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Thursday, 25 March 2021 14:30
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The fight against COVID-19: Lessons from the political science perspectives

(LLCT) - The COVID-19 pandemic has not only caused catastrophe to human life but also tumbled social life on a global scale. In the fight of all countries against the COVID-19 pandemic, which took place from the beginning of 2020 until now, many problems have emerged in all fields of national and international life. From the perspective of political science, there are lessons about the political responsibility of countries’ leaders on constructing a global regime, multilateralism and cooperation among nations, and building national visibility and status on the international arena. These lessons are drawn from practice and capable of providing arguments for policy-makers to refer to.

Keywords: COVID-19 pandemic, political responsibility, international regime.

The outbreak of COVID-19 pandemic started in December 2019 and has spread to over 200 countries and regions, infecting tens of millions of people and killing hundreds of thousands of people, causing tremendous loss for the global economy as well as millions of jobs.

The COVID-19 pandemic has totally changed the global life. It not only warns the world about its dangers but also poses problems for the life of individuals and communities, individual nation and international community in terms of economy, society, politics, and international political relations.

From the viewpoint of political science, the following lessons have been summarized from the ongoing fight against the COVID-19 pandemic:

1. About the political responsibility of states’ leaders

There is an alarming fact that most countries are very passive and confused since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, resulting in huge losses, which challenged the political responsibility of states’ leaders. Suzanne Scholte, President of the Defense Forum Foundation, stated that there was no sign of global “defense” toward this epidemic. With a similar sense, European lawmaker Arnaud Danjean believed that “we were not armed” for combating the COVID-19 pandemic”(1). At the press conference on July 10, 2020, the General Director of the World Health Organization (WHO) concluded that “countries were not prepared to respond to the disease”(2).

The cause of the passive, “chaotic” situation in dealing with the pandemic is thought to be due to: the delayed border closure with the countries where COVID-19 was spreading; the subjective attitude of leaders towards the pandemic(3); the delay in fighting the pandemic when governments considering between economic development and people’s health; lack of preparation in case of the pandemic; “ignorance” of early warning signals; refusing to lockdown and following the opinion of “herd immunity”. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has called the COVID-19 a “hoax” of the media and said that the lockdown will destroy employment(4). Other reasons include the serious shortage of masks and medical equipment on a global scale.

Successes and failures in fighting the pandemic of some countries indicate that: a) The effectiveness in dealing with the pandemic does not depend on the nature of political regimes. There are democratic regimes deal well with it while other democratic regimes do not; b) The effectiveness in dealing with the pandemic does not rely on the economic potential and the public health system of the country (for example, even developed nations with strong public health system like Italy, the UK, the US show confused and delayed responses to the pandemic); c) The effectiveness in dealing with the pandemic depends primarily on the political responsibility of the national leader and the whole political system. According to Professor Daniel Ziblatt from Harvard University, the ineffective anti-epidemic action in the United States is due to the weak and segmented political system of the US. According to Francis Fukuyama (Senior Fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, Stanford University): A country with a well-functioning state, a government trusted and listen to by the people, a nation with competent leaders will deal with the pandemic effectively, limiting the damage losses(5).

The COVID-19 pandemic is certainly a stern warning for the political responsibility of national leaders and the political systems. After all, the most important function of the political system and the leadership is to protect the lives and livelihood of the people, and to protect them from avoidable deaths.

Therefore, the most important lesson in the fight against the pandemic is that countries’ leaders must consistently and clearly define the political responsibility for protecting people’s health, to prioritize their health and safety as the foundation to define the anti-pandemic spirit with high political determination.

2. On building global regimes to deal with epidemics

As the COVID-19 pandemic spread globally, countries expect the United Nations and other key international organizations to play a critical role in response to the pandemic. However, the world has experienced disappointment because global governance has not produced the expected results, and even almost a year after the pandemic outbreak, the world is still lack of global leadership to respond to it.

The WHO is the United Nations agency responsible for the care and handling of international public health issues, such as providing accurate health information; solving urgent problems of public health and human epidemics. However, the WHO is facing a series of criticisms. On May 19, 2020, at the online meeting of the World Health Assembly (WHA), WHO member countries unanimously passed a resolution calling for an independent investigation of WHO’s measures in coping with the COVID-19(6).

Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th President of the United States, once said that the combination of power and great purpose is to show “our usefulness to humanity”(7). In this case, although WHO is a powerful institution of the world’s public health system, the organization has not done well in its task of protecting the health of the community. The actions of WHO in the early stages of the pandemic generated negative public opinion about it. Under such circumstances, WHO is no longer credible enough to show its political role to gather, manage, and lead the global fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.

As COVID-19 is a global pandemic, its posed challenges require a global approach and governance mechanism. To deal with the pandemic, there must be goodwill cooperation on a global scale. However, the lack of global leadership in the fight against COVID-19 pandemic has been exacerbating its consequences.

Reality raises an important lesson that the world needs to build an international institution to protect public health, to fight against epidemics, to be able to warn, prevent and respond to pandemics at the most effective level. Besides, it is imperative to develop a mechanism to ensure the operation of that institution not be bound and governed by any one country or person.

3. About multilateralism and cooperation among countries

The COVID-19 pandemic has questioned the sustainability of multilateralism when in fact almost all countries of the world do not cooperate in the fight against the epidemic, even among neighboring countries. For example, in early March 2020, Italy urged other EU members to support emergency medical supplies, but none of them responded to its appeal. There is a situation of selfishness in which each nation is trying to prevent the export of medical equipment to other member countries. And not only the EU but other multilateral organizations such as the United Nations, World Trade Organization, and military alliances such as NATO, when a pandemic occurs, their roles faint and become almost completely powerless(8). Because of that, the value and usefulness of the EU and other organizations, multilateralism are challenged in the face of urgent global dangers.

By and large, no powers in the UN Security Council has shown meaningful leadership measures to prevent the pandemic. While people are concerned about their health affected by the COVID-19, France, and the UK are still arguing about quarantine regulations, China is threatening to impose sanctions on Australia because Australia proposes to conduct an investigation into the origin of the virus, the US fell into chaos and divisions in response to the epidemic. In such circumstances, the author of the article “Has COVID-19 killed globalization?” expressed disappointment with multilateralism as “Let’s say goodbye to the greatest era of globalization and start to worry about what would happen in the future”(9).

On the other hand, when a pandemic broke out, multilateralism revealed its “deadly” limitations by showing that dependence on a single supply will disrupt the entire supply chain in the event of a national emergency. According to Alexander L.Vuving from Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies (APCSS, USA), some countries, especially the US, UK, France, Japan, India and Australia, have acknowledged their “deadly dependence” on Chinese market and determined to change it. Besides, there is a phenomenon of some countries taking advantage of the disease to gain benefits from others despite the common interests as the agreement of multilateralism.

Witnessing the lack of sincere cooperation among countries in responding to the pandemic, the General Director of the WHO stated in a press conference on July 10, 2020, that the COVID-19 epidemic raging fiercely is due to the lack of global solidarity(10).

In terms of international political relations, the COVID-19 pandemic has reduced trust among countries. It can be seen clearly through the US, UK, France, and other countries such as Japan, Canada, and Australia that have taken steps to reshape their relations with China. The phenomenon happens because countries have awareness of the economic-political consequences and the shortage of supply due to over-reliance on China’s supply chain: “The dependence is so great that when China ‘sneezes’ due to COVID-19, the world becomes ‘breathless’. To be more specific, China supplies up to 90% of raw materials to produce antibiotics countries around the world”(11). Another issue that also leads to distrust among countries is the truth about the origin and responsibility for the spread of corona virus around the world. Therefore, the world is aspiring to seek for the truth, with a truly clear political sense that the unknowns about COVID-19 must be found to avoid repeating it in the future.

Although, there are comments that highly appreciate ASEAN’s intra-regional cooperation in controlling the disease, as well as the cooperation between ASEAN and a number of other countries in response to the epidemic over the past time. However, in general, the traditional multilateralism - multilateral cooperation, international and regional multilateral organizations have not been effective in creating an effective governance mechanism to deal with the epidemic, with global disaster; At the same time, it is the incapability to create a mechanism to ensure equality of common interests for the stakeholders participating in globalization.

Hence, policy-makers and international administrators need to develop different types of integration and association that not undermine the conditions for an effective governance mechanism in an international emergency situation; countries themselves in an integrated relationship should avoid being exploited, manipulated, and dependent on the supply chain of a country or region; maintain integration and association while ensure the ability and conditions to exist in an emergency situation in case of being isolated for a long time; countries participating in globalization need to have autonomy in essential health sectors, ensuring the efficiency of the national public health system. There is even an opinion that the fight against COVID-19 makes us consider health as a strategic area, which needs to be given special importance as the defense sector.

The lesson of cooperation among countries in the event of an emergency is that in addition to maintaining independence, autonomy, and respect, equality between countries, political responsibility for protecting people’s health, it is critical to be alert and vigilant in international integration and association to avoid falling into the “trap” of selfish partners with unwell intention.

4. On building national image and position on international arena

The COVID-19 pandemic is a test for the core values, image, and status of countries and regions, contributing to affirming the true political values of countries, but at the same time, it is also exposed false values and political slogans of some national leaders.

The image and position of a country in the international arena are first and foremost reflected in national prestige in terms of domestic politics and foreign politics. If a national leader represents values that other countries and people also want to pursue, the image and position of that country in global politics will be enhanced and vice versa. It is decisive for countries with global leadership ambitions to possess national power with great international influence on two aspects of hard power and soft power. According to Joseph S. Nye, Jr, an American scholar with great influence in global politics, “Hard power is coercive and rewarding, while soft power is compelling and attractive”(12). In which, soft power plays a particularly important role in making international influence. The promotion of soft power depends on whether the country’s political culture and political norms suit people’s minds (at home and abroad).

The recent anti-pandemic fight has revealed a number of “non-political culture” behaviors that are harmful to the promotion of soft power. Instead of cooperating to cope with the epidemic and protect people’s lives, there are nations that act selfishly, like trying to hide the truth about the epidemic; take advantage of the pandemic to sell poor quality medical equipment and devices, or even take advantage of the epidemic to commit illegal acts, threaten or oppress other countries.

In fact, the behaviors of the “non-political culture” of some countries during the pandemic have seriously reduced the political prestige of that country in the international arena. And the use of the COVID-19 pandemic as a political tool to promote national status, or to build political prestige for individual national leaders, has backfired or even harmed the image and status of that country.

When the pandemic broke out, countries around the world expected the United States as a superpower nation to be the coordinating global center to respond to. However, fact shows that the United States under the leadership of President Donald Trump is not ready for that role and is still struggling with the pandemic. In the context of missing the role of global coordination to respond to the pandemic, China, as the second-largest economy in the world controlled the pandemic, is also expected to make the political determination and practical action that can replace America as the world leader. Unfortunately, through the war related to COVID-19 taking place between the US, Australia, Europe and some other countries with China, China’s global image in the international arena has also been seriously damaged.

To build a national position in the fight against the pandemic “a nation can exercise global power by joining and acting with other nations”(13). Joint participation and action through the use of national soft power, with the goal of human life combined with a strategy of transparency and cooperation, generosity, and political responsibility towards the world is extremely important in creating a good image and enhancing the country’s influence in its relations with other nations.

Vietnam can be considered as an example in well dealing with COVID-19 - a country, despite limited resources and the public health care system, the awareness of protecting the health of the people as the main focus has created the trust, consensus, and cooperation among the entire population to implement the motto of “fighting the epidemic like fighting against the enemy” and has succeeded. Vietnam also sincerely supports other countries in the fight against the pandemic by donating masks and medical supplies (such as the US, Russia, Spain, Italy, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom). On the other hand, in the role of ASEAN Chairman in 2020, Vietnam has proactively coordinated with ASEAN countries in the fight against COVID-19.

Australian Ambassador Madame Robyn Mudie appreciated Vietnam as an admirable model in dealing with the epidemic(14). Along with the successes in other fields, Vietnam’s image as well as political and diplomatic influence in the region and the world have been enhanced. Ms. Marie C. Damour, US Consulate General in Ho Chi Minh City affirmed that Vietnam was ready to integrate into the global system.

The lesson on building national image and position in the international arena during the fight against pandemics is the necessity of constructing a state apparatus for the people, considering the protection of people’s lives as the main goal; a government with capable leaders in management and governance to gain people’s trust and social consensus; a government that acts drastically and effectively; and a strong public health system.

In conclusion, the war against COVID-19 has shown lessons about the political responsibility of national leaders, constructing global regimes, multilateralism and cooperation among countries, building national image and status. These are lessons drawn from practice under political perspective, in the hope of having a practical reference to the ongoing fight against the pandemic. These lessons become even more meaningful for Vietnam as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council and the ASEAN Chairman in 2020.



(1) Phuong Vu: Disregarding domestic production, France is paying the high price for COVID-19, https://vnexpress.net/phap-tra-gia-truoc-covid-19-vi-coi-thuong-san-xuat-trong-nuoc-4100951.html.

(2), (10) WHO General Director cried at the press conference and called for solidarity against COVID-19, https://tuoitre.vn/tong-giam-doc-who-khoc-tai-hop-bao-keu-goi-doan-ket-chong-covid-19-20200710141158716.html.

(3) Phuc Long: Why did South Korea lose to the Corona virus? https://tuoitre.vn/tai-sao-han-quoc-vo-tran-voi-virus-corona-2020022812382657.html.

(4) Ngoc Anh: President of Brazil: We will pay a high price because of lockdown, https://vnexpress.net/tong-thong-brazil-se-tra-gia-dat-vi-phong-toa-4093487.html).

(5) Francis Fukuyama: Pandemic and Political Order, http://nghiencuuquocte.org/2020/06/15/dai-dich-va-trat-tu-chinh-tri.

(6) Anh Ngoc: Members agreed to investigate, https://vnexpress.net/cac-nuoc-nhat-tri-dieu-tra-who-4102053.html.

(7) Thanh Danh: The Victory Paradox - Post-Cold War America, Electronic Journal of Knowledge (Vietnam Publishing Association), https://zingnews.vn/nghich-ly-ke-chien-thang-nuoc-my-hau-chien-tranh-lanh-post1071194.html.

(8) Hoang Anh Tuan: The World after COVID-19 - Part 4, https://vietnamnet.vn/vn/tuanvietnam/the-gioi-hau-covid-19-phan-4-635787.html.

(9) Has covid-19 killed globalization? Translated by Phan Nguyen, http://nghiencuuquocte.org/2020/05/16/co-phai-covid-19-da-giet-chet-toan-cau-hoa.

(11) Hoang Anh Tuan: The World after COVID-19 - Part 3, https://vietnamnet.vn/vn/tuanvietnam/tieudiem/the-gioi-hau-covid-19-phan-3-635444.html.

(12), (13) Joseph S. Nye, JR: The Future of Power, Labor Publishing House, Hanoi, 2018, p.16, 50.

(14) Nhat Linh: The Government of Vietnam has done “admirable” things to protect the citizens from COVID-19,http://tuoitre.vn/chinh-phu-viet-nam-lam-nhung-dieu-dang-kham-phuc-de-bao-ve-cong-dan-truoc-covid-19-20200710103029145.html.

Assoc. Prof., Dr. Dinh Xuan Ly

University of Social Sciences and Humanities,

Vietnam National University, Hanoi

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