COVID-19 - BISA Global Health Working Group research and response

This article was written by Stephen Roberts, Eva Hilberg and Adele Langlois
This article was published on
Medical professional wearing PPE

As we are increasingly settling into new pandemic routines, leading armchair debates on R values and PPE as though we had never done anything else, there has been a surprising realisation for some in the field of International Relations: Pandemics and Health Security seem to be quite an important area to study. So why has no one done this before?

While some have actually asked this question (and later graciously conceded that they just did not know otherwise), many have pointed out that in fact this has been a significant area of IR studies for a while. This was debated on blogs, Twitter, and to some extent also on the new platform of the COVID-19 Diaries (it’s a great project, more information below). As conveners of the Global Health Working Group, we thought to add our contribution to this by providing both a short answer (see links to previous research by group members below), and a longer response to this question, in the form of an overview of current projects.

There is a lot going on in our group, as the focus of the entire world has turned towards health security and everything health related. While there usually is a lot going on anyway, this has certainly taken things to a new level. Members of the working group are commenting on the situation on news channels (see below), writing opinion pieces, and working on all aspects of academic and scientific debate, providing insights and reflections that go beyond commentary and can directly influence response. The expertise of the group is particularly strong on health challenges in the Global South and also in regard to the pervasive gendered impact of health crises. This article will give you an overview of some of the most recent activities in our working group and beyond, including a study that is still looking for participants (the Gender & COVID-19 Research Project).

Several of our members have been active in the media, both traditional and social. Clare Wenham, LSE, has repeatedly given expert commentary for the BBC, on Newsnight and on other programmes, and has also contributed to an article in The Telegraph on the power struggle between the US and China at the recent World Health Assembly. Stephen Roberts, also LSE (and soon UCL), has served as a principal commentator for EuroNews during the ongoing pandemic. He has also offered expert commentary to additional media outlets including the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), Al Bawaba, and Bloomberg. Nick Thomas, City University of Hong Kong, has been busy with international and Asian media from the beginning of the outbreak. He has done several live NewsHour interviews with Al Jazeera, as well as participated in panel discussions for ‘Inside Story’, Al Jazeera’s news analysis programme (broadcast to 220 million households worldwide and more than 850,000 views on YouTube). Nick has also been interviewed in print media and on radio: The China Daily, BBC (Chinese), The Guardian, The LA Times, Al Jazeera (press), The South China Morning Post, Bloomberg, and South Korean and Hong Kong radio stations.

The Mile End Institute at Queen Mary University of London has been producing their own very engaging and insightful content on YouTube, in a series of videos on the COVID-19 crisis entitled ‘Global Health Security and Pandemics’. The videos cover a range of issues relating to health security and the politics of pandemic response and draw on the expertise of academics at Queen Mary and their networks. The topics covered in the videos include: whether we should have seen the pandemic coming, by Sophie Harman; coronavirus and radical right anti-globalism, by Toby Greene; the impact of the pandemic in areas affected by violent conflict, by Andreas Papamichail; and many more. The whole playlist can be found here.

Other Global Health Working Group members have been busy providing commentary on various platforms. Simon Rushton, University of Sheffield, and Owain Williams, University of Leeds, take a look at the political economy of challenges that are likely to accompany a COVID-19 vaccine, if and when it does arrive, in this blog, whilst João Nunes, University of York, examines the Brazilian response to COVID-19 in The Conversation, and COVID-19, securitization and neoliberalism at SciELO Public Health. Clare Wenham has written on the gendered impact of COVID-19 for the LSE blog and The Lancet. Stephen Roberts has published numerous pieces advancing critical research on digital health surveillance practices and the advancing role of Big Tech in the ongoing pandemic. He has recently published a UNICEF-funded case-study examining the incorporation of non-expert evidence into the surveillance and early detection of public health emergencies. His research has been further featured in the British Medical Journal Opinion and the LSE British Politics & Policy blog.

In the longer term, people are already engaging in significant research endeavours around COVID-19. City University of Hong Kong has established a One Health cluster, coordinated by Nick Thomas. This is primarily focused on research development across the faculty (Liberal Arts and Social Sciences), as well as acting as a platform for inter-faculty activities. The cluster is working on an inter-disciplinary One Health minor and creating outreach events into the local community.

In his own research, Nick is participating in a workshop on Health Governance in June where he is presenting a paper on Asian responses to COVID-19. He is also developing a grant proposal exploring public trust of health authorities in China during the outbreak. Simon Rushton has a journal article under review on the resurgence of nationalistic responses and the collapse of the underpinning principles of the IHR and Adèle Langlois, University of Lincoln, is on the Advisory Board for a COVID-related special issue of Palgrave Communications on COVID-19 (see the call for papers here). Owain Williams, with Matt Sparke, University of California Santa Cruz, is writing a book for Cambridge University Press on neoliberalism and viruses. In this long history, they argue that we are presently paying the price of four decades of privatization, austerity and market fundamentalism. COVID-19 and neoliberalism are viewed as co-pathogenic, as their interactions are multiplying the effects of the pandemic.

This last output highlights the fact that global health is not a new area for International Relations – members of the Global Health Working Group have been engaging in research on the politics of health for many years. A curated Political Studies special issue on ‘Governing Pandemics and Other Health Risks’ illustrates this further. Featuring articles from 2011 onwards by several established global health IR scholars, on topics such as H1N1, preparedness for pandemic ‘flu, health security, and the International Health Regulations, the issue is available Open Access here.

Another key Open Access publication to check out is Pandemics, Pills, and Politics (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018) by Stefan Elbe, University of Sussex. There is also Sophie Harman’s very instructive ‘COVID-19 global health reading list’ – a great place to start any deeper engagement with the politics of global health.

And last, but by no means least, these unprecedented global circumstances are also a time for reflection. In order to facilitate this, Owain Williams has launched the COVID-19 Health Diaries. Owain writes:

“The COVID-19 Diaries is an academic and personal project, an investment in a community space for those of us who might want to mix the professional and the personal and record these times. It does not matter if you want to record private thoughts, share feelings with other users, or open-up for the wider public view. We presently have over 40 irregular contributors and have circa 30,000 impressions per day. Contributions do not have to be science based or personal, and many contributions are self-reflective with analysis. The crucial thing is that we have all interacted with Global Health and all have feelings and opinions. Many people seem to be interested in the human face of global health and international relations – our communication and our experience of this crisis could help others and we could help each other.”

At the end of the project Owain will seek to edit the diaries as a collection (with necessary permissions). His own diary will be turned into an auto-ethnographic piece with analysis of the COVID-19 crisis.

This is only a very short and by no means complete overview of current activities, intended to provide a starting point for an engagement with the working group’s research and expertise. As always, there are probably any number of things we did not feature here that should have been included – do let us know if you find anything that should be shared more widely (the only caveat is it should be from people within the BISA Global Health Working Group). Our email is

Photo by SJ Objio on Unsplash