR. Understanding state power merely in terms of 'coercive power' of security apparatuses has so far been misleading; even some authoritarian states who are credited with successes in dealing with pandemic (China, Singapore, and Vietnam for some examples) are turning to massive contact tracing and advices from health expert first before deploying their huge surveillance system and security forces. It is not because they are not important; but in a condition of non-traditional security crisis, coercive power is not enough to tackle the crisis. We also need competence from state leaders, medical staffs, and health expertise, and welfare system.
Otherwise, we will only see the rise of strong coercive capacity but incompetence in crisis handling.