Leaving my friend’s house, I clutch onto a loaf of bread, my license for being outside on a Sunday at all. It is March 2021, and Turkey has just imposed additional curfews over the weekend; in addition to the weekly curfew from 7 pm to 5 am. The only legal reason to be outside on a Sunday is shopping for essential groceries, which is what I would claim to have been doing if the police stopped me. I hurry down the empty Istiklal Caddesi. It is an eerie feeling to see Istanbul this deserted and quiet. There are some police in the street, however, they never stop me. As a tall, light-skinned woman, who looks like a tourist, it appears that for me the curfew does not apply. Walking past Taksim Square, I can see the water cannons that are permanently stationed at Gezi Park. These serve as a reminder that even after the official end of the state of emergency that followed the coup attempt in 2016, a new normal has been established in Turkish everyday life. This constant state of exception is now accompanied further by a global state of emergency, requiring new extraordinary measures such as masks, lockdowns, and travel restrictions.
Sometimes, after 7 pm, when I feel lonely in my Istanbul flat, I think about returning to Germany earlier than planned. However, it would not make a difference, would it? After all, the securitization of the pandemic “is already universal”, isn’t it?
The extreme speed with which emergency measures were introduced as well as what they entail, namely the severe restriction of personal freedom, surveillance of movement and the establishment of a “new normalcy”, can be classified as a text-book case of securitization, which it has since literally become. So are we witnessing the “9/11 of Health Security”? This blog post aims to give an overview of the research on Covid-19 securitization(s), addressing questions of which theoretical implications and desiderata were uncovered by the pandemic.
Securitization in a nutshell
In order to determine if a securitization is taking place, scholars will generally look for “a grammar of security”, i.e., the strong and emotional emphasis of an urgent threat in speeches by politicians. Secondly, they would expect emergency measures, broadening the scope of action of the executive branch, to be put in place (for more information see info box). While some scholars place their emphasis on the performativity of the speech act and argue that a securitization occurs as soon as such a speech act is uttered, others argue that we can only speak of a full, active securitization once emergency measures have been put into place and the population, which has been addressed by the speech act, accepts the threat. Some authors further differentiate the audience into “the popular, the elite, the technocratic, and the scientific”, as the success of the same speech act is likely to vary depending on the sphere in which it is received. Related to this question, the role of the media in securitizations also needs to be considered. Most scholars writing about securitizations are wary of them as they remove issues from the democratic political realm and extend executional powers. However, there are discussions about the possibility of “just” securitization of pressing issues that require determined and quick action – for instance the response to climate change.
Securitizations of Covid-19 in comparative perspective
In global comparison, the local securitizations and resulting practices demonstrated during the pandemic show great disparities. For instance, New Zealand enacted strict travel restrictions and lockdowns early on, but these measures were not communicated via war-metaphors and lacked the overall characteristics of a securitizing move. Furthermore, in some countries the government desecuritized the pandemic (e.g., Brazil), and sometimes securitizing and desecuritizing moves took place simultaneously (e.g., USA). These counter-intuitive dynamics challenge our thinking about the role of governments as securitizing actors, the ‘grammar of security’ and the role of the local context.
As Covid-19 is a fairly young phenomenon, relatively few comprehensive analyses have been published so far. At the time of writing, two strands of contributions on the securitization of Covid-19 can be identified. The first strand, often drawing on the Paris School (see info box), focuses on the emergency measures and security practices that have emerged during the pandemic such as increased surveillance of borders and movements, as well as militarization. The second one, often leaning towards the Copenhagen School, focuses on the securitization moves and the discursive production of security during the health crisis. For instance, Dimari addresses the establishment of a securitization nexus between the preexisting referent subject of migration and Covid-19 through the discourse of a double crisis. Analyzing the crisis discourse in the Western Balkans, Vankovska points out that populist and autocratic leaders such Bolsonaro and Lukashenko desecuritized the pandemic. In their comparison of the justification for emergency responses in the UK, Australia and New Zealand, Jessica Kirk and Matt McDonalds show that the latter two nations do not fit the securitization framework. Thus, they conclude that “exceptional measures […] should not automatically be assumed as the product of securitization”.
Conceptual challenges highlighted by the pandemic
These differences in the interpretation of the universality of the securitization of Covid-19 shed light on several conceptional difficulties and issues when discussing the pandemic. Covid-19 shows that we need to revisit the perennial issue of the relationship between security actor(s) and audience(s). This is important in at least two contexts: Firstly, securitization is currently perceived as an elite-driven top-down process. However, Kirk and McDonald show that in the case of the UK the population was pressing for security measures that the government was not (yet) willing to take. Secondly, (re-) focusing on the role of the audience might also help us to understand differences in Covid-19 securitization in autocratic vs. democratic countries. We should address the question, if and how Covid-19 discourses were different in autocratic countries. In terms of practices, how did the consequences of emergency measures affect the population of autocratic regimes differently?
Thirdly, the Covid-19 crisis raises the question of just securitization and the materiality of threat. In comparison to the prime example of securitization, the “War on Terror”, Covid-19 killed far more people annually in 2020 and 2021. This also links the pandemic to the climate crisis, as some argue that both issues should be given similar priority. On an epistemological level it raises the issue of whether there are any objective measures available to us to determine when an issue should be (justly) securitized.
The final question concerns the connection between securitization and the state of emergency. While emergency measures are indeed observable all over the world, a grammar of security is not. Is it then possible for a state of emergency to exist without (discursive) securitization? This would further undermine the performativity of the speech act that was originally at the core of the CS’ argument. Which implications for the analysis of securitization does this carry? While Kuteleva and Clifford’s article provides great insights into gendered narratives, their claim that Covid-19 was securitized by Putin and Trump raises conceptual issues. In the case of Russia, they speak of securitization even though Putin referred to the pandemic “as a challenge rather than a combat” and argued against comparisons to World War II. Thus, the concept of a “grammar of security” is thrown overboard. This is the opposite of the argument that a securitization occurs as soon as it is uttered, even if no exceptional consequences follow. Instead, following Kuteleva and Clifford, a securitization is solely characterized by the existence of emergency measures. How do we then differentiate between (necessary) politization of pressing issues and (potentially dangerous) securitization?
The aforementioned issues all need to be addressed in order to understand the global discourse that emerged during this health crisis, while paying close attention to local context and difference in security discourses and practices. What we consider to be ‘normal’ is highly dependent on our local context. In Turkey, using apps for everything, including sharing health details with your doctor, is considered normal. Armed police presence in the streets of Istanbul is normal. Harsh restrictions by the government are normal, as are the many small ways in which people undermine them. What we consider an acceptable risk, a ‘normal’ number of deaths per year by a certain illness or acceptable restrictions to protect each other are all questions that depend on our social context. Moreover, these questions are inherently political and elude technocratic solutions.
Info Box: Securitzation Theory
Since the emergence of International Relations as a discipline, security and the means through which it can be achieved via national military policy have been a major focus. The publication of “People, States and Fear” marked “a major shift in the academic debate on the concept of security and its merits”. Instead of accepting security as a pre-given, Buzan proposed to investigate the meaning of security. He further developed this new framework for security studies with colleagues at the Centre for Peace and Conflict Research in Copenhagen, hence the name Copenhagen School (CS). Securitization Theory has since continuously been employed and further developed. Empirically, terrorism has been a strong focus, but other topics such as migration, environmental problems, and health have also been explored.Drawing on the concepts of Foucault and Bourdieu, a second strand of security studies developed: The Paris School (PS). The PS is taking a sociological approach and “talk[s] about securitization primarily in terms of practices, context and power relations that characterize the construction of threat images”. At first glance, “the difference between the two variants [CS and PS] seems rather stark”. However, they can be treated as ideal types, and studies do not need to fall neatly within one of the two categories. Overall, the emergence of the PS has led to a combination of discursive approaches with more practice-oriented ones, moderating the importance that is ascribed to the speech act.The CS defines a topic as securitized if an “issue is presented as an existential threat, requiring emergency measures and justifying actions outside the normal bounds of political procedure. A security move is “a discourse that takes the form of presenting something as an existential threat to a referent object”. In theory, the referent objects can be any “things that are seen to be existentially threatened and that have a legitimate claim to survival”. Empirically, the referent object is mostly the state, respectively the nation. The actors who take the step of presenting referent objects as existentially threatened are called securitizing actors. Most often security actors “are political leaders, bureaucracies, governments, lobbyists, and pressure groups”.The security actors direct their security move in the form of a speech act towards the audience. The audience is often implicitly assumed to be the general public. Following the concept of the ‘duality of the audience’, securitizing moves are directed towards the public, but in many cases also towards the national parliament. The focus of many analyses is on the discursive (linguistic) construction of security. Therefore, “[t]he obvious method is discourse analysis”, which allows us to uncover “the grammar of security”.As Hansen points out, if one takes a strictly discursive approach towards securitization, one does not need external, non-discursive factors to determine whether a securitization takes place. However, many works on securitization assume that a securitization can only be successful if the audience accepts the securitizing move and, hence, the security measures it entails, drawing on Roe’s concept of ‘active securitization’. A full, active securitization not only requires the acceptance of the audience concerning the ‘securityness’ of an issue, but also of the extraordinary measures resulting from it . In order to determine audience acceptance, opinion polls are often included in the analysis. Besides, the focus on spoken and written language as being representative of the discourse is rather narrow, and some authors are advocating for the inclusion of images into the analysis. The PS has also called for taking into account the agency of the security actor, who needs to adopt his security moves depending on the audience she is addressing.
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How to cite this blog post
Dück, Elena (2022), “The manyfold (de-)securitizations of Covid-19”, Crisis Discourse Blog (CriDis), URL= https://www.crisis-discourse.net/en/2022/06/the-manyfold-de-securitizations-of-covid-19/.