COVID-19 and the Politics of Knowledge: An Issue and Media Source Primer

May 14, 2020


Sif Beyer-Hunt, Jessie Carter, Audrey Goh, Ningning Li, and Sarah M. Natumanya, SPAIS Undergraduate and Postgraduate Students, with Dr. Elspeth Van Veeren, University of Bristol, Dr. Claudia Hillebrand, Cardiff University, and Dr. Brett Edwards, University of Bath



COVID-19, like many issues, has a politics of knowledge. But in this period of deep uncertainty around health and economic instability, there seems to be an amplification and a multiplication of the ways in which secrecy and ignorance feature. As such, a number of students in the School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies along with members of SPIN have compiled a list of these issues as they have been or are playing out. A summary of some of these issues, along with links to relevant news articles, are included below for further information. 




Securitisation and COVID-19: the ‘Invisible enemy’


President Trump has taken to referring to COVID-19 as ‘the invisible enemy’. In so doing, Trump securitises the virus, presenting it as an adversary that the United States must face. Coronavirus is presented as more than just a virus and is seen in militaristic terms as an existential threat to the security of the nation-state. As such, this securitisation and construction of COVID-19 as an invisible enemy has also enabled Trump to declare himself a wartime president, further securitising COVID-19 by likening attempts to halt the spread of a pandemic to military action.



Conspiracy cultures, US politics and COVID-19


A number of conspiracies are circulating in relation to links between 5G mobile phone networks, ‘globalists’, and COVID-19. In particular, US technology pioneer and philanthropist Bill Gates, has been accused of funding COVID-19 stories in order to sell vaccines. Facebook in turn is accused of covering up the conspiracy by blocking accounts. There is no evidence that 5G — or any other kind of radio waves — are harmful to people


In a second example, the conspiracy that COVID-19 spread from a lab release in Wuhan, China started in April when the US State Department released cables that showed embassy officials were worried about the safety of the Wuhan lab. What arose from this were conspiracies that at best, the lab released the virus as an accident; at worst, it was used as a bioweapon. While scientists say that there is no evidence of this, when asked, Trump claimed he had seen evidence of this in the reports. A recent study from PEW showed that a third of Americans believe the laboratory conspiracy theory. The conspiracy theories go both ways, which we saw when Zhao Lijian said in a tweet that it might have been the US army that brought the virus to Wuhan.




The politics of numbers: estimating the ‘true’ number of US deaths


As with war death estimates, there is a politics surrounding the estimates of deaths associated with COVID-19. For example, the US CDC says COVID-19 deaths are likely underreported. 


COVID-19 death estimates also fold in conspiracy theories, suggesting that COVID19 death estimates are overinflated by the mainstream media to paint Trump in a bad light. Top disease expert Anthony Fauci dismisses these claims, and calls it conspiracy theory. 



COVID-19: making visible the often invisibilised inequalities locally and internationally


The global pandemic does have a gender, a race, an ability and a class. According to mounting levels of evidence, it is affecting certain communities and individuals more than others in terms of who is most at risk of contracting and dying of the virus, who the responders are, who is more likely to be economically affected, and who is most likely to have access to the health care, general care and economic support they need. These differences, normally ignored or invisibilised, are place under starker relief in the ‘Age of Covid’.



Gender and knowledge unmaking in the time of COVID 


Gendered disparities in terms of who continues to do the majority of under-acknowledged care work in many societies has raised concerns surrounding the impact of homeschooling due to COVID. Across sectors, but including research institutions, knowledge-making is taking second place to care work with gendered impacts. 


US-China relations and the lack of trust: accusations of not sharing information 


A longstanding distrust many US Americas feel towards China has led US officials to accuse China of selectively presenting critical information, covering up the outbreak. President Trump and his staff had repeatedly claimed that China had covered up the outbreak, leading to insufficient efforts taken by the administration. This is in addition to labelling COVID the ‘Chinese Virus’


Moreover, a released memo on the production of a “Corona Big Book” shows how the GOP plans to use these false claims and on blaming China in the November 2020 elections for its handling of the coronavirus outbreak. This risks increasing the distrust US Americans have of China. 


Additionally, President Trump claimed that the World Health Organisation (WHO), which is largely funded by the US is “China-centric”, claims that the WHO covered up important information in relation to the pandemic and fails to hold China accountable, had given “faulty recommendations” and failed to provide timely information about the coronavirus. The United States cited the mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic as a reason for the drastic action. This is despite evidence to suggest that more than a dozen US Americans working full-time at the WHO had warned the Trump administration about the novel coronavirus since late last year



Ignorance and expert risk assessments


US intelligence agencies warned the President’s advisors and members of Congress in January and February of the threats posed to America by coronavirus but the suggestion is that lawmakers failed to take heed and adopt sufficient mitigatory measures. As The Washington Post claims, when officials discussed the threat of COVID-19 with Trump in January, he was dismissive and uninterested, switching the conversation to vaping. Similarly, reports claim that lawmakers in the legislature were more concerned with the process of impeachment, pushing discussion of coronavirus onto the backburner. At the individual-level, Barrios and Hochberg find that partisanship affects risk perception and Trump voters are less likely to search for information on COVID-19 or engage in social distancing behaviour. Thus, the suggestion is that at both the elite and mass level warnings of the severity of the pandemic were affected by partisan considerations and ignorance.



Surveillance and COVID-19


The pandemic has presented new challenges and opportunities for surveillance, especially given trends involving ‘big data‘. In particular, any attempt at fully opening the US economy again is likely to be accompanied by extensive monitoring efforts of the intensity and geographical spread of COVID-19 and the collection of as much information related to the virus as possible. While the World Health Organisation (WHO) encourages countries to put more diligent monitoring efforts in place, the White House’s announcement to create an extensive national COVID-19 surveillance system has led to serious concerns about privacy and anonymity, the state-citizen relationship and the overall secrecy with respect to details of the plan (e.g., regarding its precise purpose and the role of private stakeholders). Contact tracing is a key pillar of health surveillance and includes the collection and analysis of big data sets. As it is partially based on apps, a close involvement of private companies, especially Google and Apple, in any monitoring system is a given. There are other apps with different health-related purposes, such as those allowing individuals to inform themselves or to receive health advice. Health apps are not covered under the privacy regulation in the US which means data can be shared with third parties. Moreover, contact tracing is in the hands of individual states which adds complexity and opaqueness to the issue. Concerned observers, like Arundhati Roy, have expressed fears that societies “are panic-running into a super-surveillance state” by allowing their governments to use intrusive surveillance techniques to monitor individuals and their behaviour. Others argue that the dichotomy of privacy and surveillance is misleading during the pandemic, and that the real choice is to live with current restrictions for a long time or to simply accept a new surveillance system.



More briefly:


The problem with ‘the view from nowhere’, objectivity and media experts in the COVID-19 Crisis

COVID-19, like many issues covered in the press, is also subject to the problem of journalistic practices which favour the ‘view from nowhere‘ or claims to occupy an objective middle ground. This tends to reinforce existing debates, including making the demonisation and discrediting of the ‘mainstream media’ easier.


Why was the pandemic a ‘surprise’ for most people?: The trouble with ‘seeing’ high risk events in ‘slow time’

COVID-19, a pandemic, like the climate crisis are slow build emergencies. They lack the same spectacular and immediate attention-getting dynamics of a terrorist attack for example. This makes them harder to ‘see’ and register, easier to ignore as psychologically we are more inclined to pay attention to the shine immediate danger. The consequences of this ignorance is nevertheless significant.


Holding governments to account: The battle over information between Congress and the White House on COVID response

The Trump Administration initially blocked key health officials from testifying in Congress.



From Trump’s misunderstandings to the circulation of misinformation about causes and cures

President Trump has made a number of false statements in relation to COVID-19, from vaccine preparation times to ‘cures’, including one especially dangerous one involving bleach.


In a wider context, there are reports of state-sponsored disinformation campaigns related to COVID.



Facebook – to censor or not to censor

Facebook (and Twitter) has taken steps to remove misinformation and conspiracy theory posts related to COVID-19, welcome in some quarters, controversial in others. 



Implications for intelligence agencies

COVID-19 and the future of intelligence work and spying


Intelligence-sharing and online platforms

Online video-conferencing opens up new opportunities but it may also increase risks of security breaches in relation to sensitive and secret information; for governments and for individuals.



COVID-19, whistleblowers and whistleblower protections

A number of cases have emerged internationally to suggest that whistleblower protections are under threat.  In the US, a key whistleblower has emerged with a complaint surrounding the federal government’s handling of the information surrounding malarial-drug treatments and COVID-19.




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