Controversies in Military Ethics & Security Policy
"Follow the Science": The War on Covid-19, Strategic Ignorance and the Monopolies on "the Science" and "Truth"
“We are following the science” – this has, by now, become a familiar refrain. The constant references to scientific expertise in the response to the coronavirus appear to be a major component of the UK government’s public messaging strategy. The Chief Scientific Adviser, Patrick Vallance, and the Chief Medical Officer, Chris Witty, are guiding the political leadership through this pandemic – at least according to the prevailing narrative.
A similar scenario has developed in Germany: Scientists have become the darlings of the political establishment. As trustworthy advisors, they navigate governments through the crisis. With their frequent appearance on political talk shows and their regular consultation in the daily newspapers and radio shows, scientific assessments and comments have significantly shaped the public's reaction to the pandemic. In addition, as researchers, they're closely entangled with the production of knowledge about the virus and any possible preventative and protective measures. In recognition of this central role in the response to the pandemic, scientists such as the virologist Christian Drosten received several awards, including the Federal Cross of Merit.
And yet, despite the science’s apparent central role in the United Kingdom’s battle against the pandemic, the UK government faces an apparent paradox that it sadly leads the list of European countries with the highest COVID-19 fatalities. Especially the effects of the pandemic on the UK’s black and poor population have been hugely disproportionate.1 This failure seems peculiar given the commitments of the British agenda for global health2 – that emphasises the entanglement of health with poverty. While this well-researched nexus between socio-economic conditions and health is stressed, especially towards the countries of the “global south”, in the domestic strategy and mobilisation against the pandemic expertise testifying on these matters is conspiciously underrepresented in scientific advisory bodies and in the reporting on the coronavirus. Against the experience of the ineffectiveness of the UK leadership's approach that had publicly justified its action (and inaction) through the sciences, the continous progression of the pandemic did not seem to discredit either its past or present invocations of scientific objectivity.
Strangely enough, the British government has been met with moderate criticism of the circumstances and decisions that led to the disproportionate distribution of new infections and deaths along ethnic and socio-economic lines. The role of structural racism so far has been dismissed with reference to the scientific expertise that led government action for the last months.
While Germany is widely acknowledged as a positive example of good governance and effective response to the pandemic, the significant regional variation in case rates across its territory demonstrates that translating scientific advice into political action is not a straightforward process.
At this juncture, the pandemic not only highlights that following the science – or which scientific advice to follow – ultimately remains a political decision. A closer look also reveals the politics of expertise itself and challenges purely meritocratic notions for the sexist and racist motives that are largely at work. The rhetoric of war and the state of emergency which accompanies the political response to the pandemic has further exacerbated existing inequalities and intensified politics around the truth.
In an anecdotal comparison of the German and British engagement with expertise and the science’s infallible and objective truths, this essay reveals how both the weaponisation of knowledge and the politics of expertise potently obfuscate the political decisions and responsibility in the response to the pandemic.
The Uses and Abuses of Science…
“Scientific advice” is entertained as the central cornerstone of national responses to the Coronavirus pandemic around the globe. It suggests that in following scientific advice, government action is based on the objective truths of science. While the narrative of science and politics as opposites seems outmoded, the political showcasing of science-led government action suggests that good governance is not only informed but actually measured by its compliance with scientific expertise.
In the Financial Times Tony Barber identifies the national emergency as an opportunity for the revival of expertise, and spots “unmistakable signs that the British public, mystified and alarmed by the government’s incoherent handling of the pandemic’s early phase, craves the advice of specialists — and even politicians — who know what they are talking about.”3
And the Government Chief Scientific Adviser, Patrick Vallance, states: “during one of the most serious pandemics in our recorded history, people are understandably concerned and worried about what the future holds and are looking to the science for answers.”4
In contrast to the German use of the word Wissenschaft, “the science” is the prerogative of the natural sciences. The UK Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies’ (SAGE) reliance on a predominantly natural scientific and medical disciplinary set-up of experts for its advice to government illustrates this difference in approach.
Situated within a regime of pandemic preparedness and response, which is simultaneously informatic, epistemic, and political, SAGE follows a vision of viral surveillance that aspires to anticipate and detect outbreaks through the potency of data and (data) science – and has emerged as a central element in the agenda of health security.
The sequence of information collection as the foundation for knowledge about (the sources of) pandemic risk, and the subsequent catalysation of political intervention and policy to (adequately) manage the risk, follow the demands of an evidence-based or “science-led” governance of pandemic risk.
However, as Benjamin Hurlbut argues, what might appear the “rational” approach of information-led management of such security risks is predicated on a political order that sees the world as governable through information, and normatively commits to producing it.
In his study of the political norms and relationships associated with the governance of pandemic risks, Hurlbut observes that notions of what are the right forms of global governance are coproduced by concepts of what constitutes the right knowledge. In his words “epistemic authority (…) is also jurisdictional authority: science claims the authority to ‘speak the law’ by declaring what forms of legal and political order are necessary to know and govern global risk, and what regimes are inappropriate.”5
Within the agenda of health security – and also for other fields such as climate policy – visions of the right knowledge privilege the institutional forms of scientific authority6, further sustaining science’s claim to be the guardian of truth in society7. Whilst this understanding has been increasingly criticised for the way it orders both knowledge and socio-political systems8, it is still a powerful trope in the responses to the pandemic. Both the UK government’s “science-led” response to COVID and the German government’s reliance on public health authorities and virologists follow a vision of pandemic governance that is not only information-led, but allows scientific expertise to constitute the norms, political relationships, and forms of authority that are seen as legitimate and appropriate in response to the pandemic.
The German Chancellor Angela Merkel addresses the German public, stating that “everything” she presents “derives from consultations with experts from the Robert Koch Institute and other scientists and virologists.”9 Germany’s political journalism paints a similar picture as to whom they consider the experts tasked with answering the pressing issues of the COVID pandemic. In the political talk shows of Anne Will and Maybrit Illner the position of the “expert” and the guardian of the “facts” is filled either by virologists/medical doctors, or economists. This set-up has not changed since the peak of the pandemic in March: expertise on COVID appears the prerogative of the medical sciences and virology. Furthermore, these experts are usually male and white. Christian Drosten, the Director of the Institute of Virology at the Charité Hospital in Berlin, has almost become a cult figure in the wake of the pandemic. The British Guardian calls Christian Drosten “Germany’s Covid-19 expert”10; his “Coronavirus-Update” podcast has won the Grimme Online award twice, and he has received further awards and recognition from the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (German Research Foundation, DFG) among others.
It remains a challenge for the science-led political response to know what the science can and cannot tell. The pandemic has illustrated that who is an expert is neither necessarily knowable a priori nor is it static or does it fit disciplinary archetypes. The COVID-19 has never been merely a phenomenon of the microbiological sciences or the medical sciences. Yet, in practice we see that what counts as expertise and which expertise will be relevant is worryingly one-dimensional, elitist, and sexist. A recent report commissioned by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation finds that women’s voices have been “worryingly marginalised” in reporting of the coronavirus. Analysing stories across six countries, the study finds that only 19% of experts quoted in highly ranked coronavirus stories were women. The Guardian’s Karen McVeigh summarises “the women given a voice in the pandemic are rarely portrayed as authoritative experts, or empowered individuals, but as victims or people affected by the disease, or sources of personal opinion.”11
This “drowning out” of female voices forms part of a wider environment in which women struggle to be acknowledged as authoritative experts and political decision makers. In the United Kingdom, the daily COVID-19 experts’ meeting is 100% male.
The Guardian’s report adds that marginalisation is further exacerbated by “the war-like framing” of the pandemic which invokes troublesome antiquated ideas that men are better equipped to deal with an emergency. With this “strong men” attitude, another concerning development, challenging the legitimacy of critique of “science-led” political decision making or expert advice, comes to the fore.
A recent interview by the Augsburger Allgemeine with the Federal Minister of Health Jens Spahn stresses this point. When asked about critics who assert that the current political reaction to COVID does not allow for (the discussion of) alternatives, Spahn almost ridicules such concern responding that “of course there are alternatives – one being to do nothing and let the virus spread.”12
It is easy for Spahn not to engage (seriously) with any criticism considering the rise of Sinophobic 5G conspiracies and the radical political position of protesters portrayed in the headlines of German newspapers as the opponents of COVID policy. However, in approaching the question about existing concerns and resistance to the current political response to COVID as necessarily related to such political views, Spahn also reduces opposition to these extreme positions. In a similar vein, when asked in an interview in April about the next steps after lifting the lockdown in Germany, Christian Drosten narrowed the spectrum of political debate in Germany to a homogenous assemblage of positions he calls the “prevention paradox”. That is “[p]eople are claiming we over-reacted, there is political and economic pressure to return to normal”13.
Such an understanding depoliticises the agenda of the exception and emergency, yet potently has framed the response to the pandemic. It also feeds into a general view that seems to be taking hold in the reporting and commentaries of the political elite, including political journalism, which caution against the dangers of political “particularism” to the “order” needed to face the pandemic threat.
“We are not at war with a virus.” - Cas Mudde
For most of the months of February and March, the government-friendly British tabloid press invoked the Blitz Spirit, comparing Boris Johnson’s “battle” against the virus to the nation’s challenges during the second World War. The Prime Minister, seeking to unite national efforts to resist this “invisible killer”, told the public in his Address to the Nation on 23 March that “the coronavirus is the biggest threat this country has faced for decades.” The Telegraph predicted that this would be an extraordinary opportunity for Johnson to become a 21st century version of his hero Churchill, leading the nation to defeat the enemy virus14.
The German Politiktalk landscapes similarly invoke a rhetoric of war. In March, Anne Will brought together guests from across the political landscape, virologists, medical doctors, and the Chairman of the Federation of the German Detective Officers to discuss the “state of emergency – will we win the fight against the coronavirus?”. The two following shows focused on the “Corona emergency” and Germany’s battle plan: where we stand and our next steps in the fight against the virus.
The narratives of war invoked in the response to the coronavirus serve a peculiar dual purpose. The war rhetoric invokes an understanding of both its inevitability and cruelty. This accomplishes two things: first, the participants in this war are absolved of responsibility and blame for the sacrifices (and casualties) of this war. Second, and drawing on Hannah Arendt’s concept of infallible prediction, by invoking the inevitability of war, we create the reality that asserts our righteousness in waging war. Arendt presents this idea to explain how (totalitarian) leaders have the power to create certain realities. She argues that predictions such as the “inevitability of war” are in fact statements of intent. However, intentions framed as predictions provide a shield against responsibility and blame. These narratives evoke war as though it were a natural force, effectively concealing the political decisions behind the act of warfare. In a similar vein, framing the pandemic as a war obscures the political actions (or inactions) in a move to depoliticise and rationalise the crisis.
Yet in the so-called fight or “war” against COVID, who is the victor and what constitutes a victory when the enemy is a virus? While there is no winning nation, societies sense there are already losers who cannot compete in the battle of technological solutioneering of a vaccine or a biomedical treatment for COVID (Hernandez-Morales, 2020)15. A recent editorial in the Wall Street Journal16 showed how racism in innovation policy, together with the international competition for access to a vaccine, make a possible way out of the pandemic subject to economic and political interests.
Cynically, for example, those who have been the target of the xenophobic Brexit politics and rhetoric in recent years are now elevated to "essential" workers and new heroes in the fight against the virus. Working at the 'front line', the bus drivers, nurses, service employees are now also expected to make the necessary “sacrifices” as a consequence of lacking protective equipment.
The martial characterisation of the virus itself as the enemy has played into the narrated state of exception in media discourse and governmental response to “the catastrophic” consequences of the pandemic. It is a continuation of developments in which health has been increasingly seen as a matter of national and international security. In 2001, the United Nations Security Council added the HIV pandemic to its agenda as the first non-traditional security topic. The SARS epidemic in 2003 and the Ebola epidemic in 2014/15 subsequently demanded international attention to the dangers of infectious diseases, especially in an increasingly connected and globalised world. In 2017, Bill Gates spoke at the Munich Security Conference17, warning of the catastrophic consequences of a pandemic, and the millions of deaths one might cause. At the time, it seemed a dystopian scenario – the worst case – that would bring the world and its order to the brink.
The national lockdown measures that came into effect in the UK on 23 March 2020 have evoked different reactions. On the one hand, government response has been seen as half-hearted and far too late in addressing and stopping the progress of the pandemic. Much of the government’s response until then was built on a public information campaign surrounding handwashing featuring sassy slogans – “catch it, bin it, kill it”18, cynically turned an entire population into a scientific experiment no-one was asked to participate in. This laissez-faire approach, epitomising the idea of “build[ing] […] some kind of herd immunity”19, cynically turned an entire population into a scientific experiment no-one was asked to participate in.
On the other hand, the curtailment of civic rights was accompanied by calls for scrutiny into both the appropriateness and the effectiveness of measures. The political scientist and The Guardian columnist, Cas Mudde, cautions in a commentary on what the war rhetoric and securitisation of the pandemic mean for the liberal democratic order: “state-of-emergency measures are necessary in a real crisis (…) but they can be taken without the use of ‘war’ language. They also should be strictly related to the crisis at hand and proportional to the threat. But many politicians have gone much further, trying to use the health crisis to push through dubious repressive legislation.”20
The concept of the state of exception derives from the work of far right-wing legal and political theorist Carl Schmitt. It refers to an investment of constitutional power granted to a sovereign authority within a crisis, or state of emergency. With reference to the state of emergency, the British government initiated the “Coronavirus Bill (HC Bill 122)”21 to establish emergency powers beyond the bounds of rational crisis management. In particular, the speed with which these extensive powers were driven through Parliament was viewed with concern by commentators. According to a new memorandum of understanding issued by the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) and the National Police Chiefs’ Council, the British Police will be provided with access to the NHS Test and Trace data for people in England who have been told to self-isolate.22 At the peak of the pandemic, the UK government furthermore announced that its Public Health England would be radically re-organised. According to the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, PHE will be combined with NHS Test and Trace to form the National Institute for Health Protection. This is further under a new leadership structure headed by the Conservative Baroness Dido Harding as interim CEO23. Whilst these developments come amidst calls not to “politicise” the crisis, the UK government has since masked its political decisions behind recourse to scientific objectivity and inevitability.
There is a fundamental problem with an understanding of the exception that is defined (or demarcated) by a given, inevitable, and inalienable point as it re-inscribes the state of exception as the new normal. It exempts the political, its actors and actions, from the crisis, its unfolding, and management. Yet if, as for the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, exceptional sovereign power has a structural ontology and is an inevitable product of the structural limits of politics, then the exception and its extra-judicial acts and policies are incontestable.
Modi et al point to the writings of Judith Butler to overcome this deterministic impasse that Agamben suggests. For Butler, the exception has no structural ontology but is enacted24. Deployed as a “tactic”, as the instrumentalisations of practices aimed at invoking and sustaining exceptional policies as the norm, repeated extra-judicial acts or policies “serve to performatively constitute exceptionalism as a legitimate and normalised form of government.”25 While justified on the grounds of exceptional circumstance, extra-judicial acts do not themselves become exceptions, the exception is a discursively formulated, contingent and socially-constructed state existent-in-practice. Butler uses her concept of performativity to relocate the problem of exceptionalism away from the deterministic and transcendental towards the actions of the powerful.
This revised and contingent understanding of the “state of exception” becomes especially important (and empowering) during the current pandemic state of emergency. It provides a different lens to challenge the UK government’s attempt to dismiss criticism and failings in its response based on the limits of scientific knowledge. Tom Hobson observes that playing with the limits of knowledge and militarisation of the response resemble the language of precision in the Middle East bombings and the strategic ambiguity in response to questions on how many victims this “precision” violence has caused over the years.26
When confronted with the rising numbers of confirmed cases in mid-April and their comparison with lower trajectories in mainland Europe, the UK government officials brought forward ambiguous claims questioning the possibility of reliable statistics at this point in the pandemic. Other countries were challenged for their methodology in counting cases, casting doubt on the appropriateness and credibility of any critical studies analysing the effectiveness of the UK’s response. Similarly, government officials speculated that the data showing the disproportionate effect of the pandemic on its population was too incomplete, that the possible causes simply couldn’t be known.
Ignorance, then, is the preferred modus operandi when it comes to counting the dead or explaining their death. Whilst the UK government’s action and inaction in response to the pandemic is repeatedly framed as being governed by data, science, and objectivity, the government has leaned into the apparent limits and ambiguity of this data in order to discredit criticism. Kaajal Modi et al astutely remarks that this position, “at best, hides the political and material realities of systemic inequality and racism from their consequences in COVID-19 mortality disparities. At worst, this strategic ignorance (re)produces a specious bio-essentialist argument, implying that BAME – as a politically neat categorisation that flattens non-white to homogenous – people are inherently predisposed and vulnerable to the virus due to some yet undiscovered (genetic) particularities.”27
By removing the political, we are presented with the unchangeable biological that washes away all political responsibility. In both instances, the objective is to evade accountability, and further to do so by also concealing the political or subjective reality of their own central role in shaping events.
The global spread of the coronavirus imposed a common agenda for all governments: a response to the pandemic. While the approaches and effectiveness vary across the national and regional governments, there seems to be a repetitive pattern of instrumentalising science to justify political decisions.
The UK and German governments’ continued references to the science illustrate efforts to deliberately obscure the political choices and judgments in its response. Together with the forceful appeal to necessary actions and emergency politics in response to the pandemic, citing of scientific objectivity, and the reliance on an infallible techno-science prove a continuation of the de-politicisation of the crisis and the exception. In light of science-led policy, political authorities around the globe can claim that all they did to respond to the (inter)national security threat of the pandemic was necessary.
The revised understanding of the ‘state of exception’ Judith Butler presents opens the interrogation of these practical implementations of the exception as being constructed in discourse and practice. If the state of exception is no longer seen as an inevitable condition, a repoliticisation of the exception can challenge the kind of discourses of which it is a product, one that is underwritten by a particular politics, which has covered its tracks behind science.
In 2001, after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the US, Wiebe Bijker, one of the pioneers of Science and Technology Studies, called upon the academic community to scrutinise in their works the interdependencies between our techno-scientific cultures and their importance for developing democratic politics. Bijker’s statement was driven by concerns over the repercussions a terrorist attack with the most mundane of technologies on the heavily technological culture of the United States would have for democratic capabilities around the world. He reminded his audience that “all aspects of modern culture are infused with science and technology, that science and technology do play key roles in keeping society together, and that they are equally central in all events that threaten its stability”28.
2 See for example the 2008 UK cross-government strategy Health is Global that states “Health security embraces a wide range of complex and daunting issues. These range from the international stage to the individual household, and include the health consequences of poverty, wars and conflicts, climate change, pollution, environmental degradation, natural catastrophes and man-made disasters. All these endanger the collective health of populations across geographical regions and international boundaries.” HM Government. Health is Global: A UK Government Strategy 2008-13. London: Department of Health; 2008. This commitment is further cited in the Public Health England Global Health Strategy 2014-2019.https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/354156/Global_Health_Strategy_final_version_for_publication_12_09_14.pdf (accessed October 21, 2020).
7 Woolgar, S. (2004): “What happened to provocation in science and technology studies?” History and Technology 20(4), pp. 339–349.
8 See for example Evans, S., Leese, M., & Rychnovská, D. (2020): “Science, technology, security: Towards critical collaboration.” https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/0306312720953515 (accessed November 27, 2020); Hoijtink, M. and Leese, M. (2019): Technology and Agency in International Relations. London/New York; Jasanoff, S. (2004): States of Knowledge: The Co-Production of Science and Social Order. New York.
9 Translated from Angela Merkel’s Address to the Nation on 18th May 2020.
16 The Editorial Board (2020): „A Global Covid Vaccine Heist“. The Wall Street Journal, 19.11.2020. www.wsj.com/articles/a-global-covid-vaccine-heist-11605829343 (accessed November 30, 2020). The article argues that, since developing countries do not have the technical capacity to produce or even distribute complex constructions such as Moderna’s mRNA vaccine, the application by countries such as South Africa and India to obtain access to the patented technology under WTO rules is inherently null and void. An argument that has been repeated in other situations such as 2005 in the context of the avian influenza pandemic against Indian generics manufacturers of Tamiflu; siehe Zamiska, Nicholas und Dean, Jason (2005): „Generics Challenge Roche’s Tamiflu Claims.“ The Wall Street Journal, 3.11.2005. https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB113098216326386983 (accessed November 30, 2020).
25 Neal, A. W. (2008): “Goodbye War on Terror? Foucault and Butler on Discourses of Law, War and Exceptionalism.” In: Dillon, M. and Neal, A. W. (eds.): Foucault on Politics, Security and War. 1st ed London, p. 49.
Anna Roessing is a PhD researcher in Politics at the University of Bath. Her current project focuses on the impacts of technology on political ordering in the present and the future. Prior to joining Bath, Anna completed an undergraduate degree in Pharmaceutical Sciences at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, and a postgraduate degree in Conflict, Security, and Development at the University of Sussex. Anna is an expert in the field of biosecurity and worked in a range of public and private institutions in public and global health in Germany and the United Kingdom.