Changing the narrative: lessons for a world that is no longer ‘at war’ with COVID-19

As we move away from the initial crisis response towards some form of ‘steady state’, it is important to understand how those in power choose to re-frame the pandemic, and how this could – if unchallenged – enable them to retain controls not possessed prior to the outbreak

Alex Tasker and Joshua Moon

In the early days of the pandemic, our language, politics and thinking were all permeated by ideas of security and exceptionalism. Schools faced ‘unprecedented times’, the NHS was ‘struggling like never before’, and public health responses were the ‘worst ever’.

As social science researchers, we have examined how the pandemic has shaped relationships between politics, society and biology. During COVID-19, we have seen how political rhetoric can play a major role in driving our collective behaviour. Politicians have skilfully used narratives as powerful tools to shift the public’s views on the existence of threats, and thus shape people’s responses.

But now, as we move away from a COVID-19 ‘war footing’, how should these narratives change? And how will such a reframing affect people’s lives, as we consider new ways of living with, not against, COVID-19?

Security narratives

During the pandemic, security narratives were employed by those in power to support a wide range of agendas. When the public believes the country is ‘at war with’ COVID-19, we often allow greater latitude to deviate from accepted norms; for example, we may recalibrate our resistance to the removal of liberties, or may act more selflessly than in ‘peacetime’.

However, these unspoken agreements about how far, and for how long, we allow the pandemic to be an ‘exceptional time’ are complex and contested. As we move away from the initial COVID crisis response, we should seek to understand how those in power choose to frame the pandemic, and how these framings may enable them to establish and retain controls they did not possess prior to the outbreak.

In 2014, Hanrieder & Kreuder-Sonnen put forward the idea of an ‘emergency trap’. The basis of the trap was that in extraordinary times, states and institutions will use political and legal tools to link security and exceptionalism – allowing existing power-holders to trigger emergency protocols and legitimise rapid mobilisations of resources in the name of ‘obstacle reduction’. This often takes the form of ‘crisis decision-making’, where speed of implementation, limited discussion, and homogeneous inputs are prioritised.

In their analyses, these authors noted how the emergency trap was able to reinforce and normalise the future use of security, in order to retain the ability to return to ‘exceptional circumstances’ where and when needed. Indeed, some measures became so normalised that they became ‘peacetime’ measures in their own right.

Extending political control

Seven years later, we can see these same processes occurring during the pandemic. Researchers have identified examples of those in power using COVID-19 to consolidate and extend political control. In some cases, this has resulted in vigorous public debate – for example, about mandating face coverings or the impact of vaccine passports on civil liberties.

Languages of security permeate these conversations, which further policy aims and reinforce particular perspectives. For example, on 14 March 2020, the WHO Director-General invoked ideas of global health security to portray COVID-19 as a ‘common threat‘; four days later, the then-President of the United States, Donald Trump, employed a health security framing to reaffirm the danger of the ‘Chinese virus‘, calling for immediate bans on country-specific travel. In their statements, both men framed the pandemic in the language of threat, but to different targets and intent.

Looking a little closer at the use of a discourse of securitisation as a tool to further international policy, we start to find less visible, more insidious examples. Earlier this month, Barnes and Makinda published work showing how governments have used COVID-19 policies to increase detentions, pushbacks and deterrence of forced migrants that has increased the vulnerability of asylum seekers and refugees. The authors specifically note how many of these policies ‘included a fine-tuning of some measures that had been hatched before the emergence of COVID-19’. Unlike face coverings or vaccine passports, there has been little debate on these policies; it is also not hard to imagine how the use of ‘exceptional times’ may appeal to policymakers for maintaining these tools of control.

Meanwhile, in richer, more highly vaccinated countries, we are seeing a shift in the narrative to ‘new normals’ and ‘steady states’ – terms that are often hard to imagine, and harder still to define.

Centralisation of power

One way of considering possible pathways out of exceptional times is to think about trying to maintain parts of our lives in states that are acceptable to most. Politicians may be asking themselves where the balance lays between economic stability and social consent; which policy levers must be pulled to smooth out waves and spikes to allow us to settle into a position where businesses can predict Christmas demands, and where families can book holidays with confidence.

Several of the most obvious physical signs of the pandemic have started to be dismantled. Many people have forgotten what deserted London tubes were like, and aeroplanes have started to return to our skies. Despite these visible signs of normalisation, much of the decision-making power which moved into Whitehall to enable ‘decisive action’ remains highly centralised.

For the UK, this reflects wider pre-pandemic trends away from devolution and local engagement. Echoing observations of forced migration detailed above, Joseph Ward of LSE has tracked consistent trajectories of UK power centralisation from 2016 onwards, leading him to suggest that ‘the centralisation of power and policy-making influence looks set to be a prominent feature of British politics for the foreseeable future’. This trend sits in contrast with analyses suggesting local empowerment is central to a successful pandemic response and recovery.

Such debates offer perspectives for thinking about what a steady state may mean for us all. By focusing on the location and application of power, we can see our national next steps not as a matter of narrative ‘de-exceptionalisation’, but instead as part of an ongoing decentralisation of power which may serve to enhance accountability, innovation and inclusion.

Complex dialogues

The immediate social impacts of the pandemic will take longer to uncover and heal. The future of education, employment and the economy remain uncertain. The long process of public inquiry has yet to start fully, and the move towards a transitional steady state requires complex dialogues between what we have lost, what we have created for COVID-19, and what we may wish to build in the future.

While visible and felt features of COVID-19 remain, the landscape of power and politics continues to be hidden from public view. We are no longer ‘at war with’ the pandemic, but this next period of our lives certainly does not represent being ‘at peace’ with COVID-19. As we move into this new, temporary political landscape, we would urge policymakers and the public to carefully consider where power lays within old and new systems. The next phase of our COVID journey presents huge opportunities to do things differently, to reconsider what we value most, and what we need to change.

History teaches that pre-pandemic processes may have significant political momentum, and we must be careful that COVID exceptionalism does not serve to uncritically and unthinkingly ‘rubber stamp’ the continuation of prior political trajectories. We would urge the creative and innovative groups who have done things differently during the pandemic to share their experiences; to reflect on what worked, for whom and why.

We must collectively consider how we wish to build on these lessons in a future world that is not ‘at war’ with COVID-19. Many of the most creative solutions to serious problems have been found at the micro-level, from social support in hospital wards to community food schemes. We must not allow the centralisation of emergency powers to drown out these success stories in the continued name of security.

But this can be hard to do. Processes of de-securitisation are fraught with difficulty, particularly while case reports and COVID death statistics remain in the headlines. It will take political bravery to relinquish such a firm grip when COVID-19 continues to force security into the centre of debate. We must be cautious that we do not allow these types of message to control our thinking uncritically, lest we give up more than we have gained.

Dr Alex Tasker is a lecturer in Human Ecology at UCL Anthropology, and an ESRC Policy Fellow in International Relations.

Dr Joshua R Moon is Research Fellow in Global Health, Science Policy and Evaluation at the Science Policy Research Unit, University of Sussex Business School, and theme lead for the OCTS project.