TRIPping up on Epidemics

By Peter Leonard

March 3, 2020

It’s hard to turn on the news and not hear about the most recent boogeyman storming through the headlines: coronavirus. The virus has spread from China to multiple countries, including Italy, South Korea, and Iran, to name a few. High-ranking officials in the U.S. are still split on where they stand on the virus. President Donald Trump Tweeted:

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This Tweet flies in the face of a new CDC warning to take extra precautions when travelling. According to a top CDC official, “It’s not so much a question of if this will happen anymore but rather more a question of exactly when this will happen and how many people in this country will have severe illness.”

If government actors are largely split on how they feel about coronavirus, IR scholars are less inclined to sound the alarm bells. TRIP data shows that, for the most part, IR scholars do not research disease, teach health as a security issue, or think about epidemics as major foreign policy concerns. This information confirms our suspicions in some ways– according to IR scholars, you should be much more scared of climate change than disease epidemics like the coronavirus. However, the TRIP data shows that this lack of attention to health may be a fault. Epidemics have the potential to cause a fair amount of damage, and IR scholars may not be accounting for all the negative side-effects of disease.

The TRIP Data

All of the data I gathered comes from the 2014 TRIP Faculty Survey, which can be found here. First, it is interesting to note how insignificant IR scholars see epidemics in terms of their importance for foreign policy.

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When asked what the three most important foreign policy issues facing scholars’ respective countries were, only 3.52 percent of scholars globally considered epidemic disease a major concern.

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The number rises a bit when IR scholars were asked about what the top concerns will be in the next ten years, with 5.12 percent of scholars responding that epidemic disease would become a major foreign policy issue for their respective countries. However, the percentage of IR scholars who worry about epidemics is still minute. Even in 2017, when the Zika virus was emerging as a plausible threat, only 6.74% of U.S. scholars said that epidemics were a foreign policy issue for the U.S.

Now, contrast the lack of worry about epidemics with data that shows IR scholars have little faith in international health institutions’ capacity to contain a pandemic disease:

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Only around 35 percent of IR scholars classify international health institutions as either “very capable” or “capable” to manage the spread of disease, leaving the majority of IR scholars either neutral, unsure, or skeptical of our global health infrastructure.

Whether or not the coronavirus will reach the level of a global pandemic crisis remains to be seen. However, the virus has clearly shown how the fear of a global pandemic can wreak havoc in more areas than health. Stocks continue to drop as traders remain spooked about the effects the virus will have on the market. Coronavirus has also proven how vulnerable globalized trade routes can be; companies like Apple have had to cut their revenue expectations due to a diminished workforce and subsequent lower supply of goods. There’s even a shortage of hockey sticks thanks to coronavirus’ effect on supply chains. 

Given the economic and overall global turmoil that can spring from an epidemic, one must wonder why IR scholars do not rank it higher as a foreign policy concern. One possible explanation is that it’s not discussed enough in the field. When we asked scholars what topics they teach in national/international security courses, “Disease/global health” was the lowest ranked category.

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This may be because scholars are unfamiliar with the topic themselves.  In a separate question, less than 0.5 percent of IR scholars surveyed globally named global health was their main research focus. Apathy in the form of a lack of teaching and research about epidemics in IR may beget further apathy and skepticism.

The spread of coronavirus and its accompanying shockwaves have major repercussions for IR. Countries are considering shutting their borders, the disease is hurting the international economy, and globalization is once again under the microscope. Given these major repercussions, it is important to question IR scholars’ historical lack of interest in the topic. One has to hope that the jolt given by coronavirus helps wake up any IR scholar still sleeping on epidemics. 

Peter Leonard graduated from William & Mary in 2019 with degrees in Government and History. He is currently pursuing his master’s degree in secondary education at William & Mary’s School of Education, as he wants to be a high school Social Studies teacher. Peter loves hiking, playing ultimate frisbee, and watching baseball (he’s been a diehard Rockies fan since birth and was raised in Colorado.) When it comes to International Relations, Peter is interested in how regime type and structure impacts how a government functions and how accountable the government is to its people.