Introduction of special issue of Alternautas on COVID

By Angus McNelly

In late-2019 in the Chinese city of Wuhan, a new deadly pathogen reared its ugly head. In the first quarter of 2020, this novel coronavirus spread around the globe, leaving death and destruction in its wake. What was initially considered a domestic problem in China became a global crisis as the virus reached the developed world. Hundreds of deaths in the northern Italian province of Lombardy during the months of March and April 2020 provoked panic amongst western political leaders (Malm, 2020: 18; Usuelli, 2020). COVID-19, as this new disease came to be known, arrived in Latin America in late-February, with the first registered case in São Paulo, Brazil. By late-July, the region had the most cases of any region in the world (Gideon, 2020: 4). By April 2021, spurred on the appearance of new variants—particularly the P.1 variant first detected in the Amazonian city of Manaus (Taylor, 2021)—Latin America had been hit by its third wave of the pandemic, registering more than 57 million cases and 1.3 million deaths (Pan American Health Organization, 2021). In the space of little over a year, COVID-19 became a global zeitgeist, casting a shadow over virtually all areas of social, economic and political life.

This introduction to this Special Issue on Critical Perspectives on COVID-19 in Latin America provides the backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic for the rest of the issue. In doing so, it situates the Latin American experience inside the wider global dynamics of the pandemic. It begins by tracing the global reverberations of COVID-19 and exploring how they played out in Latin America, before then summarising the contributions of each of the articles in the issue in turn.


COVID-19 is a global pandemic, and its course in Latin America cannot be understood outside historic global historical or the geopolitical and geoeconomic reactions provoked by the disease. The past forty years has seen the growing interconnectedness of the world, as production spread across the globe through vast transcontinental production networks. In the face of stagnant wages and historically low economic growth in the global North—what Robert Brenner (2006) calls the Long Downturn—from the 1970s onwards, capital increasingly forced firms to enter a footrace with competitors and the clock, squeezing profits out of every second saved. These features of the neoliberal period of capitalism created the ideal conditions for contagion, both of deadly diseases and economic shocks. As a result, whilst it took the black death a decade to travel the length of the silk road in the Middle Ages, COVID-19 had spread from ground zero in Wuhan, China, to seventy-two countries in a matter of months, travelling along the infrastructural pathways and corridors cut out by global circuits of capital (Moody, 2020).

Political Economists Sara Stevano, Tobias Franz, Yannis Dafermos and Elisa Van Waeyenberge (2021) argue that COVID-19 provides a ‘magnifying glass’, illuminating the contradictions of the neoliberal form of capitalism underpinning the growing interconnectedness of globalised production outlined above. These authors remind us that

‘Despite the significant transformations of globalised contemporary capitalism through financialisation and technological progress, the COVID-19 crisis is a stark reminder that the kernel of human activity is intrinsically material and embedded in the socio-economic and biophysical basis of production and reproduction’ (Stevano et al., 2021: 2).

The Covid-19 pandemic is part of a broader confluence of multiple, intertwined crises that have emerged out of the dominant modes of development. The virus itself was born on the (artificial) boundary between human society and nature, from the contradictory ways that capitalist social formations dominate animal species to feed themselves. Indeed, the major disease outbreaks of recent years have all been traced to either agroindustrial meat production (Swine flu, H1N1) or the expansion of extractive activities deep into the last remaining great forests (Ebola, HIV-Aids) (Davis, 2012). Under the COVID-19 magnifying glass, the separation of society from nature in post-enlightenment thought and the promethean logic underpinning the political forms of capitalist modernity are shown to be illusionary. We may be social creatures, but we are creatures nevertheless, living in wider ecosystems, dependent on, and vulnerable to, the cycles and rhythms of the natural world. This leads to vital questions around the political ecological dimensions and effects of modes of development and their associated practices of extraction from, and destruction of, nature.

COVID-19 also revealed the extent of state power as governments stepped onto a war footing (Malm, 2020). Apparently sacred civil liberties lauded in western liberal democracies were curtailed as entire populations were instructed to stay home to stop the spread of the virus. In order to prevent complete economic collapse, government after government in high-income countries rewrote the economic rule book. Central Banks mobilised gargantuan sums to underwrite corporate debt and the livelihoods of the general population, either through furlough schemes designed to keep people in work (as was the case across much of Europe) or through universal cash transfer programmes (as was the case in the United States). In many cases, rent payments were frozen and evictions prohibited. Whole private enterprises were placed under the tutelage of the state, as the Spanish nationalised its private healthcare providers to help tackle the pandemic and the British and Italian governments stepped in to rescue ailing transport carriers—railways franchises in the case of the former, the airline Alitalia in the case of the latter (Malm, 2020: 10). The US Federal Reserve opened its liquidity taps on a scale not seen since the 2008 crisis (see Tooze, 2018), once again becoming the global lender of last resort (Bahaj and Reis, 2020a). The full power of the state was set to work to confront the pandemic, and despite decades of scholars declaring the withering of the state in the face of globalisation, the state was shown to be capable of mounting a massive coordinated response across various spheres of society in many countries across the globe.

However, the pandemic played out over existing inequalities, and not all states and citizens were able to respond in the same manner. As the International Monetary Fund (IMF) notes in its latest Fiscal Monitor report,

‘The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated pre-existing inequalities and poverty and has demonstrated the importance of social safety nets. It has also laid bare inequalities in access to basic services—health care, quality education, and digital infrastructure—which, in turn, may cause income gaps to persist generation’ (IMF, 2021: xii).

On the one hand, most poorer countries, including many in Latin America, could not mount the same response as high-income countries or mobilise seemingly endless resources, with some countries, such as Sudan and Zambia, actually decreasing their fiscal deficits during the pandemic (Stevano et al., 2021: 7). As a result of the subordinate integration into the global market, developing countries do not have the same access to credit markets or ability to raise fiscal resources quickly (IMF, 2021: xi), . Credit lines were not extended to everyone by the US Federal Reserve, and beyond the capitalist North Atlantic core (plus Japan), the only middle-income countries included were Brazil, Mexico and South Korea, with African countries excluded altogether (Bahaj and Reis, 2020b). Moreover, countries in the global South found themselves at the hard edge of the wedge in financial markets, as capital fled contexts perceived as ‘high risk’ in what the IMF labelled ‘the largest capital outflow ever recorded’ (cited in Laskaridis, 2021: 10). Countries dependent on natural resource exports were hit particularly hard (see, for instance, Hanieh, 2020), as capital abandoned its fixed investments and half-finished infrastructure projects in the face of the pandemic, the start of which also coincided with a major disruption in energy markets. In 2016, the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and Russia signed an agreement in 2016, limiting global oil production to keep prices within a fixed range. This accord not only provided North American shale gas firms fertile conditions in which to flourish, but also consolidated a fracking boom in Argentina. The agreement’s collapse in March 2020 sent oil prices through the floor, with the US benchmark, West Texas Intermediate, briefly entered the red for the first time in history during April 2020 (Hanieh, 2020: 2). This toxic cocktail of a global pandemic and jumpy global commodity markets led to a round of sovereign credit downgrades, further constraining the access to credit for countries that need it most and sparking fears of a new round of defaults by countries in the global South (Laskaridis, 2021: 10–11). Several authors have noted how the current debt architecture is not fit for purpose (see, for example, Laskaridis, 2021; Stubbs et al., 2020), and how it is already restricting the fiscal space available to some countries at a time when the need to maintain public spending is paramount.

On the other hand, responses to the pandemic have increased inequalities within countries. In his Report to the Human Rights council, Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights Philip Alston (2020: 9) called the pandemic ‘a pandemic of poverty’, highlighting how many of the world’s poor simple could not follow the favoured advice of the public health community: ‘stay home, socially distance, wash hands, and see a doctor in case of fever’.  The Federal Reserve’s actions in the US largely targeted the corporate world, continuing ‘the politically driven upward redistribution of wealth’ overseen by both the Democrats and the Republicans in recent years (Brenner, 2020: 22).  Lockdowns across the global forced people into the confines of their home, deepening the centrality of households and the gendered division of labour within households in capitalism (Stevano, Mezzadri, et al., 2021). Large-scale social distancing measures shut down swathes of the economy, including the sectors predominantly employing women. Certain jobs were re-cast as essential for the minimum functioning of the economy and to confront the pandemic. All of a sudden, long-undervalued care jobs were recognised as socially necessary, whilst the high-flying lawyers, bankers and other well-paid professionals were forced to work from home. However, these essential jobs were disproportionately done by women and people of colour, increasing the exposure of these groups to the disease, with deadly effects (Raval, 2021; Wenham et al., 2020; Wenham, Smith and Morgan, 2020). Moreover, in a cruel twist of fate, instead of improving the social and economic status of essential workers, the category of ‘essential’ has exacerbated the reproduction of exploitation and precarity that marks these workers as disposable, even as they are recognised as indispensable (Stevano, Ali and Jamieson, 2020).

In short, the pandemic has played out over, and in many cases intensified, the contours of existing class, gender and racial inequalities. Nowhere is this more evident than the current vaccine rollout. Across the western world, vaccines were developed using public money, with public research institutes and universities at the centre of this monumental scientific endeavour (Safi, 2021). Scientific development went into overdrive, with the time between getting a vaccine from the design stage through the regulator slashed. However, following the suggestion of Bill Gates, exclusive rights to vaccine manufacturing was given to a handful of pharmaceutical companies based in the West, preventing developing countries from manufacturing their own vaccines domestically following the formula developed using public money (Cullinan, 2021). This created what activists have called a ‘vaccine apartheid’ as high-income countries scrambled to buy up the (limited) available vaccine supply and place themselves at the front of the inoculation queue. Part of the problem is that intellectual property rights for drugs are enforced by the 1995 international trade law, the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS). India and South Africa launched a petition to suspend the TRIPS Agreement for the duration of the pandemic, a proposal that was voted down by high-income countries who had already secured their vaccine supply. As of the end of March 2021, 30 countries had still not received a single dose of vaccine, hanging their hopes on the UN-backed COVAX programme (Glenza, 2021). However, COVAX is a charity and not a solution to the global vaccine rollout. Erin Hannah and her colleagues (2021) go as far as calling COVAX a smokescreen to cover up vaccine nationalism. In a sense, the vaccine rollout acts as a metonym for the pandemic as a whole, which on the surface promises to challenge the maladies of the current neoliberal period, but in fact ends up reproducing and intensifying the massive inequalities across regions, nations and intersecting axes of oppression, namely class, gender and race. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Latin America.


As explained above, Latin America has been hit particularly hard by the global pandemic, with countries unable to implement adequate policy responses to stop the spread of the virus and their underfunded and fragmented healthcare systems incapable of taking the strain caused by the virus. Despite some of the longest and harshest lockdown measures in the world in Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru, governments have proved unable to stop the spread of the virus. In fact, some of these countries were the hardest hit in the region in per capita terms, despite the virtually non-existent measures implemented in two of the region’s largest countries, Brazil and Mexico (Gideon, 2020: 4). I will explore some of the reasons for this in more detail below.

Latin American healthcare systems are woefully underfunded and have suffered because of attempts to bring in private healthcare providers. Average public health expenditure across Latin America sits at 3.7 percent of GDP, well below the OECD average of 6.5 percent, stymying public health responses to COVID-19 in the region (Lavinas, 2021: 3). Because of this, Latin American countries suffer from limited capacity in healthcare systems, experiencing shortages in ICU beds, ventilators, treatments drugs and medical personnel (Almeida, 2020). Writing in the British Medical Journal (BMJ), Lauren Paremoer and colleagues (2021) argue that increasing public health budgets to 5 percent of GDP is essential for building a fairer and more sustainable post-COVID world.

Paremoer and her colleagues also stress the importance of public initiatives above outsourcing healthcare services to for-profit providers, something that has constrained the public health responses in Latin America. Several authors have noted how Public Private Partnerships (PPPs)—one particularly prevalent form of outsourcing in the region—have led to fragmented healthcare systems ultimately unable to confront the exigencies of a global pandemic (Almeida, 2020; Benítez et al., 2020). For example, Camila Gianella, Jasmine Gideon and María José Romero, (2020: 9) show how, in the Peruvian case, ‘the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed, and even intensified, pre-existing weaknesses of the Peruvian health system… which have undermined the government’s ability to respond to the health crisis effectively and protect the most vulnerable’.

Beyond the public health response to the pandemic in Latin America, things are little better. Since 2013, many of the economic gains achieved by left-wing governments in the region known collectively as the pink tide—GDP growth, raises in the minimum and average wages, falling poverty, inequality and informality—have been undone. This has only been compounded by the pandemic. According to data presented by the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America (ECLAC, 2021), the Latin American and Caribbean region experienced the worst crisis on historical record during 2020, with the 7.7 percent drop in GDP and 20 percent fall in investment growth the harshest of anywhere in the developing world. 2.7 million private firms shut, whilst the ranks of the unemployed swelled to 44.1 million people, many of whom would have been forced back into virus hotspots to undertake increasingly informalised types of work. Poverty levels exploded, from 30.3 percent to 33.7 percent of the region’s population in under a year, whilst extreme poverty grew by 8 million people over the same period. Such was the size of the shock to Latin American economies that GDP per capita levels were set back a decade, undermining recent poverty reduction efforts. Confronted by this context, ECLAC (2020: 18) has called for Latin American countries to strengthen the welfare State to avoid another lost decade.

Extractivism remains the dominant form of capital accumulation in the region, with the economic damage from the pandemic exacerbated by shocks to global energy markets outlined above. Tobias Franz (2020) argues that the seven commodity-producing economies in Latin America (Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico and Peru) are facing a ‘switching crisis’, as capital abandons its investments in the region, leaving behind half-built and/or now-defunct infrastructure projects. These seven countries, contends Franz (2020: 8), are currently ‘facing a triple crisis: capital inflows suddenly stopped and even reversed, commodity prices massively decreased due to the fall in demand (particularly for oil) and local currencies drastically devalued’. Given the high level of dependence on extractivism in the region—labelled the ‘commodities consensus’ by Maristella Svampa (2013)—the economic outlook for Latin America does not look good, with many countries also at risk of defaulting on their sovereign debt (ECLAC, 2021). And this is to say nothing of the country home to the region’s largest petroleum reserves. Venezuela has been in a deep economic and political crisis since the fall of oil prices in 2014 and in the clutches of a humanitarian crisis since the implementation of US sanctions in 2017. Venezuelan migrants flows are increasing the stresses and strains placed on social and healthcare services by the pandemic, worsening the informality experienced by migrants and further limiting their access to healthcare (Zambrano-Barragán et al., 2021). In addition, migrants are among the populations most impacted by the heightened Covid-19 crisis across the region. Border closures  and changes to migration policy across Latin America countries have interrupted migrants’ movement, leaving thousands without inadequate health care and stranded across the region, forcing some to return to danger and poverty from which they were trying to escape (Borjoquez et al. 2021).

The informal economy continues to be a source of livelihoods for much of Latin America, with ‘large sections of the region’s population are living in chronic financial insecurity and are highly vulnerable to loss of labour income’ (ECLAC, 2020: 4). The International Labour Organisation (2020: 48) estimates that in 2019, 53 per cent of all Latin American workers were employed informally. Persistent informality has forced individuals to carry the social and economic burden of the pandemic in the place of the state, which has proved either unwilling (as is the case in Brazil and Mexico) or unable (as is the case in Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, the list goes on) to confront the pandemic in any meaningful systematic sense. In Chile, Magdalena Gil and  Eduardo Undurraga (2020: 31) note that although

‘people seem to understand the risk associated with COVID-19 and claim to be willing to comply with sanitary measures… the effectiveness of pandemic mitigation strategies depends not only on the willingness of the population to comply with them, but also on their ability to do so’.

Informality makes lockdowns nigh on impossible, pitting populations against public health officials. The region’s informalised working-classes often find themselves between the Scylla of risking infection by going out to work and the Charybdis of staying at home and slowly starving to death. Moreover, the high instances of informal housing, with its poor sanitation and high population densities, make Latin American cities perfect breeding grounds for coronavirus. Informal workers and city residents (who are usually one and the same) are particularly vulnerable to the negative impacts of the pandemic, with the informalisation of both the labour market and access to housing and other social services leading to deteriorating livelihoods and social inclusion (Zapata and Prieto Rosas, 2020).

The gendered outcomes of the COVID-19 pandemic in Latin America have been stark. Women already performed between 22 and 42 hours of unpaid domestic and care work per week before the crisis, with society-wide lockdown measures only increasing their reproductive workload. Over 70 percent of healthcare workers in the region are women, who disproportionately find themselves on the frontline of fighting the virus (United Nations, 2020: 14). Furthermore, an unintended consequence of lockdown measures to stop the spread of the virus has been a spike in domestic violence, already a problem for one of regions worst affected by another pandemic, that of gendered violence. Call traffic on emergency helplines for women in Chile and Mexico jumped by more than 50 percent during lockdowns, suggesting an intensification of gendered violence in the region. Likewise, the reported disappearance of  over 500 women in Peru during periods of lockdown shines a light on how widespread this phenomenon is in the region (Gideon, 2020: 5). This galvanised a response from, amongst others, local government and non-governmental organisations. A range of organisations reacted to the increased reports of domestic violence during the pandemic by expanding hotlines service with online resources and creating local networks to guarantee safe and rapid access to the appropriate support (Lima, 2020).

Finally, indigenous people are thought to be particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus, so much so that some are worried that the pandemic could spell the end for the regions more vulnerable groups (see, for example, Griffin, 2021). Across Latin America, indigenous people continue to be forced off their land as the agricultural and extractive frontiers eat into the Amazon rainforest. In Brazil, loggers and ranchers, emboldened by the government of Jair Bolsonaro, became increasingly belligerent in 2019, murdering indigenous leaders and accelerating dispossession. As the pandemic hit, the healthcare system of Manaus, the Brazilian city in the middle of the Amazon, collapsed in the face of the virus, a sign of the dangers that indigenous communities are confronted by. This is to say nothing of the millions of indigenous people who find themselves in informal settlements in the peripheries of Latin America’s cities, dependent on the market of the informal economy to survive.

In short, the COVID-19 pandemic has manifested in Latin America as a multidimensional crisis cutting across all spheres of life. It has intensified existing crises of extractivism and its attendant political forms. It has illuminated the abandonment of entire populations under neoliberalism, when people were forced off the land and into the cities, and out of the factories and into informal work. And it has revealed the morbid outcomes of extreme racial and gender inequalities, as certain populations are marked as disposable bodies.


Whilst the above contextualisation of the pandemic is essential for any analysis of the ongoing impacts of COVID-19 in Latin America, this special issue moves beyond the overview presented above to interrogate the current conjuncture from a wide range of different angles. Some of the authors explore how the pandemic has intersected with existing inequalities of race and gender, shining light on the particular ways different groups have been affected in different contexts. Others place the scientific and medical expertise at the heart of the global response to the pandemic in its social context, underscoring the contingent character of knowledge. Other contributors still assess the new forms of politics forged in the fires of COVID hell and the embryonic political horizons that have burst forth under such intense heat and pressure. With this Special Issue, Alternautas hopes not only to offer fine-grained analyses of the view of the pandemic in Latin America from below, but also to point towards the opportunities for ‘doing something different’ that have long sat centre stage in Latin American debates over development.

The first couple of articles in the special issue address indigenous peoples and gender in Latin America during the COVID-19 pandemic. Maria Paula Andrade highlights how indigenous people have developed strategies of active citizenship in Brazil to confront the pandemic. Andrade assesses how indigenous groups have bundled discourses around the spread of COVID-19 together with their opposition to the extension of the extractive frontier into their territories, strengthening democratic values in the country and successfully using different juridical and political routes to shape the policy decisions of different layers of the Brazilian state.

In her contribution, María Belén Villegas Plá explains how ‘socioeconomic and health crises are not gender blind’, outlining the gendered dimensions of increases in poverty, rising unemployment and cuts to social provisions disproportionately used by women and children in turn. Through exploring the gendered effects of fiscal policy, Villegas Plá forcefully argues against further austerity measures and for the need to think progressively about new revenue and expenditure schemes sensitive to gender.

Starting from misinformation on social media around the pandemic response of the World Health Organisation (WHO), Carolina Sotério takes a different tact. She traces the emergence of science as the basis for truth in post-enlightenment European philosophy to understand the world of fake news on Twitter. Sotério draws our attention to the importance of how knowledge circulates and the mechanisms through which public perceptions on how knowledge is produced can provoke different discourses around science at particular moments. She uses this discussion as an entry point to dissect the attacks on the WHO made by some sections of Brazilian society, in the process offering possible future antidotes to the dissemination of fake news on social media.

In his contribution, Geoff Goodwin underscores how existing water inequalities have enabled the spread of the pandemic, preventing the most marginalised groups in society from following one of the most basic yet effective preventative measures: handwashing. Goodwin traces historical processes co-producing potable water systems in Ecuador through the Andean practice of communal labour, mingas. In doing so, Goodwin draws our attention to the unevenness of access to clean water due to the packwork public, private and communal systems of provision and to the ingenuity and strength of water associations. Goodwin argues that the pandemic has opened up new opportunities for co-produced communal water services, offering them as alternatives to privatised or centralised services that could map out a route to universal coverage of clean drinking water in Ecuador sometime in the near future.

Finally, César J. Pérez-Lizasuain offers a revolutionary re-reading of the tragedy of Oedipus, highlighting the need to look beyond the return to normality at the end of the pandemic and take a risk in order to usher in a new post-pandemic world. He underlines how types of ‘unsaid dispositifs’ obscure the production and reproduction of power, allowing for the status quo to endure. For this reason, the possibility of ‘going back to normal’ offered by actors in political institutions the world over should be rejected: returning to normality, he stresses, means returning to the precarity and austerity lived by working-class Latin Americans, of accepting the racial and gendered axes of oppression analysed by other contributors. In making this argument, Pérez-Lizasuain draws our attention to the new horizons of possibility opened by the pandemic, making the case for urgent political action. It is beyond these horizons that Alternautas hopes Abya Yala can move as it emerges from the multi-dimensional crisis intensified by the COVID-19 pandemic.


Almeida, F. (2020) ‘Exploring the Impact of COVID-19 on the Sustainability of Health Critical Care Systems in South America’, International Journal of Health Policy and Management, (x), pp. 1–3. 

Alston, P. (2020) ‘The parlous state of poverty eradication Report’, United Nations, (June), pp. 1–24.

Bahaj, S. and Reis, R. (2020a) ‘Central Bank Swap Lines: Evidence on the Effects of the Lender of Last Resort’. Available at:

Bahaj, S. and Reis, R. (2020b) ‘Central bank swap lines during the Covid-19 pandemic’, Covid Economics, April(2), pp. 1–12.

Benítez, M. A. et al. (2020) ‘Responses to COVID-19 in five Latin American countries’, Health Policy and Technology, 9(4), pp. 525–559. 

Ietza Bojorquez, Báltica Cabieses, Carlos Arósquipa,Juan Arroyo, Andrés Cubillos Novella, Michael Knipper, Miriam Orcutt, Ana Cristina Sedas, Karol Rojas (2021) ‘Migration and health in Latin America during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond’, The Lancet, 397(10281), pp.1243-1245.

Brenner, R. (2006) The Economics of Global Turbulence: The Advanced Capitalist Economies from Long Boom to Long Downturn, 1945–2005. London: Verso.

Brenner, R. (2020) ‘Escalating Plunder’, New Left Review, 123(May/June), pp. 5–22.

Cullinan, K. (2021) What can people in wealthy nations do to fix COVID vaccine ‘apartheid’?, Open Democracy. Available at: (Accessed: 15 April 2021).

Davis, M. (2012) The Monster at Our Door: The Global Threat of Avian Flu. New York: The New Press.

ECLAC (2020) Special Report: The social challenge in times of COVID-19. Santiago de Chile. Available at:

ECLAC (2021) Financing for Development in the Era of COVID-19 and Beyond. Santiago de Chile. Available at:

Franz, T. (2020) ‘Spatial fixes and switching crises in the times of COVID-19: implications for commodity-producing economies in Latin America’, Canadian Journal of Development Studies. Taylor & Francis, 0(0), pp. 1–13. 

Gianella, C., Gideon, J. and Romero, M. J. (2020) ‘What does COVID-19 tell us about the Peruvian health system?’, Canadian Journal of Development Studies. Taylor & Francis, 0(0), pp. 1–13. 

Gideon, J. (2020) ‘Introduction to COVID-19 in Latin America and the Caribbean’, Bulletin of Latin American Research, 39(S1), pp. 4–6..

Gil, M. and Undurraga, E. A. (2020) ‘COVID-19 Has Exposed How “The Other Half” (Still) Lives’, Bulletin of Latin American Research, 39(S1), pp. 28–34.

Glenza, J. (2021) Coronavirus: how wealthy nations are creating a ‘vaccine apartheid’, The Guardian. Available at: (Accessed: 15 April 2021).

Griffin, J. (2021) ‘The Yanomami could disappear’ – Claudia Andujar on a people under threat in Brazil, The Guardian . Available at: (Accessed: 16 April 2021).

Hanieh, A. (2020) ‘COVID-19 and global oil markets’, Canadian Journal of Development Studies. Taylor & Francis, 0(0), pp. 1–8. 

Hannah, E. et al. (2021) The global approach to vaccine equity is failing: additional steps that would help, The Conversation. Available at: (Accessed: 15 April 2021).

ILO (2020) World Employment And Social Outlook: Trends 2020, International Labour Organization. Geneva: International Labour Organization.

IMF (2021) Fiscal Monitor: A Fair Shot. Washington: IMF.

Laskaridis, C. (2021) ‘When push came to shove : COVID-19 and debt crises in low-income countries’, Canadian Journal of Development Studies Revue canadienne d’études du développement. Taylor & Francis, 0(0), pp. 1–21. 

Lavinas, L. (2021) ‘Latin America at the crossroads yet again: what income policies in the post-pandemic era?’, Canadian Journal of Development Studies. Taylor & Francis, 0(0), pp. 1–11.

Lima, V. (2020). ‘The role of local government in the prevention of violence against women and girls during the COVID‐19 pandemic.’ Bulletin of Latin American Research, Vol. 39, No. S1, pp. 84–87.

Malm, A. (2020) Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency: War Communism in the Twenty-First Century. London: Verso.

Pan American Health Organization (2021) PAHO Director warns that vaccines alone will not stop current COVID-19 surge, Pan American Health Organization. Available at: (Accessed: 15 April 2021).

Paremoer, L. et al. (2021) ‘Covid-19 pandemic and the social determinants of health’, The BMJ, 372, pp. 1–5. doi: 10.1136/bmj.n129.

Raval, A. (2021) Inside the ‘Covid Triangle’: a catastrophe years in the making, Financial Times. Available at: (Accessed: 15 April 2021).

Safi, M. (2021) Oxford/AstraZeneca Covid vaccine research ‘was 97% publicly funded’, The Guardian. Available at: (Accessed: 15 April 2021).

Stevano, S., Franz, T., et al. (2021) ‘COVID-19 and crises of capitalism: intensifying inequalities and global responses’, Canadian Journal of Development Studies. Taylor & Francis, 0(0), pp. 1–17. 

Stevano, S., Mezzadri, A., et al. (2021) ‘Hidden Abodes in Plain Sight: the Social Reproduction of Households and Labor in the COVID-19 Pandemic’, Feminist Economics. Routledge.

Stevano, S., Ali, R. and Jamieson, M. (2020) ‘Essential for what? A global social reproduction view on the re-organisation of work during the COVID-19 pandemic’, Canadian Journal of Development Studies. Taylor & Francis, 0(0), pp. 1–22.

Stubbs, T. et al. (2021) ‘Whatever it takes? The global financial safety net, Covid-19, and developing countries’, World Development, 137(January), pp. 1–8.

Svampa, M. (2013) ‘« Consenso de los Commodities » y lenguajes de valoración en América Latina’, Nueva Sociedad, (244), pp. 30–46.

Taylor, L. (2021) ‘Covid-19: Is Manaus the final nail in the coffin for natural herd immunity?’, The BMJ

Tooze, A. (2018) Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World. New York: Penguin Random House.

United Nations (2020) ‘Policy Brief: The Impact of COVID-19 on Latin America and the Caribbean’, United Nations Sustainable Development Group, pp. 1–25. Available at:

Usuelli, M. (2020) ‘The Lombardy region of Italy launches the first investigative COVID-19 commission’, The Lancet. Elsevier Ltd, 396(10262), pp. e86–e87. 

Wenham, C. A. et al. (2020) ‘Spotlight on Gender, Covid-19 and the SDGs: Will the Pandemic Derail Hard-Won Progress on Gender Equality?’, Spotlight on the SDGs, p. 31. Available at:

Wenham, C., Smith, J. and Morgan, R. (2020) ‘COVID-19: the gendered impacts of the outbreak’, The Lancet. Elsevier Ltd, 395(10227), pp. 846–848. 

Zambrano-Barragán, P. et al. (2021) ‘The impact of COVID-19 on Venezuelan migrants’ access to health: A qualitative study in Colombian and Peruvian cities’, Journal of Migration and Health, 3(November 2020), p. 100029. 

Zapata, G. P. and Prieto Rosas, V. (2020) ‘Structural and Contingent Inequalities: The Impact of COVID-19 on Migrant and Refugee Populations in South America’, Bulletin of Latin American Research, 39(S1), pp. 16–22. 

This blogpost was originally published at

New Publication: European Union Responses to the Covid-19 Pandemic: adaptability in times of Permanent Emergency

By Sarah Wolff and Stella Ladi


Exploring the challenges of Covid-19 for the European Union (EU) during March-August 2020, this article argues that contrary to prior crises the EU has demonstrated a certain degree of adaptability to a ‘permanent’ emergency mode. This adaptability varies across policy areas under study. Inter-crisis learning has been higher in state aid and economic governance than in the area of Schengen. Discursive shifts co-exist and have been central to the areas of cybercrime, economic governance and climate change. Additionally, and despite the tensions, there are signs of renewed political commitment to the European project and an acceleration of decisions and initiatives that had been decided or discussed before the pandemic. Although de-politicization and politicization trends continue to co-exist, we observe politicization at the top with European elites perceiving the Covid-19 emergency as an existential threat for the EU. Finally, we argue that the EU’s adaptability and acceleration of prior trends do not necessarily involve a race that favor supranational tendencies.

To read the article, please see

New Publication: COVID-19 and the failure of the neoliberal regulatory state

By Lee Jones and Shahar Hameiri


The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed massive failures of governance at the global and national levels. Global health governance failed rapidly, with action quickly becoming nationally based, uncoordinated, and often zero-sum. However, domestic health governance also often fared very poorly, even in some of the wealthiest countries, which were ostensibly best-prepared to deal with a pandemic. Why? We argue that this reflects the inherent pathologies of the shift from ‘government to governance’ and of the ‘regulatory state’ it had spawned. This has resulted in the hollowing-out of effective state capacities, the dangerous diffusion of responsibility, and de facto reliance on ad hoc emergency measures to contain crises. We demonstrate this through a detailed case study of Britain, where regulatory governance and corporate outsourcing failed miserably, contrasting this with the experience of South Korea, where the regulatory state form was less well established and even partially reversed.

To read the article, please see

New Publication: Threat not solution: gender, global health security and COVID-19

By Sophie Harman


COVID-19 had led to long overdue visibility of the gendered determinants and impacts of health emergencies and global health security. This article explores why gender was neglected in previous health emergencies, what led to change in visibility of gender issues during the first six months of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the implications of such change for understanding the relationship between gender and global health security. The article explores the question of neglect by drawing on original research into the 2014–16 Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone, its aftermath and implications for future pandemic preparedness. The article then looks in detail at the research efforts, funding, epistemic community activism and impact of COVID-19 to explain why gender received high profile political attention and acknowledgment. The article argues that the change in visibility, research and advocacy around gender equality during the COVID-19 outbreak does not demonstrate an advancement in gender equality in global health. To the contrary, such visibility reinforces the inherent problems of global health security evident in the 2014–16 Ebola outbreak that create and reproduce binaries of neglect and visibility, and hierarchies of the global health issues that matter, the people that matter and the women that matter. What unites neglect and visibility of gender in global health security is that gender is understood as solution rather than threat. Combined these factors make gender equality incompatible with global health security.

To read the article, please see

New Publication: Imperialism and the Geopolitics of COVID-19 in Venezuela

Rowan Lubbock has written a new essay for Textos & Debates on the geopolitics of COVID-19 in Venezuela.

Abstract: The impact of COVID-19 in Venezuela has merely compounded an already existing health crisis within the country. Like the rest of the Venezuelan economy and society, the breakdown of the healthcare system is largely due to the legacy of class conflict and the contradictions of Bolivarian oil-dependent development policy, which finally came to breaking point with the end of the commodity super-cycle. And yet, despite the domestic sources of the crisis, the current unfolding of the COVID-19 pandemic in Venezuela is inherently geopolitical in nature. Central to this story is the manner in which Venezuela’s domestic and electoral dynamics have become inextricably embedded within the ‘imperialist chain’ centred on Washington. The conflict between chavista and opposition forces, the constitutional crisis of 2017, the unilateral declaration of Juan Guaidó as ‘interim president’ in 2019, and an intensified sanctions regime are all differentially conditioned by US imperial strategy. This paper will unpack the interconnections between the domestic and international dynamics of Venezuela’s socio-political crisis, explore the ways in which COVID-19 has been weaponised by the Trump administration, and attempt to understand the prospects for radical political renewal under conditions of increasing geopolitical conflict.

The article can be found at

Do you want to write a COVID dissertation?

Professor Sophie Harman gives some advice about coming up with dissertation topics related to COVID.

Part of the joy and point of writing a dissertation is for students to come up with their own subject and research question. Both students and supervisors know this is often the most painful part of the process (second only to the week before deadline – start early, marathon not a sprint etc!). I know good supervisors can support students writing dissertations in all manner of subjects and this is what makes it so rewarding. However, in a year where we’re all dealing with increased pressure, demands on our time, and managing screen headaches, I thought I’d put my 15 years global health politics experience to good use and make some suggestions/pointers to help you when a student comes to you as says the inevitable:[1]

‘I was thinking of writing my dissertation on COVID-19’

Below are 10 suggested questions with suggested literature and methods, covering institutions, security, race, policy, vaccines, gender, aesthetics, expertise, knowledge. These by no means cover everything and by no means prescribe how I think a dissertation on that topic should be written. If helpful, see them as jump-off points to think about these topics. The only caution I have is make sure all projects are only focused on the start/first 6 months of COVID-19 – we are only at the end of the beginning. This is also a pre-emptive move to stop you getting your students to email me for ideas.

Institutions and Global Governance

  1. Is the WHO capable of preventing and responding to major pandemics?

Literature: WHO, IHR, GOARN, global health security + previous outbreaks (Ebola, pandemic flu, HIV/AIDS)

Methods: Case Studies – look at the tools/instruments e.g. IHR, GOARN, Regional offices etc

  • Why did states pursue different responses to the COVID-19 outbreak?

Literature: Global health security, state compliance in IR, international law and international organisations

Methods: Pick two contrasting case studies e.g. England/Scotland, Canada/US, Germany/UK, Sweden/Denmark and then look at different levels of policy and decision making per chapter – Global, National, Regional/local and rationales behind decisions from – expert evidence, speeches, policy decisions, policy timelines


  • How can we understand the gender dimensions of COVID-19?

Literature: Gender and global health, Feminist IPE, Black Feminism, WPS (if looking at violence)

Methods: Explore 1 – 3 key themes from the literature – Care and domestic burden, Health Care Workers, Domestic violence in depth. Depending on networks and contacts, could run focus groups (ethics! And definitely NOT if doing violence), or analyse survey data – lots of surveys done on this and the raw data is always made available if have the skills to play with it.

Political Economy

  • Are states the main barrier to vaccine equity?

Literature: Vaccine access and nationalism, access to treatment, IPE of health and trade, pharmaceutical companies, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

Methods: Look at the different stages of vaccine development for 2/3 trials and consider the role of States (where putting money, public statements, any actions e.g. email hacks), Researchers (where get money from, how collaborating, knowledge sharing), Institutions (CEPI, GAVI, WHO), and the Private Sector (pharma and foundations – who’s investing, what is their return – and private security companies – who protects the commodity?). Think: interests, investment, barriers/opportunities.

Security and Foreign Policy

  • Were state security strategies prepared for major pandemics prior to COVID-19? If not, why not?

Literature: Global health security, securitisation and desecuritisation of health

Methods: 2 – 3 state case studies or 1 in detail, think about Strategy, Training/Preparedness, Actors. Content analysis of security strategies and defence planning and budget allocations, speeches, training, simulations etc.


  • What is the role of images in responding to outbreaks?

Literature: Aesthetics and IR, behaviour change communication and images in public health

Methods: 3 case studies on different types of images in COVID-19, e.g. 1. Global public health messaging; 2. National public health messaging; 3. Community Expression – OR pick one of these options and explore in depth.

Race and Racism

  • Could the racial inequalities of COVID-19 been foreseen and prevented?

Literature: Racism and global health, racism and domestic health systems, Black Feminism, Critical Trans Politics

Method: Option 1 – look maternal health as a proxy in three case study countries e.g. Brazil, US, UK; Option 2 – pick one country and look at three health issues prior to COVID-19 e.g. Maternal Health, Diabetes, Heart Disease.

Knowledge, Discourse, and Experts

  • Is COVID-19 the biggest global pandemic of a generation?

Literature: Postcolonial/decolonial theory, poststructuralism; Politics of HIV/AIDS, pandemic flu

Method: Discourse analysis around ‘once in a lifetime rhetoric’ – who says it, when, and why; contrast with discourse around COVID-19 from countries with previous outbreaks e.g. Sierra Leone, DRC, China, Indonesia, South Africa, Brazil (you’ll need to be selective as can’t measure discourse from all states! Think through why you make your choices here and how they relate to each other) OR contrast COVID-19 with a previous pandemic, e.g. HIV/AIDS

  • What knowledge counts in COVID-19?

Literature: Postcolonial/decolonial theory, post-structuralism, IR and Global Health, politics of experts

Methods: Review lessons learned from previous outbreaks (there are lots of source material on this after Ebola and SARS for example) and how they led to changes/what learned for COVID-19; Stakeholder mapping and/or network analysis – Who are the experts? Look at backgrounds, types of knowledge and expertise, did they work on the Ebola response/HIV/AIDS in the early 2000s for example?; Case Study – UK/US – where have high concentration of public health experts and institutions, export knowledge to low and middle income countries, evidence of importing knowledge from these countries, especially given the experience?

UK/State responses

  1. How can we understand/explain the first 6 months of the US/UK/Sweden/Australia/South Africa/China/Brazil/you choose! response to COVID-19?

WARNING! This is the question that could descend into a polemic so approach with absolute caution. I would strongly advise against, but have included to give a clearer steer.

Key with this question is to remember you are not submitting a public health or epidemiology dissertation, so bear in mind you probably don’t have the skills and knowledge to assess what was a good/bad public health decision (other than obvious ones such as PPE stocks for example). What you do have the skills to do is to look at the politics as to why a decision was taken and how is was taken – investigate what the different recommendations/guidance suggested and who followed/ignored/subverted it and what outcomes this produced.

Literature: health policy, public policy, state compliance IR

Methods: 1. Global – map what global advice there was and how did the state follow (or not) in preparedness and response and what was the rationale for doing so – political circumstances at the time, stated rationale for decision, who was making decision; 2. National – key public health decisions, commodities, social-economic consequences – how were these planned for/overlooked and why. To look at these two levels may require mixed methods of global and national policy timelines, stakeholder analysis, content analysis of speeches and recommendations, mapping changes to data presentation and access.

[1] For the first two years of my career I supervised countless projects loosely based around ‘Is the War in Iraq illegal?’ I’m hoping some of the variety here will stop two years of ‘Is the UK government’s respond to COVID-19 a national scandal?’ or ‘Is the WHO fit for purpose?’ – two great topics, but tiresome after a bit.

New Research: QMUL’s Sophie Harman co-authors a new article for Nature about the lessons of past pandemics about the effect on women

The social and economic impacts of COVID-19 fall harder on women than on men. Governments need to gather data and target policy to keep all citizens equally safe, sheltered and secure.

Authors/editor(s): Clare Wenham, Julia Smith, Sara E. Davies, Huiyun Feng, Karen A. Grépin, Sophie Harman, Asha Herten-Crabb & Rosemary Morgan

Drawing on the experience of past pandemics new article in the journal Nature argues that

“Women are affected more than men by the social and economic effects of infectious-disease outbreaks. They bear the brunt of care responsibilities as schools close and family members fall ill. They are at greater risk of domestic violence and are disproportionately disadvantaged by reduced access to sexual- and reproductive-health services. Because women are more likely than men to have fewer hours of employed work and be on insecure or zero-hour contracts, they are more affected by job losses in times of economic instability.”

The article can be found at

New Research: QMUL’s Sophie Harman co-authors a new article for UNWomen on COVID and gender equality

Authors/editor(s): Ginette Azcona, Antra Bhatt, Sara Davies, Sophie Harman, Julia Smith, and Clare Wenham

Original URL:

Sophie is Professor of International Politics and a BAFTA-nominated film producer. She is interested in visual method and the politics of seeing, global health politics, African agency, and the politics of conspicuously invisible women. Her research has reflected 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. These interests have informed her teaching on the modules Global Health Politics, Africa and International Relations, and Global Governance.

COVID-19 has been declared a public health emergency of international concern and a global pandemic by the World Health Organization. This global threat to health security underscores the urgent need to accelerate progress on achieving Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 3 and the need to massively scale up international cooperation to deliver on SDG 3. It also reveals what is less obvious, but no less urgent: how health emergencies such as COVID-19, and the response to them, can exacerbate gender inequality and derail hard-won progress not only on SDG 3 but on all the SDGs.

This paper presents the latest evidence on the gendered impact of the pandemic, highlights potential and emerging trends, and reflects on the long-term impact of the crisis on the achievement of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

The paper begins by presenting key facts and figures relating to the gendered impacts of COVID-19 followed by reflecting on the health impacts of COVID-19 on SDG 3 targets. Then, the paper explores the socioeconomic and political implications of COVID-19 on women and gender across five of the Goals: SDG 1 (poverty), 4 (quality education), 5 (gender equality), 8 (decent work and economic growth), and 10 (reduced inequalities).

The paper concludes by outlining policy priorities drawn from the evidence presented.

This paper is part of the “Spotlight on the SDGs” series.

View online/download

Bibliographic information

Subject area(s): 2030 Agenda for Sustainable DevelopmentCOVID-19Gender equality and women’s empowermentGender statisticsHealthSex-disaggregated dataSexual and reproductive health and rightsSustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

Blog: Shipping Oil

By Laleh Khalili

Laleh Khalili is a professor of International Politics at Queen Mary University of London and most recently the author of Sinews of War and Trade (Verso, 2020).

Image from ship’s equipment during a journey in the Gulf of Oman. The cluster of triangles towards the bottom left are ships at anchor near the bunkering port of Fujairah in the UAE.

Flying above oceanic anchorages near the world’s largest oil ports reveals a tangle of all sorts of cargo ships waiting to bunker (refuel), as well as load or unload petroleum or chemicals. Oil ports often—though not always—also boast proximity to both vast land-based tank farms for the storage of oil, natural gas, and petrochemicals, as well as to refineries. These oil facilities are usually visible in their totality only from the air or from the sea, with loading buoys sometimes a mile or more away from the shore itself, and the ships anchoring still further. Tank farms tend to be hidden behind layers of barbed wire fencing and security, and strips of wasteland often separate them from the roads that run alongside. These interconnected coastal infrastructures reveal the extent to which the extraction, storage, pricing, and sale of petroleum and petrochemical products is not just dependent on the maritime circulation of petroleum products, but is fundamentally defined by it. Bound up in the politics of circulation are the asymmetries of power: between producing nations and the consumers; between producers of crude and those who refine the oil; between those who work on the ships, tank farms, and infrastructures, and those who profit from them; amongst hegemonic leviathans, rising global powers, and those struggling against imperial economic arrangements.

Because so much transportation (on the roads and in the air) and factory production has ceased as a result of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, the demand for oil has dramatically dropped. Simultaneously, a pricing war triggered by Saudi Arabia against Russia has flooded the market with oil. The effect of the pandemic on the circulation of oil and its derivative products has been revealing. First and foremost, the pandemic has shown the brittleness of global trade: the very condition of possibility of commerce across the oceans is also what makes it vulnerable to disruption, with ships and airplanes becoming vectors of transmission. This brittleness and unpredictability extends to the trade in oil, but its effects are paradoxical: despite a general lull in global trade, the chartering of tanker ships has expanded, rather than contracted.

The pandemic has also shown that the upstream production of oil is affected by the downstream processes and financial pricings that are usually conceptualized as subsequent to production. This imagined sequencing—production first, sale and transport thereafter—obscures the foundational role of the circulation of oil in defining the very parameters of its production, but also the long reach of its maritime transportation into the financing and pricing of oil.

Facebook post by Argentinian economic journalist Sergio Elguezábal on April 21, 2020. The map of tankers, shared over 20,000 times to date on Facebook, soon began to circulate across all social media, largely without attribution.

Financial and Physical Markets

In late April 2020, an image circulated on social media that looked like a screen-capture from a ship-tracking application. These types of apps are commercial products that draw on GPS data and ships’ AIS (Automatic Identification System) to track the movement of vessels across the oceans. They also provide information about what kind of ships the small markers on the map represent (container vessels, bulk carriers, roll-on/roll-off vehicle carriers, and the like), what cargo they carry, a history of that ship, and a map of its current route.

The viral social media image was a map focused on the Western Hemisphere, and showed clusters of tankers along the coasts of Africa, the Americas, and Europe. With the concurrent plummeting demand and rise in production of oil, landside tank farms and storage spaces began to run at or near capacity. Oil producers and buyers were chartering tankers to store oil at sea. Instead of circulating, oil was in stasis.

The map, which was first posted on April 21, 2020, documents a historically unprecedented event, in which the “price” of oil dropped below zero. However, the “price” of oil is not a single number, and does not represent the cost of a universal barrel of oil being traded now or in the future, everywhere or anywhere in the world. Several different benchmarks for oil correspond to the location of their trade (West Texas Intermediate, Brent, Dubai, etc.) and they often differ from one another by a few dollars per barrel, based on specific geographical and political determinants. But the place of production and trade is not the only determinant of oil’s price(s).

Oil prices are complex calculations of the price of oil produced at the moment of trade (the spot price) and the price of oil slated for delivery at a future time (futures price). Oil derivatives are financial instruments that were first devised in 1979 and which bet on the future price of a commodity (or even abstract objects, such as an index of prices of freight) going up or down. These financial instruments affect the pricing of oil even in the spot markets, but they do so unevenly, with differing impact, depending on the price of what kind of product the derivative is betting on. The financialization of oil markets was part of a broader global neoliberal trend from the 1970s onwards, but it was also a direct response to the process of nationalization of oil across the Middle East. Up until this moment of nationalization, oil majors (i.e. the seven massive North American and European oil companies: BP, Chevron, Eni, ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell, Total, and ConocoPhillips) had controlled the price of oil. Now, thanks to its financialization, majors are no longer able to dictate the price of oil on a global market, and these derivatives create speculative tools for the extraction of profit from fluctuations in the price of oil.

On April 20, as the landside oil storage in Cushing, Oklahoma—a transportation crossroads between the fields of the Midwest and Texas, and the oil terminals of the Gulf Coast—began to fill, and as some futures contracts reached their settlement date of April 21, the futures price of the West Texas Intermediate crude plunged below zero.1 This meant that on April 20, traders of this particular grade and species of oil were actually paying not to take delivery of oil the next day. Derivatives are sometimes portrayed as wholly speculative abstractions, but as Mazen Labban has written perspicaciously, the pricing of oil is “not a dualism between a ‘real’ space-time of material circulation and a ‘fictitious’ space-time of financial representations. Both are real enough and have their own materiality, but each alone is an abstraction incapable of standing in for the oil market.”2 On April 20, this became undeniable. The materiality of the circulation and storage, its inadequacy and limitations, had crashed the futures market. In the days before and after negative oil prices, many shale oil and offshore companies in the US declared bankruptcy.

Cape or Canal Routes

While the computer screens of the financial systems strobed with the plunging prices of most petroleum products on April 20, maritime tracking screens traced the paths of tankers gathering in ever denser clusters near oil and bunkering ports, waiting to load and unload. Ships were anchored along the coast of Venezuela, the Gulf of Mexico, southern California, Mexico, the west coast of Africa, near the straits of Malacca and Hormuz, and all along the shores of East Asia.

Although we cannot know whether these ships are simply acting as storage or were in fact en route, many shipping companies have changed their routes between Europe and Asia as a direct result of the oil glut.3 When the price of oil—and therefore of fuel—drops, and when ships carrying goods—but especially carrying oil—are in no hurry to get to their destination, it becomes cheaper for ships to take longer routes—for example around the Cape of Good Hope, rather than pay the passage fees for the Suez Canal. The longer routes and the “slow steaming” may add a few weeks to the journey itself, but it saves the shipping companies money. These cost savings are balanced against a delay in promised delivery, the possibility of having to wait at anchor before unloading or loading goods, the length of additional time seafarers may have to spend on the ship, and even possible threats to the safety of the seafarers.

I experienced the effects of something like this when travelling aboard containerships, once in early 2015 during a roaring period of global trade, and once in mid-2016 after a dip in global trade.4 During the first journey, the ship’s captain was ordered by the company to steam at maximum speed through the Red Sea, around the Arabian Peninsula and into the Gulf of Oman. The ship, commanded thus, peeled off from the convoy of ships that pass through the Gulf of Aden together as a precaution against piracy, and hugged the coasts of Yemen and Oman in order to cut a few nautical miles out of the route, at very high speed, consuming huge amounts of fuel. On the second journey, with commerce in a lull, any kind of cargo that could earn some profit was needed, and fuel cost savings were more important. As such, midway through the trip, a new port was added to the route so as to add a few more containers for carriage, with the ship all the while steaming at very slow speeds.

More than 500 shipping journeys were cancelled between Asia and Europe or the Americas throughout March or April 2020. Those that did happen tended to have a reduced of containers and traveled along their routes—which themselves changed, shifting toward the Cape—at extremely slow speeds (sometimes at a quarter of the usual ship speed).5 Even ships steaming from the Eastern Mediterranean have chosen to pass through Gibraltar and go around the southern tip of Africa rather than pay the fees for the much more proximate Suez Canal. The Cape route also allows for economies of scale in the transport of goods. The Canal’s depth and width places certain limits on the size of ships passing through it; SuezMax ships are about 275 meters long and have a draft of 12.2 meters. The ships now loading crude from the Ceyhan oil terminal in Turkey are Very Large Crude Carriers (VLCC) or Ultra Large Crude Carriers (ULCC), some with a draft of more than 20 meters and most with lengths exceeding 350 meters.

Oily pollutants released by an unidentified ship in the Gulf of Oman.

Crude or Refined Oil

Interactive maritime trackers show ships as static (or glacially moving) markers on a screen and often indicate their origins and destinations. The map from April 21, 2020, however, does not show any of that information. Static maps of maritime vessels obscure the contradictory movements and relations and directions of the ships. We can therefore only speculate why the ships were where they were. And even if so many of these ships were acting as storage, it would not be possible to know their destinations or the timing of their journey. But we do know that just as bulk and container ships were cancelling trips, or steaming half empty, the cost of chartering tankers doubled as both producers and traders turned to storing oil on ships. At some stage in mid-April, the cost of chartering a ULCC was up to $350,000 perday, double what it had been a scant few weeks before.

In the April 21 map, some ships are pointed away from Nigeria or Venezuela and seem to be steaming towards the Cape of Good Hope, presumably on their way to Asia. China imports the vast majority of its oil—90% of it—by sea, but China is nowhere near the largest global consumer of oil.6 The US consumed 20% of all the oil produced worldwide, whereas China only takes 13.5%.7 The April 21 map cannot, therefore, be taken as a snapshot of global oil.

The US both exports and imports petroleum.8 Much of what US imports arrives through pipelines from Canada or Mexico and is intended for its refineries which are configured to process particular kinds of oil (heavy/light, sour/sweet) that are produced in specific oil fields. The proliferation of these refineries also distinguishes the US consumption of oil from that of China. US refining capacity outstrips that of all other countries (Texas alone has higher refining capacity than all of China)—but more importantly, its refineries produce products which garner higher market prices. As such, US refineries’ conversion capacity to value-added products far outstrips all other countries. This means that even if the entirety of the Asia Pacific has a comparable general refining capacity to the US, US conversion capacity, and therefore its extraction of value, is higher. Why does this matter for maritime transport?

Those VLCCs and ULCCs that often only carry crude oil depend on an extractive economy and trade in raw materials, a hallmark of colonial economic relations. The chartering of a broader range of ship sizes indicates the extent to which, beyond the economies of extraction, value-added products produced through refining and processing has aided the accumulation of capital in the global North. Indeed, in the aftermath of the nationalization of oil in the Gulf in the 1970s, many of these countries turned to increasing their refining capacity as a means of escaping the extractive economy and acquiring petrochemical manufacturing technology and know-how. The 1970s nationalizers were not fiery revolutionaries seizing control of US or European oil companies as in decades past in places like Iran or Mexico, but technocrats from producing nations of the Gulf negotiating the buyout of their national oil from North American and European oil majors.

These technocrats, however, understood the benefits of downstream value-added production and control over the circulation of their own products. In a fascinating account of a failing shipyard in Belfast in 1975, a sales representative of the ship yard, “back from a sales tour of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Abu Dhabi and Iraq,” said that instead of large tankers, the Arabs wanted smaller vessels to carry refined petroleum products such as kerosene and gasoline. “They won’t need them until four or five years from now,” he said, “when they will have the refining capacity to make the products.”9 As Walter Rodney has written, the emphasis on trade of raw materials, rather than on production of more expensive manufactured goods, privileged traders over producers, delayed technological innovation, and led to economic stagnation and intensified exploitation of both humans and natural resources.10

Economic development is a double-edged sword. Both the production and circulation of petrochemicals have dramatic ecological effects. The same shale oil which has, since the deregulation of fracking, boosted the position of US as an exporter of oil, also leads to the devastation of groundwaters, soil, and spaces inhabited by indigenous peoples. The indigenous and first nations people of the Americas have been struggling against devastating extractive industries defacing and destroying their lands for decades. Most recently, however, the Water Protectors of Standing Rock (since 2016) and their Wetʼsuwetʼen counterparts further north (in 2019 and 2020) have campaigned for the cessation of construction of pipelines across their lands. The struggle of the Water Protectors of Standing Rock, however, was crushed by the force of militarized police, while the Wetʼsuwetʼen campaign—which included a widely-supported blockade of logistical lines—has been momentarily deferred because of the pandemic.11

Maritime transportation of oil also can devastate the environment. Tanker transport is responsible for least a quarter of all oil spills at sea.12 And aside from catastrophic large-scale oil spills, ship collisions or groundings can lead to the leakage of oil and petroleum products during loading and unloading. On oil-rich coasts around the world, beaches are often strewn with lumps of tar that have formed at sea and washed ashore. Ships can release ballast water in unregulated ways, and although ballast tanks and oil or fuel tanks are supposed to be separate, dirty ballast water, released in unregulated or lightly regulated ports, can introduce dangerous pollutants into the marine environment. Ships also produce enormous air pollution. If they are at anchor for days, even weeks, on end, the chance of their illicit discharge of all sorts of waste will also increase in such seas, and their engines will inevitably produce oxides of carbon and nitrogen, sulphur compounds, and particulate matters.

The tumbling of global trade, the closure of borders, the historically high unemployment, and therefore plummeting demand for oil wrought by the pandemic all sketch the contours of a shifting context for maritime movement of oil. But the real levers of transformation are political. In response to the pandemic, businesses are consolidating their positions and policymakers are rallying around capital to ensure that any retrenchment does not subvert the processes of accumulation. As trade has been hobbled, various states such as France and South Korea have bailed out their oil and shipping companies.13

As has been true with fracking, pipeline-building, value-extraction through refining, and soaring exports, the US continues to strive for maintaining the hegemonic role of the greatest consumer and one of the greatest producers of oil (and also, inevitably, the greatest polluter). China and India, meanwhile, are slowly taking up the oceans of oil stored at sea as their factories slowly reopen. The midwife of this new post-pandemic age will not be the changes produced temporarily by the pandemic: capital is remarkably resilient in the face of crisis, even successive ones. Any real transformation—in how we produce and circulate and consume energy, in who benefits and who suffers from the effects of production and circulation of petroleum and its products—can come only through concerted political action: one that binds together a stewardship of the earth and its oceans with demands to dismantle global asymmetries of power.

Oceans in Transformation is a collaboration between TBA21–Academy and e-flux Architecture within the context of the eponymous exhibition at Ocean Space in Venice by Territorial Agency and its manifestation on Ocean Archive.

This blogpost was originally published at e-flux at

Media: Papamichail in conversation with Weeam Hammoudeh (Birzeit), Nassim El Achi (AUB), and Abdulkarim Ekzayez (KCL)

By Andreas Papamichail

Dr Andreas Papamichail is a lecturer at Queen Mary University of London. Both his teaching and research interests lie at the interface of International Relations and Global Health. He is a fellow of Advance HE (previously the Higher Education Academy) and, while at King’s, won a university-wide award for inclusive education.

As part of Mile End Institute’s video series on COVID-19, Dr Andreas Papamichail (Queen Mary University of London) speaks to Dr Abdulkarim Ekzayez (King’s College London), Dr Weeam Hammoudeh (Birzeit University) and Dr Nassim El Achi (American University of Beirut) about the current situation with respect to the coronavirus pandemic in Syria, Palestine and Lebanon, and how the political situation in the three countries is affecting the response to the outbreak.