How to construct COVID-19 as a national security threat in public discourse?

COVID-19 is costing humankind dearly.

It is without a doubt that the global pandemic has altered the way we live in terms of social norms, economic structures and political priorities, and some of these changes may stay with us for a long time. On 30th January 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the outbreak of COVID-19 a ‘Public Health Emergency of International Concern’– a performative speech act with its own acronym: PHEIC – which they define as:

‘an extraordinary event which is determined, as provided in these regulations: i) to constitute a public health risk to other States through the international spread of disease and ii) to potentially require a coordinated international response’.

Since then, the world has witnessed a sharp increase in the number of cases, the number of deaths, and the number of affected countries. On 11th March 2020, the WHO, in another official speech act, declared the novel coronavirus outbreak a pandemic.

While the WHO is responsible for coordinating with its member states to build capacity to combat the disease, it is the responsibility of states to identify, assess and respond to the risks brought by this novel virus. Many countries, such as the US, Italy, Spain, Japan and New Zealand, have framed the public health emergency as a national security threat and declared ‘national emergencies’ over COVID-19.

This article examines the processes by which a health emergency i.e. the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, comes to be discursively constructed as a national security threat in political discourse. The first question is: at what point does COVID-19 become a national security issue? And the answer is, when it is declared to be so by an official speech act such as that issued by President Donald Trump on 11th March 2020:

NOW, THEREFORE, I, DONALD J. TRUMP, President of the United States, by the authority vested in me by the Constitution and the laws of the United States of America, including sections 201 and 301 of the National Emergencies Act (50 U.S.C. 1601 et seq.) and consistent with section 1135 of the Social Security Act (SSA), as amended (42 U.S.C. 1320b-5), do hereby find and proclaim that the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States constitutes a national emergency, beginning March 1, 2020.

As Waever points out, ‘security is not of interest as a sign that refers to something more real; the utterance itself is the act. By saying it, something is done.’ (Waever 1995: 55).

In his book How to Do Things with Words, John Austin specifies three particular forms of speech act, i.e. locutionary act, illocutionary act and perlocutionary act (Austin 1975). A locutionary act simply refers to the act of saying something that is the basic linguistic action of voicing a meaningful sequence of words. An illocutionary act is an act performed by uttering those words. The moment when Trump said that he ‘find(s) and proclaim(s) that the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States constitutes a national emergency’, the United States of America entered into a ‘state of emergency’.

It is not only interesting that a President can make something a “security threat” simply by declaring that it is one, but also that other declarations by leaders do not have the same illocutionary force: when a President declares a “war on poverty”, it does not have the same legal status – it neither automatically puts the county on a war footing nor officially designates poverty an “enemy”.

The Copenhagen School of Security Studies has formulated the notion of securitization to describe the discursive process of threat construction. Central to this process is the invocation of the concept of survival. ‘Security is about survival. It is when an issue is presented as posing an existential threat to a designated referent object’ (Buzan et al. 1998:21). Traditionally, security was only invoked when it came to external military threats that endangered national survival. This is one of the reasons that war rhetoric is used as a means of securitizing COVID-19 in some countries (for more discussion of the war rhetoric around the pandemic, see the blog piece by Sylvia Jaworska).

After the end of the Cold War, the absence of total war facilitated a shift from merely focusing on fighting visible military enemies to combating ‘threats without enemies’ (Hamill 1998). These security threats are often non-military related, for example, environmental degradation and pandemics, and they are generally categorized as “non-traditional” security issues. In the securitization framework, “security” is regarded as a self-referential practice whereby anything, no matter military or non-military, which can be construed as threatening the existence of a referent object, can be constructed as a security threat by means of a speech act (Buzan et al. 1998:24). This process begins by asserting that a referent object is existentially threatened, and the Copenhagen School calls this assertion a securitizing move. For example in the case of the US:

The spread of COVID-19 within our Nation’s communities threatens to strain our Nation’s healthcare systems. As of March 12, 2020, 1,645 people from 47 States have been infected with the virus that causes COVID-19.

A securitizing move as such requires the acceptance by relevant audiences to legitimize the implementation of extraordinary measures to cope with the constructed threat. But how can we justify whether the securitization move is accepted by relevant audiences? Presuming that the political system is a democratic one, the acceptance of the securitizing move can be granted on the basis of democratic consensus. For example, Trump’s declaration of the pandemic as a national emergency depends on people broadly accepting the severity of the threat. In such cases, such assertions might be challenged, as when Congress challenged the President’s declaration of a national emergency in order to secure funds to build his border wall. In this case, however, the Supreme Court found that the President has broad discretion to define what constitutes an emergency.

In addition, even though the President put a heavy emphasis on himself by capitalizing on his name in the official speech act, it is his position of being the President of the United States of America and the National Security Act that grants him the democratic and legal power to declare the state of emergency. Without uttering these words, there would not be the same illocutionary force to make it a national security threat, nor would it have the perlocutionary force that he needs to enact emergency measures to combat the virus. It is almost like he is forced to utter these words in order to declare a state of emergency in the context of democratic institution. It is also worth noting that the securitization framework has been extended by many scholars in the study of non-democratic contexts (see for example, Vuori 2008).

The real problem with Trump’s declaration was that, outside of the official pronouncement, in tweets and public speeches, he spent a lot of time undermining his own securitizing move by downplaying the severity of the crisis. This resulted in a resistance to the construction of COVID-19 as a national security threat by many of his supporters, a resistance that took two main forms: 1) dismissing the pandemic as a national security threat and 2) disagreeing with the emergency measures granted to authorities by the state of emergency. Although both arguments are often presented together, the discursive techniques adopted are quite different.

Comparing the mortality rate of seasonal flu and COVID-19 was a common way to undermine the securitizing move at the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak. Many scholars tried their best to debunk the myths that downplayed the health risk posed by the novel virus. Lisa Maragakis, senior director of infection prevention at Johns Hopkins University, for example, highlighted that not only was the mortality rate of COVID-19 substantially higher than that of most strains of seasonal flu, but also our lack of knowledge of, lack of immunity and lack of vaccine for this new virus made it more dangerous than common flu.

Discrediting medical experts and spreading conspiracy theories have also been common techniques adopted to dismiss COVID-19 as a security threat, for examples:

It is important to note that the tweets above have no scientific basis and it only serves as examples to demonstrate how people resist the threat construction of the coronavirus.

The second type of resistance took the form of challenging the legitimacy of emergency measures. There are reasons why a security policy is above “normal politics”, due to the existential nature of the threat it is meant to address. ‘By uttering “security”’, says Waever, (1995: 55) ‘a state-representative moves a particular development into a specific area, and thereby claims a special right to use whatever means are necessary to block it.’ In other words, the declaration of the state of emergency has a certain perlocutionary force, for example, it unlocks federal funding for local governments to combat the virus and it also grants states the power to issue stay-at-home orders.

But this is also a dimension of his declaration that Trump has chosen to undermine. Egged on by the President, protests broke out across the country calling to “liberate” states as their governors ordered lockdowns. Protesters displayed banners about freedom and the Second Amendment to demand the reopening. Ironically, Trump himself was among the loudest voices in calling into question the legitimacy of the emergency powers his own declaration had unleashed.

Arguably, one can see Trump’s tweets as another securitizing move, based on the claim that the Second Amendment is existentially threatened. Yet this act of (counter)securitization takes place outside the democratic process. It does not require the acceptance of relevant offices and cannot be challenged by Congress. And the “emergency measures” he legitimizes through this move (such as armed protestors threatening legislators) are also outside of the normal legal framework, and so not subject to the normal checks on state power.

There are countries such as the UK that are sensitive to the concerns of human rights and therefore have engaged in lengthy legislative processes in the Parliament to gain emergency powers without declaring a state of emergency. Historically there are plenty of cases of leaders exploiting the declaration of national emergency to stay in power, yet there are also cases where the use of emergency power has contributed to constitutional transformation (de Wilde 2015). For better or the worse, politics is often about a trade-off between personal liberty and collective safety. If we believe in the social contract to forgo some of our freedom to the government for survival as Hobbes suggested, we need to follow the emergency measures like the lockdown and social distancing. We may further discuss the room for improvement in the social contract and the security measures once the pandemic is dealt with, just like the constitutional transformations noted by de Wilde. Some countries such as Spain and Japan have already de-securitized the issue by ending the state of emergency. It would be interesting to conduct a comparative study on the discursive de-construction COVID-19 as a national security threat – I hope that day will come soon.

The case of Trump, however, is unique (and perhaps uniquely authoritarian). What his downplaying of the threat and his calls to “liberate” states from the emergency measures have achieved is not just to undermine his own declaration, but to destabilize the linguistic (and therefore the legal) underpinnings of the democratic institutions that make such declarations possible. It could be argued that the main point of his declaring a state of emergency was in order to undermine it. While he needs the state of emergency to grant him the power to adopt emergency measures to solve some of the national problems, he does not want to project the impression that the country is in chaos under his rule, therefore he downplays the crisis in his tweets and creates the conditions by which he can simultaneously inflame the anti-government sentiments of his followers and avoid taking responsibility for solving the problem.


Austin, J. L., 1975. How to Do Things with Words. Second edition. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Buzan, B., Waever, O., and de Wilde, J., 1998. Security: A New Framework for Analysis. Boulder, Colo: Lynne Rienner Publishers.

de Wilde, M., 2015. Just trust us: a short history of emergency powers and constitutional change. Comparative Legal History, 3(1), pp. 110–130.

Hamill, J., 1998. From Realism to Complex Interdependence? South Africa, Southern Africa and the Question of Security. International Relations, 14(3), pp.1–30.

Vuori, J.A., 2008. Illocutionary Logic and Strands of Securitization: Applying the Theory of Securitization to the Study of Non-Democratic Political Orders. European Journal of International Relations, 14(1), pp.65–99. Waever, O., 1995. Securitization and desecuritization. In: R. D. Lipschutz, ed. On Security. New York: Columbia University Press, pp.46–86.

One thought on “How to construct COVID-19 as a national security threat in public discourse?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: