Power in Times of COVID-19

Photo by Napendra Singh on Unsplash

For almost two years a tiny biomolecule known as SARS-CoV-2 has kept the world on its toes. In record time, the Coronavirus has brought entire countries to a standstill, has frozen their economies and public life. Almost from one day to the next, it cleared concert halls, cinemas and churches, and ushered in the era of “social distancing”. Nonetheless, it would be wrong to say that the virus presented the sole or primary driving force behind all these developments. In fact, the real power always lay with politics rather than science or disease — and it continues to do so.

The unfolding pandemic helped create political momentum and garner an enormous amount of power, as many political actors willingly used COVID-19 to justify an unprecedented intervention in multiple areas of life. In this light, it seems rather unsurprising that governments and politicians have expressed reservations against the premature return to a ‘new normal.’ Although a final assessment of the political response to the COVID-19 pandemic has yet to be made and requires time and biographical distance, some questions are already pressing now: Why have politics and society reacted to the virus with such a strong centralization of power and with such far-reaching, repressive measures, unheard of in many countries since WWII? While the debate on their effect and merit continues in the face of a fourth wave, the political response to COVID-19 has undoubtedly had a tremendous impact on all spheres of life, from the economy to religion and culture. How can we explain this process and the supposed lack of an alternative course of action? Understanding these developments and their underlying mechanisms can help gain a rational perspective on the widely politicized and emotion-laden Coronavirus crisis.

Two observations form the analytical point of departure. First, many countries were and are following a globally uniform approach. Almost all nations implemented the same measures despite major cultural and institutional differences, including border closures, social and economic shutdowns, compulsory masks, etc. Second, most experts and intellectuals limited themselves to a debate centering on arguments for and against state-imposed measures and speculations about the post-pandemic situation. In view of the scientific-epidemiological complexity and the lack of certainty about what the ideal pandemic response would look like, the focus on conventional control and health security measures may seem like a logical choice. However, a public health perspective alone does not suffice to understand COVID-19 and its political management. On the contrary, although the pandemic undoubtedly poses a public health issue, its core is about power politics. To fully grasp which factors drive politics against the backdrop of the Coronavirus crisis, we must take a look at the universal logics of power in relation to the challenges of the crisis period and apply them to modern liberal democracy. To this end, a praxeological perspective is indispensable because it opens up the black box of human action and helps explain dominant governance practices, discourses and institutions in the age of SARS-CoV-2.

Power is a unique phenomenon. Unlike physical objects it does not follow the principles of entropy and diffusion. Power strives for concentration. It aims at expansion and consolidation in a singular point. And since the struggle for power is a zero-sum game, this always implies a loss of power elsewhere. This struggle has always taken place within and between the main areas of society: politics, economics, religion and science. Disputes emerge along the fault lines of changing actor constellations and alliances, and are exacerbated by fluctuating, highly dynamic power relations; the strands of power running through politics and society are thus neither permanent nor can they be made permanent. In this context, dominance is always temporary and at constant risk of being lost again if actors overstep the limits of their power. A similar pattern can be observed in the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic: faced with high uncertainty about the nature and threat potential of COVID-19, decision-makers everywhere undertook far-reaching attempts to nevertheless establish or at least signal control in all areas of life. Quite paradoxically, the inability of decision-makers to effectively manage the pandemic instigated an enormous political activism based on regulatory and technological claims and consequently a top-down centralization of power. At the same time, this political move has been met with significant resistance from society, as demonstrated by recurring nationwide demonstrations in many countries against governmental action and restrictive measures. Unsurprisingly, many political actors have already backpedaled and partially withdrawn from some of the areas and spheres of influence where they initially sought to establish control.

Even in times of COVID-19, the struggle for power follows two simple rules. First, power claims must be based on discursive strategies and narratives: the framing of an issue and justification of action. Where no such narratives exist to legitimize claims for power or where they do not resonate emotionally and rationally with the audience power can only be ensured by means of force. In most democracies today, the ultimate principle and thus source of legitimate power is the common good. Second, power can become manifest or incorporated in customs and organizations. This is the reason why Alexis de Tocqueville postulated the separation of powers and John Locke spoke of inalienable natural rights. Discursive power practices and institutionalization of power form a structural relationship of reciprocal determination. Therefore, they present key concepts of political legitimacy. Only through discursive practices can power be molded and only when it is embedded in institutions is power sustainable — yet confined. In a setting where power is already institutionalized (e.g. separation of powers, political system of checks and balances) discursive practices are only successful when they manage to (re-)shape the relatively stable confinements of customs or organizations.

In the context of the Coronavirus pandemic, discursive power practices have driven the crisis response and management. Until the present day, policymakers across the globe are leveraging existential fears (of one’s own death and the death of close relatives and friends) and hopes (of protection and security) to establish and assert authority in areas like the economy or religious, cultural and public life. Wearing a mask or staying at home are declared as necessary means to protect ourselves, especially the weakest members of our societies: our grandparents, immune-deficient spouses, children, friends etc. At the same time, politicians are preaching hope. If only we follow what they prescribe, we might just be able to get through this pandemic as a society, avoid a second wave, stay healthy and safe as individuals. Political actors have thus harnessed discursive practices to legitimize governmental intervention and centralization of political power — and they continue to do so.

Political reactions to the COVID-19 pandemic are not the only example of successful discursive power practices. Quite on the contrary, many other recent examples exist and include the “war on terror” that began in 2001 and is still festering today, as well as the “fight against climate change”, which is being fought with similar fury. What these three dramatic episodes have in common is that they use narratives to legitimize governmental strategic competencies and power. Most of these narratives paint the picture of a concrete evil against which we must supposedly unite. However, this “evil” usually remains rather vague and open to interpretation: the Islamist threat to the West, the destruction of our ecosystem caused by global emissions, and mass deaths caused by an invisible virus.

Nonetheless, discursive power practices in relation to the Coronavirus pose a somewhat unique case, as they have arguably been much more successful than many of the past narratives employed by politicians to support power claims. This is even more remarkable in view of the rather negligible mortality rate of COVID-19 compared to diseases like the plague, Ebola or cholera. At the same time, the success of discursive practices in relation to this global virus is understandable. In contrast to climate change, the disease is not a distant disaster that could befall our descendants. Rather it seems to present a near evil that could strike us at any time. The dystopian, even apocalyptic scenarios painted in the context of the Coronavirus crisis could even be seen as antipoles to religious expectations of salvation. And unlike the threat of terrorism, the virus is potentially ubiquitous and completely unbound; everyone is a potential suspect who could spread the virus. No room is safe, and even one’s own body can become a traitor when it catches a disease that may show no symptoms.

Last but not least, the exercise of power and control in the fight against COVID-19 also had a relieving effect for countless people: border closures, rules of conduct and restrictive measures helped reduce complexity in a world that has become increasingly unmanageable due to globalization and digitalization. Moreover, they offered an opportunity to publicly shame or secretly denounce those who did not follow the rules and, on the flip side, to effectively prove one’s own conformity: by adhering to social distancing, covering one’s nose and mouth when sneezing or coughing, and of course wearing a mask. Simply put, the Coronavirus crisis offers an opportunity to categorize and separate “right” and “wrong”, “good” and “bad” — even if moral and scientific controversy persists with regard to what correct conduct in response to the pandemic should look like.

The mask has become the global COVID-19 symbol par excellence. Whereas the pandemic initially only cleared crowded metropolitan areas and shopping streets, it has now captivated billions of people and all areas of life. Admittedly, the mask is not an explicit symbol of labeling or exclusion since many countries have made its usage mandatory for everyone. Yet, it is an implicit but powerful symbol for the victory of medical-epidemiological narratives and logics over all areas of society as well as for the intra-scientific struggle for influence. Instruments of public discipline were otherwise only known from the panoptic penitentiaries of modern England, where prisoners were obliged to wear masks outside to prevent fraternization. In a similar vein, today’s Coronavirus-related discourse presents an instrument to assert political power and control rather than a direct response to the virus itself. Calls for a general obligation to wear masks, widespread medical testing or the tracking of sources of infection via mobile apps are aimed at enforcing and defending power, not purely at rationally following scientific recommendations.

The Coronavirus crisis has exceptionally revealed these discursive power practices that are usually hidden and rarely become visible within liberal democratic systems. Once they do, however, they can be observed and analyzed in terms of their justification logic and narratives, which tend to be ambivalent, dialectical and pluralistic. The open outcome of liberal politics is a result of the competition between different discourses as part of the permanent struggle for democratic majorities and consensus: between defenders of the public “protection and security thinking” on the one hand and the advocates of a critical “bio power” discourse on the other.

Discursive power politics revolving around the virus manifest themselves in the field of health policy, that is, in technocratic narratives at the intersection of politics and science. Although (far too) many people like to believe that this takes the shape of a targeted conspiracy. However, current political power practices could not be farther from this scenario for a number of reasons. First of all, the network of societal practices, discourses, habitus and institutions is far too complex to allow for targeted manipulation at such a scale. For an organized conspiracy to work, the number of people involved is too high and the number of relevant variables almost unmanageable. Additionally, a lack of political consensus on a course of action makes the possibility of a government conspiracy highly unlikely. Many countries reacted in a rather uncoordinated, ad-hoc manner when COVID-19 hit them. At no point in time was there a political “Coronavirus strategy”. Even now, many countries lack a coherent response and governance framework to deal with the pandemic as it evolves. In many ways, decision-makers have been playing it by ear since the Coronavirus first appeared on their agenda. Rather than devising a long-term strategy or contingency plans beyond one week at a time, policymakers have focused on short-term crisis management, reacting only to weekly projections and headlines.

Day-to-day politics have thus driven political actors and shaped their narratives and approaches vis-à-vis the COVID-19 pandemic. What is more, the daily political business has itself become a permanent object of debate and competition. In the health policy discourse, decision-makers frequently adopt scientific language to support their claims to truth and move issues outside the political arena of compromise and consensus. Thus ‘medicalizing’ politics turns policy problems into binary question of true and false, and enables policymakers to marginalize or reject competing claims from representatives of the economy or issue areas like culture and religion. As a consequence, political legitimation mechanisms follow an increasingly proceduralist logic that only knows one standard of correctness: Did an expert or a panel of experts find a certain measure or strategy correct or not? Scientists, on the other hand, adapt political communication patterns and strategies, including framing scientific recommendations as solutions to challenges that facing all of society. Scientific suggestions are increasingly presented as lacking alternatives and are therefore termed binding and are made mandatory.

This technocratic power manifestation produces three consequences. First, we may be witnessing the dawn of a new kind of science religion with its own liturgies, including quasi-ritual behaviors (distancing schemes, regular disinfection, hand washing etc.), its own taxonomy (“herd immunity”, “flatten the curve”, “vaccination coverage”) and a clergy of human biological experts. The current predominance of this cult over established world religions is demonstrated inter alia by the silence of church leaders, the absence of church narratives in the various Coronavirus discourses and the unopposed acceptance of all restrictions on church services, processions and other religious practices.

Second, COVID-19 has enabled the imposition of a strictly hierarchical concept of the common good, with health protection as the most important public good and its subsequent prioritization over other goods like prosperity or mobility. This doctrine is profoundly opposed to pluralist and liberalist theories as advocated by William D. Ross and Isaiah Berlin. Amidst the Coronavirus pandemic, discursive practices replace a multitude of values with an exclusive focus on the ethical rigorism of the Hippocratic oath.

In view of this development the third consequence is almost inevitable: the emergence of a new antagonism between democracy and a liberal constitutional state. The ongoing shift towards polarization, dramaturgy and trivialization is dividing the population into two camps: those who live in justified, naked fear for their existence and those who are spurred on by conspiracy theories and ignore the Coronavirus altogether including state measures and recommendations. Nevertheless, polarization creates yet another window of opportunity for decision-makers to widen and cement political power — with possible consequences for citizens’ fundamental rights. The struggle over a balance of power thus shifts between paradigms of democracy and the rule of law. Democracy and liberalism may have been incorporated in modern constitutions but have not yet been reconciled with one another. Because popular government and individual rights are not rooted in the same historical and ideological context, their combination in modern institutions presents an explosive potential for power struggles. The discursive power of a virus like SARS-CoV-2 might suffice to fuel or unleash this potential.

It remains to be seen how long virus-related discursive practices will keep our communities in suspense. More and more cracks and inconsistencies are becoming apparent in policy-legitimating narratives. These include the continuous alignment of political measures with incidence rates rather than hospitalization rates; the decision to re-open beer gardens while schools remain(ed) closed or the political recommendations on vaccinations and vaccines. The inability of decision-makers to agree on consistent narratives to justify a particular course of action is provoking increasing criticism and resistance from societal actors. The technocratic narratives and interpretive authority of policymakers are increasingly questioned in relation to the management of COVID-19. It is therefore entirely possible that discursive practices related to the Coronavirus pandemic will lose their power hegemony sooner rather than later. Nevertheless, SARS-CoV-2 has already set a precedent for a unique and rapid concentration of political power. And an immediate successor topic is already in sight: discursive practices are already beginning to leverage the ensuing global recession. A never-ending game of narratives and power.

Dominik Meier is the Chairman of the German Association of Political Consultants (de’ge’pol) and the owner and CEO of the strategic political consultancy Miller & Meier Consulting (MMC). Together with his co-author Dr. Christian Blum, formerly consultant at MMC, he published the book “Power and its Logic: Mastering Politics” in 2019. The above article first appeared in “The European” on 28 October 2020 and has been updated.

Owner of Miller & Meier Consulting, chair of the German Association of Political Consultants (degepol), part of the editorial board at Political Science Applied