Covid-19: Politics Of Knowledge, Public Health And The World Order
Geography and You|Issue 146, 2020
In the present era of a knowledge society, the world order will be shaped more than ever before by the politics of knowledge. In the post-CoVId world, public health knowledge is likely to be a significant contributor. This article briefly discusses the various contemporary public health approaches evident within the discipline: global health, community medicine and critical public health. Then it goes on to analyse country level policy approaches to the COVID-19 pandemic, delineating a tentative four-category typology, based on available information. Finally, it sets out the possible outcome indicators that should be used to assess the national responses.
Ritu Priya Mehrotra

In the 1940s, the world order, generated in the wake of two world wars and the breaking up of the British empire (with a large number of newly independent countries), was a bipolar world (liberal capitalist democratic on one side and socialist/ communist on the other). It lasted for about 50 years and then a relatively unipolar one reigned for about 20 years. The last decade has seen the rise of the ‘emerging economies’ across continents—with China and India, South Africa, Brazil and Russia—as those challenging the Euro-American liberal capitalist hegemony in the global order.

The sources of being a leading nation in the world order are, however, not only economic size and stability, but also the governance of finance and trade, technological innovation, the shaping of knowledge generation, a moral authority as a caring-cooperative society and a responsible contributor to the world and humanity at large.

Since the 1940s, the structure of global decision making lay with the United Nations (UN) agencies, the Bretton Woods institutions (the World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF) and related institutions) and the later additions such as the World Trade Organisation (WTO), the Convention on Biological Diversity and its Conference of Parties and so on. ‘Philanthropic’ foundations that have funded knowledge generation have also influenced agenda setting and policy responses across the globe. While the earlier generation of philanthropic funding (Rockefeller Foundation, Ford Foundation) had worked through funding of research and discourse generation through hosting conferences, the present big philanthro-capitalist on the scene is the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) that has entrenched itself as direct participant in the UN bodies and in policymaking of governments in various countries.

The top three areas on the UN’s global developmental agenda envelope economic viability, social justice and environmental integrity—the three pillars expressed in the sustainable development goals (SDGs) (Serageldin 2019). While economic growth, climate change and global health are also important concerns for the world leaders, as expressed by the World Economic Forum, its solutions do not often match with the pillars of the SDGs. Information technologies and artificial intelligence solutions, new ‘green technologies’ supplied by corporations are being promoted on the one hand, while social welfare systems developed since the mid-20th century are being whittled away, international immigration of labour is being curtailed, labour welfare and rights laws are being diluted and rights over natural resources of the traditional rightsholding communities are being withdrawn.

This double-faced governance of development and public policy (SDG or other articulation of public good vs the real-life business of development policy) has emerged and gained legitimacy through what has been called a ‘post-truth politics’. Delegitimisation of liberal democracy that had spread as an ideology worldwide in the 20th century, has led to a rightward shift in political leanings. Leaders of the most populous countries—USA, China, India, Russia, Brazil—create narratives of their convenience by twisting facts in ways that facilitate their continuing in power and feeding the profits of crony-capitalists through changes in public policy. On the other side are countries that have attempted to keep the liberal democratic spirit alive, ensuring material needs of all, respecting the dignity of individuals and the privacy of their lives. The Nordic countries, New Zealand and Australia, have in recent years demonstrated such governance approaches.

However, none of the countries are able to address the challenges the world is facing today in any effective manner—environmental degradation and climate change, the threat of pandemics and growing social an inequalities and violence. There are contestations in all countries, but they too are beset by the same limitations that afflict the dominant mainstream: a fixation with the 20th century development models and political ideologies while the technological, social consciousness and political power dynamics have changed drastically. A consciousness about democracy, equity and dignity has pervaded the marginalised sections worldwide while, paradoxically, creating an increased distrust of institutions that generated this possibility. Thereby it presented an opportunity for rightist political formations to increase their hold on the popular mind. Technologies of information and communication and artificial intelligence have opened up new scales of authoritarian encroachments on privacy but also opportunities of democratising knowledge.

It is in this context that we have to consider the possibilities of the emerging new world order in a post-COVID era. As the biggest public health event of the last hundred years, responses to this pandemic have been shaped by the internationally dominant paradigm within public health discourse.

Global Health shaping the world order

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