Beyond War Talk: Laying Bare the Structural Violence of the Pandemic

Image by Gordon Johnson

Dr. Eliana Cusato, Lecturer in Law, University of Essex

There has been much discussion about the importance of frames on our understanding of the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on the existing legal, political and economic order. A number of interventions have already called attention to the possibilities and perils that come with mobilising different legal frameworks and institutions to respond to the pandemic, notably human rights, public health, migration, and investment protection regimes. In this piece I will focus on the temptation to frame COVID-19 as an international peace and security issue. While I share the concerns expressed by other commentators about the ‘securitisation’ of the pandemic (see herehere and here), my aim is to contribute to this discussion from a slightly different angle. Using the concept of structural violence, I intend to shed light on the socio-economic-ecologic violence that pre-exist and persist beyond the ‘crisis’ and that the ‘war’ narrative conceals.

In ‘Why it matters how we frame the environment’, cognitive linguist and philosopher George Lakoff explains what ‘framing’ is and its importance for how we think about global problems, in the specific case ecological concerns. All our knowledge involves unconscious structures called ‘frames’, while every word is defined through the frames it activates. Lakoff claims that ‘[i]n order to communicate a complex fact or truth, one must choose one’s word carefully to activate the right frames so that the truth can be understood’. In other words, one has to provide a narrative that builds up an appropriate system frame in the audience’s mind.

To give an example, Lakoff refers to a quote from a 2003 language advisory to the Bush administration:

It’s time for us to start talking about ‘‘climate change’’ instead of global warming […] ‘‘Climate change’’ is less frightening than ‘‘global warming’’ […] Stringent environmental regulations hit the most vulnerable among us – the elderly, the poor and those on fixed incomes the hardest […]. Job losses […] greater costs […] American corporations and industry can meet any challenge, we produce the majority of the world’s food, […] yet we produce a fraction of the world’s pollution.

As put by Lakoff, the idea behind the memo was that ‘climate’ had a nicer meaning, while ‘change’ left out any human cause of the change. Obviously, we know that this is scientifically untrue. The point is that the choice of words matters as it builds frames that inform our understanding of a problem and, consequently, the way we decide to deal with it. In sum, Lakoff tells us that, while we cannot avoid framing, the question of ‘whose frames are being activated – and hence strengthened – in the brains of the public’ is a crucial one.

The securitisation of COVID-19

As put by Arundhati Roy, ‘the mandarin who are managing this pandemic are fond of speaking of war. They don’t even use war as a metaphor, they use it literally’. Indeed, Donald Trump declared himself a ‘wartime president’ and proclaimed ‘We will win this war‘; Boris Johnson announced that ‘We must act like any wartime government‘; and Emmanuel Macron said ‘We are in a war’ in which ‘nothing should divert us’ from fighting an ‘invisible enemy’.

International organisations and policy makers have followed up and marked COVID-19 as a security issue. The UN Secretary General has called the coronavirus pandemic the ‘fight of a generation’ and a significant threat to the maintenance of international peace and security. Antonio Guterres warned the UN Security Council (UNSC) that the pandemic had the potential to increase social unrest and violence, which would greatly undermine the world’s ability to fight the disease. He said that UNSC involvement would be ‘critical to mitigate the peace and security implications’ and ‘a signal of unity and resolve from the council would count for a lot at this anxious time’.

For some commentators, framing COVID-19 as a ‘threat to the peace’, to use the language of Article 39 of the UN Charter, seems a natural development. The precedent invoked is UNSC response to the Ebola crisis in West Africa, which Resolution 2177 (2014) characterised as a ‘threat to international peace and security’. As such, they conclude that there is an arguable case for the Security Council to act also in response to COVID-19.

Other legal scholars have forcefully argued that the militarised language is neither accurate nor helpful for the situation we are facing. Christine Schwobel-Patel observes that ‘[a]lthough the enemy is invisible, war talk nevertheless creates the spectre of an enemy. And, because war is associated with the ‘other’, war talk has the tendency to create and build on ethno-nationalist sentiment’. For Ntina Tzouvala the ‘war’ narrative has the potential of expanding executive power, increasing tensions between states and enable measures that are counter-productive and socially destructive. She also reminds us that the securitisation of COVID-19 is not exceptional but in line with recent developments in international law.

Indeed, in the last couple of decades the UNSC has been expanding its ‘primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security’ (ex Article 24 of UN Charter), by affirming its jurisdiction over a variety of issues, such as human rights violations, humanitarian disasters, organised crime, and infectious diseases. A recent example is climate change, which has been qualified in a 2009 UN Report as a ‘threat multiplier’ that may exacerbate threats caused by poverty, weak institutions, mismanagement of natural resources, and ethnic clashes. In 2007 and 2011 the UNSC hosted a thematic debates on the implications of climate change for international security, thereby asserting a link between anthropogenic climate change and increased rate of violence.

A more neglected question raised by the ‘securitisation’ of the pandemic concerns the nature of the threat posed and to whom. Like in the case of climate change and other global issues, much has to do with the concepts we use. To be clear, I agree that by securitising COVID-19 governments may use it as means to legitimise emergency powers, increased surveillance and monitoring, and even militarised responses. But can we say that the language of violence is entirely inaccurate to describe the present situation? Hardly so. Yet, rather than looking at the violence allegedly ‘caused’ by COVID-19, as in the securitisation narrative, I argue that we should focus on the structural violence of the pandemic.

Understanding the pandemic via structural violence

Writing in 1969, Johan Galtung called attention to pervasive forms of violence that are ‘built into the structure’ and that manifest themselves as inequality of power, resources and life chances. In a passage which seems to speak to the current situation, he claims that ‘if a person died from tuberculosis in the eighteen century, it would be hard to conceive this as violence since it might have been quite unavoidable, but if he dies from it today, despite all the medical resources in the world, then violence is present according to our definition’. Anthropologist and medical doctoral Paul Farmer built upon Galtung’s concept of structural violence to study the tuberculosis and HIV epidemics that killed millions of people in Haiti. He found that historical political economic domination and inequalities created a society that is ravaged by these diseases, which could be avoided or at least made less severe.

While the war metaphor and the language of ‘crisis’ distracts us from the ‘politics of everyday life’, to use Hilary Charlesworth’s words, by attending to the structural violence of the pandemic we are able to see forms of violence that pre-exist and persist far beyond the emergency. As Lutz Oette put it, COVID-19 sheds light on ‘systemic institutional shortcomings and the realities of precarious lives’: weak public health systems, overcrowded prisons and immigration detention facilities are breeding grounds for infections. The securitisation of the pandemic disguises these structural issues that result in the pandemic being effectively out of control in many countries with the most vulnerable and disenfranchised being hit the worst.

As pointed out by international economic law scholars, COVID-19 is revealing how the globalised economy based on profit accumulation and consumerism, sustained by legal norms and institutions, is deepening existing inequalities between the Global North and Global South, as well as within countries in the North. In South East Asia, the virus is exposing the weak social protection for urban poor, especially migrant workers, while for many African people working in the informal sector social distancing is a privilege they cannot afford.

Do we have a legal vocabulary to account for this violence? One of the merits of Galtung’s concept of structural violence is that it opens up the category beyond visible, direct and immediate infliction of harm to include social evils. If we think about COVID-19 in these terms, one important insight for international lawyers is that this violence (contrary to ‘personal’ violence) does not presuppose an intentional agent as perpetrator. This raises a number of challenges for a legal system built around the notions of agency, attribution, control, and causation.

The interrelation of economy and ecology

COVID-19 is an animal-borne disease which, according to the most diffused (yet controversial) reconstruction, was transmitted to a human by an animal kept in a wet market of Wuhan. The narrative framing the virus as the ‘enemy’ or a threat to international peace and security is based upon an artificial separation between humans and nature. On the contrary, the rise in zoonotic diseases (like COVID-19) shows the profound interconnection between human wellbeing and the way we treat other living beings and entire ecosystems. Moreover, by defining the virus as something ‘external’ to our society, we turn a blind eye to the centrality of nature in the existing economic system. As observed by Ntina Tzouvala, the virus is not the product of Chinese under-development, but of the country’s rapid development and incorporation into a globalised economy. The disruption of forests caused by rapid urbanisation and intensive animal farming have brought people in closer contact with wildlife.

Rather than pointing the finger at wet markets, we should look at how unsustainable development practices, often facilitated by international legal norms conceptualising nature as property or resource to be exploited, resulted in increased habitat and biodiversity loss. This is particularly important from a prevention perspective, as ecologists tell us that shrinking natural habitats and changing behaviour may create the conditions for new disease like COVID-19 to arise in future.

In conclusion, I suggest going back to Lakoff’s article. His words are a sad reminder of the difficulty of changing dominant frames, but also of the importance of developing new ones:

The environment frame sees the environment as separate from and around us. Yet, we are not separate from Nature. We are an inseparable part of Nature. Yet, we separate self from other and conceptualise Nature as other. This separation is so deep in our conceptual system that we cannot simply wipe it from out brain. It is a terribly false frame that will not go away.


The economic and ecological meltdown have the same cause, namely, unregulated free market with the idea that greed is good and that the natural world is a resource for short-term private enrichment. The result has been deadly: toxic assets and toxic atmosphere. [….] Global causes are systemic, not local. Global risk is systemic, not local. The localisation of causation and risk is what has brought about our twin disasters. We have to think in global, systemic terms, and we don’t do so naturally. Here hypocognition is tragic. We lack the frames we need.

This piece was first published on the Blog of the European Journal of International Law and is reproduced here with permission and thanks.

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