Issues in Interdisciplinarity 2020-21/Power of the West in response to the COVID-19 pandemic

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Introduction[edit | edit source]

In November 2019, COVID-19 began to spread internationally. In light of this pandemic, governments had no choice but to take immediate action to protect people. Specialists from many disciplines came together to influence and analyse governments' decision-making.[1][2][3][4] However, power dynamics in global health, economics, international relations and philosophy had a detrimental impact on many Western countries' responses to the pandemic, subsequently obstructing effective international collaboration.

Global health vs. postcolonial studies[edit | edit source]

In global health, power is predominantly held by high-income countries (HICs), which can affect funding and thus influence areas of research within the discipline.[5] Power is further centred in the Global North, given the contention that the discipline reflects neocolonialist values and is based upon white saviourism – the assumption that non-Western countries are unable to solve healthcare crises without foreign assistance.[6] Indeed, approximately 80% of leaders in global health are from HICs, whilst 90% have been educated in them.[7] Moreover, non-Western specialists continue to be underrepresented in journal publications.[5] These power dynamics have all contributed to what Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus (Director-General of the World Health Organisation) deems a ‘colonial hangover’ in the West’s response to the pandemic.[5] Given the inherent assumption that former colonies are superior in knowledge, African doctors with previous experience dealing with the Ebola epidemic there have not been consulted as much by Western powers.[8] Furthermore, given the Eurocentrism prevalent within the discipline, global health organisations in the Global North, have not considered the unequal distribution of resources, such as shelter or water, in other communities when formulating the response strategies they recommend for them.[5] For example, social distancing is unable to be effectively achieved in slums, whilst frequent hand-washing is difficult where water is a rare commodity.[5]

Postcolonial studies, whilst it recognises that power has historically been held by colonising nations in the West, shifts the focus of research to the subaltern (formerly oppressed nations), giving them power within the disciplinary curriculum.[9] Using this perspective, the lack of acknowledgment of Kerala and Senegal's successful responses by Western global health specialists has been criticised, creating tensions between postcolonial studies and global health.[5] Therefore, integrating a postcolonial approach may help address power imbalances in the response to the pandemic, allowing the Global North to understand how a strategy formulated by the West may not be applicable elsewhere.[10]

Economics vs. global health[edit | edit source]

Similar tensions exist between post-colonial studies and economics as power in economics (like in global health) lies mainly in the hands of the Global North.[11] Indeed, given the wide-spread knowledge of the West, economists from the South often remain unheard.[11] Moreover, power in the discipline is predominantly held by men as exemplified by the facts that only 14% of full-time economics professors in the US are female and only two women have received the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences.[12][13] Consequently, these power dynamics have influenced responses formulated to the pandemic considering the impact of measures on women seemingly has not been at the forefront of decision-making given that their access to reproductive healthcare has decreased in several US states with abortion services being downgraded to non-essential in order to save medical equipment and hospital beds.[14] This conflicts directly with the aims of global health, given that the WHO stresses the importance of universal sexual and reproductive healthcare.[15]

Protectionism refers to the 'policy of protecting domestic industries against foreign competition'.[16] While cooperation is being encouraged in global health, some Western economists advise nations to use protectionism as a strategy to hold power above the international framework in response to the pandemic.[17][18] Using national security as the primary argument, many states are accelerating their protectionist measures by reducing foreign trade (e.g. medical equipment) and investment.[18] Vaccine nationalism has emerged at the expense of international cooperation.[19]

International relations vs. global health[edit | edit source]

The scientific discourse in international relations is highly biased towards Western academics.[20] A reason for this may be that the most prestigious IR degrees are provided by Western institutions.[20] Moreover, IR theory lacks a deep understanding of the situation of developing countries, which, in combination with the export of Western theories to developing countries, has negative consequences for these states since these theories often are not applicable to their situation.[21]

Realism, which assumes a state of anarchy among states with every state trying to survive by accumulating power, is dominant in IR.[3] It is very prevalent in the US, which has a strong influence on the education of political leaders since 19 out of 25 of the most prestigious IR programs were located in the US in 2011.[20] As opposed to idealism, realism does not explicitly emphasise that political leaders should not commit immoral actions in favour of national interests and classical realists do not believe in the effectiveness of international institutions.[22][3] Proponents of realism claim it explains political events and can be useful in informing policy decisions.[3] An expression of this individualistic thinking and scepticism of international institutions may be that many Western nations favoured their own strategies rather than the WHO's guidance during the pandemic, even going as far as blocking the flow of resources to other countries.[23] For example, France confiscated millions of masks that were originally ordered by the NHS.[23]

The lack of understanding of developing countries and the prominence of realism in IR, by hindering international collaboration, clash with the approach of global collaboration within global health.[17]

Philosophy vs. anthropology[edit | edit source]

Two Western philosophies have the most power over policies: Bentham’s utilitarianism ('the greatest good for the greatest number') and Kant’s human dignity, which prohibits causing any form of harm to a human being, especially to attain something.[24][25][26] Although they are widespread, their concepts are not applicable everywhere. Considering non-Western philosophies would be beneficial when solving a global crisis. The ubuntu philosophy originating in the south of Africa, ('I am because we are'), places community wellbeing above personal comfort.[27] Its reliance on collective solidarity helped screen 11,140,600 people as of May 29th 2020.[28] This approach clashes with the Western mentalities, which are either too individualistic or mainly concerned with economic profit and growth.[29] However, these perspectives remain unknown to most, as they are overshadowed by Western ideas, promoted by men.[27]

Anthropology tries to bring LICs and ex-colonies to the forefront by diversifying and expanding conceptions of global ideas, thereby giving them as much power within academia.[30] A report from the IW institute has compared ethical priorities during the pandemic.[31] In Asia, countries are more protective of the elderly, whom they have particular respect for.[31] In South America, people prefer rescuing women and young people.[31] The theory of cultural relativism reminds us that culture influences ethics greatly, thus making the idea that everybody should follow the same procedure unrealistic. African countries have dealt with viruses more often than Western countries.[32] Consequently, philosophies that have shaped their responses should be democratised so they can be considered as Western ones are on the global stage.

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Overall, the dominance of Western academia and the gendered power imbalances within the aforementioned disciplines are the primary causes of the interdisciplinary conflicts identified. Thus, including experts in feminist studies in the decision-making process would place the spotlight on women’s health during the pandemic. Additionally, incorporating insights from postcolonial studies and the broader lens of cultural anthropology may allow other disciplines to shift their focus to the Global South and hence find better country-specific response strategies to the pandemic.

References[edit | edit source]

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