Pandemics and Health Emergencies: A Teach-In

The second post in our Coronavirus series, this time a virtual teach-in from Professor Sophie Harman, who has been our guest before. Sophie’s research focuses on visual method and the politics of seeing, global health politics, African agency, and the politics of conspicuously invisible women. She has pursued these interests through projects on Global Health Governance, the World Bank and HIV/AIDS, partnerships in health in Africa, the 2014/15 Ebola response, the governance of HIV/AIDS, and her recent film project, Pili, for which she was nominated for a BAFTA as in the category of Outstanding Debut by a British Writer, Director, or Producer. Sophie’s recent publications include Seeing Politics: Film, Visual Method and International Relations (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2019), ‘Why It Must Be a Feminist Global Health Agenda’ in The Lancet (with Sara Davies, Rashida Manjoo, Maria Tanyag and Clare Wenham), and ‘Governing Ebola: Between Global Health and Medical Humanitarianism’ in Globalizations (with Clare Wenham). She is also a Co-Editor of Review of International Studies, and the recipient of numerous grants and awards.

Pandemics, pandemic preparedness, social distancing, self isolation, secure quarantines, global health security, disease surveillance, vectors of disease, epidemiological curve, morbidity and mortality, health financing facility, PPE, vertical transmission, community transmission, Tedros, burden of disease, secondary impacts of epidemics, biosecurity, international health regulations, advanced purchase mechanisms… if these are words you only had passing familiarity with a few weeks ago and now obsessively reading newspaper articles about, or jumping straight to Foucault-explains-it-all, this list is for you. Over the last twenty years the field of global health politics has increased substantially to the point that most states and international institutions have some form of global security plan or agenda. Global health as a sub-field of academic inquiry in International Relations began in the 1990s as scholars began to explore the relationship between globalization (travel, trade, finance) and health and the growing HIV/AIDS pandemic, human rights, and subsequently, international peace and security. Since then the growth of the field has been dizzying.

The British International Studies Association (BISA), International Studies Association (ISA), and European International Studies Association (EISA) all have sections/working groups. Research into global health politics is now published in mainstream International Relations journals (this was not always the case, the regular gripe of global health Reviewer 2 that health issues cannot bring about social disorder or an international crisis). You may have missed this research and been busy doing other things. You may want to avoid this work entirely given the clear and present stress of living with COVID19. You may want to start to read more on this issue, so here is an abridged list of key things to read about pandemic flu and global health security to get you started. You will note these are all articles rather than books – I am hoping this blog will encourage publishers to un-gate these articles during this time to allow people access to them. This is an abridged list taken from my Global Politics of Health and Disease module, you can find the full module outline here.

Global Health Security

The following two papers are on my ‘Essential Reading’ they just set out the issues so clearly. I recommend them to students, colleagues from public health that don’t really get International Relations, and of course IR people who don’t really understand global health.

Elbe’s work (alongside Colin McInnes and Kelley Lee) was fundamental in putting health security on the radar of International Relations. This is the paper everyone in IR told me about when I was doing my PhD on HIV/AIDS (a great paper, not so relevant to my PhD on the World Bank and civil society in East Africa). It also captures the period when everyone was talking about Foucault and biopolitics.

After UN Security Council Resolution 1308 lots of global health security literature focused on the securitization of disease, not all great. Hanreider has produced some excellent, detailed work on WHO which is rich in detail and does not scrimp on the technical or theoretical debates. Mention Howell’s work to a global health person, and they’re guaranteed to respond with ‘I love her work.’

Pandemic Flu

This list really focuses on a handful of (mainly male) authors who have been working on flu for years. My longer list has more diverse sources and covers greater ground, but these are all excellent introductions to the topic of pandemic flu. I am also telling everyone to read Sara E Davies’ Containing Contagion at the moment as it’s great and the most topical book out there at the moment.

International Health Regulations

The International Health Regulations (IHR) are the backbone of global health security and disease surveillance. Personally, I find them super boring, but you have to understand them to be allowed to say that. However, if you are interested in international law, then you should read up on them as they are one of the more important and powerful sources of law in the international system. The Fidler reading is long (so says every student I made read it) but it has all the background and technical detail you need. The Youde, Davies, and Parker readings are much more focused on the politics of implementation and compliance with the IHR.


Ebola is not a flu and no outbreak has reached pandemic status, however it is very relevant for understanding global health security and COVID19 on account of: the role of calling an outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International Concern; military involvement; an overwhelmed state; the gendered dimensions of disease; vaccines, international attention, othering, and discrimination; and significant social, political, economic, and health outcomes. Personally, I’d skip the pandemic flu section and jump straight to here. This is also the only section where I include one book, because I want you to read it.


Finally, I’ve included these three readings on Zika to flag work on the gendered component of outbreaks, and the global and racial inequalities inherent to ‘stratified reproduction’ (see Johnson). If you are interested in the gendered components of COVID19, follow Clare Wenham on Twitter for updates on her project on this.


One thought on “Pandemics and Health Emergencies: A Teach-In

  1. Pingback: What we’re reading on governance & conflict – COVID-19 edition, 27th March – The Politics of … Conflict & Governance

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