Even a cursory look at the impact of COVID-19 reveals the core potential role of IR in understanding the international response to this outbreak. Tom Frieden has requoted the familiar saying, ‘diseases don’t care about governments, ideologies or borders. Viruses might not care about politics, but the political system in which they operate will have a direct impact on the success of a virus in multiplying and spreading through a community. National governments, interstate relations, the political economy of states, the challenge to civil liberties, different socio-economic conditions, geopolitical differences in response: all these factors directly affect disease transmission and the success of any intervention measures. Repetition in politics drives epidemics. Failing to engage with politics and international relations means not using the arsenal of potential knowledge available to public health policymakers and practitioners.
So, what can IR scholars offer those making decisions for the current COVID-19 outbreak? There must be an independent review of states’ responses during COVID-19. Confronted with the same pathogen, states’ different responses are evident: some heeded WHO advice, others charted their own courses. It is important to understand why states make these decisions before it is criticized. Different governance approaches are likely to lead to different outcomes, as already being witnessed. Domestic politics will have an impact on how this outbreak is governed, and this needs to be fully understood for effective pandemic management.
As suggestion, WHO needs to pay serious analytical attention to the competing diplomatic priorities of states. The knowledge entry points we have identified in this article should therefore, become core business for the WHO and other technical agencies that are seeking to advance optimal diplomatic conditions for coordinated responses to the increased technical challenges to come. In this time of COVID-19, where political decisions are having direct impacts on who lives and who dies, meaningful engagement between public health and IR is vital.