The politics of Covid-19
The author is a political science and international relations professor at Seoul National University.
I am teaching my political theory course remotely this semester due to the new coronavirus outbreak. For the midterms, I told my students to submit essays discussing “the politics of Covid-19.” Using the basic concepts of politics they will learn in the first half of the course, my students will analyze the political situation surrounding the Covid-19 crisis. For reference, I uploaded about 50 news articles — including editorials and columns I found in the local and foreign press — onto our online bulletin board. The news clips have provocative headlines such as “corona-politics,” “self-serving politics,” “the political offensive of a contagion” and “the government’s self-praise.”
In real life, politics is not so negative. From a realist point of view, politics is about clashing with one another over self interest and competing to take and maintain their power. The American political scientist Harold Lasswell famously defined politics as a science of “who gets what, when and how.” When we look up the word “political” in the dictionary, we come across such words like “crafty” and “scheming.” That is what we mean when we say someone is “too political.”
Covid-19 has definitely laid bare the dark side of politics. With less than a month to go until the April 15 parliamentary elections, we see political groups bashing and fighting against one another to pursue their factional interests and gain power. Attention from the media tends to amplify such political strife, and they demonstrated conflicting views on whether the Korean government is doing a good job in tackling the virus. In that sense, media outlets are also engaged in the politics of the coronavirus. The Journalists Association of Korea even published an official column criticizing a conservative newspaper’s “political and biased” news coverage.
But this is certainly not all of the Covid-19 politics, and it shouldn’t be. Contrary to a realist’s point of view, an idealist sees politics as the pursuit of a shared interest in an entire community and an act of devotion to that whole group. When Aristotle said, “Man is a political animal,” he meant politics is a decisive trait that sets humans apart from other animals, which is why it is the highest level of human activity.
The terms “sagacious” and “judicious” also fall under the definition of being “political.” So when we call someone political, we might mean it as an offensive remark — as previously noted — or a compliment praising the person’s political influence. A realist strives to gain more power than the other party in what’s known as “power over.” An idealist, on the other hand, tries to cooperate with the other party for a shared goal of the community in what’s known as “power to.”
Political realism is limited to a small league of bureaucrats, politicians and elites. But political idealism places emphasis on the politics of governance and the cooperation between ordinary citizens and the private sector in solving a problem facing the community.
Do such idealist aspects exist within the politics of Covid-19? It may be a bit early to tell, but some foreign media outlets such as The Washington Post have shed light on Korea’s democratic response to the outbreak as opposed to China’s authoritative reaction. They have cited several key factors of the so-called Korean model such as its massive virus-testing system, information technology, health care system, and lessons learned from the past outbreaks of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS). But at the core of the Korean model is the Korean government’s openness and transparency, public trust in the government, civic awareness and competence in comparison to China.
In the end, the right way to do politics is to revive the politics of public interest and strengthen the community’s competence, while mitigating the politics of private interest through public discussion and debate.
When handing out the essay assignment, I told my students to criticize the negative aspects of the politics of Covid-19 as much as they want. But I asked them to make sure they get their facts straight and search for the positive sides of Covid-19 politics as well, so that we can reinstate the genuine role of politics to serve the entire community. Last but not least, I urged them to cast a smart vote next month.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
JoongAng Ilbo, March 20, Page 31