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The COVID-19 Pandemic and Ukraine: On the Horns of a Biopolitical Trilemma

Mykhailo Minakov
Three U.S. Air Force medical Airmen exit a C-17 Globemaster III following the first-ever operational use of the Transport Isolation System at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, April 10, 2020. The TIS is an infectious disease containment unit designed to minimize contamination risk to aircrew and medical attendants, while allowing in-flight medical care for patients afflicted by a disease—in this case, COVID-19.
Three U.S. Air Force medical Airmen exit a C-17 Globemaster III following the first-ever operational use of the Transport Isolation System at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, April 10, 2020.


The COVID-19 pandemic is stress testing all political systems for their ability to ensure the survival of their populations. It is not just the public health systems of different countries that are being tested but the very ability of governments to fight the pandemic. Ukraine, like other of its post-Soviet neighbors, has undergone this scrutiny with mixed results. With an optional quarantine in place, it has experienced a low confirmed mortality, an even lower level of testing, and significant damage to the economy.

Contemporary states are usually described as a set of political institutions with four functions: (1) a war making function (the elimination of external threats, outside own territories), (2) a state-making function (the elimination of internal rivals), (3) a protection function (the elimination of potential threats to those governed), and (4) an extractive function (the collection of taxes or revenues that provide a state with the financial means to fulfill the first three functions). However, a critical analysis of contemporary states shows that they also have other functions, which help them be recognized as legitimate and necessary for the population political superstructure. The biopolitical function is among the key functions in this latter groups.

As enunciated by Michel Foucault, Giorgio Agamben, and other philosophers and political scholars, the concept of biopolitics implies that politics serves not only the purposes of those striving for power and wealth but also the purposes of the subjects of power, the citizens and their lives. States must care about and invest in public health, the demographic situation, and the productive, quality lives of their citizens. In the context of the current pandemic, this means that governments are responsible for the fundamental survival of the populace.

Over the past three months, three basic models have emerged of how governments and governed reacted to the pandemic. The first and most successful model combined government efforts to massively test populations and impose a stringent quarantine on groups found to be infected with citizens’ voluntary efforts to abide by the rules of self-imposed social distancing and the wearing of masks. This model emerged in Japan, Singapore, and South Korea. The second model envisaged a severe quarantine imposed by the government and fully implemented by populations under threat of sanctions. Such quarantine measures, which did not respect citizens’ rights and liberties, were imposed in autocratic states. Finally, the third model emerged in democratic states under a strong neoliberal influence: authorities, trying to respect the rule of law, were always late in mounting an effective response to the epidemic situation and the population was reluctant to accept quarantine rules. In reality, these three models were applied with many variations in each country, but their key features prevailed. And in each case, they revealed contradictions between the interests of the authorities, the population at large, and individual citizens.

Nation, population, and citizens are the three major subjects of the biopolitical order as manifested in the current national (writ large) response to the pandemic. The correlations between the three elements establish, following the thinking of Dani Rodrik, a trilemma: namely, it is impossible to govern and fight an epidemic effectively with equal respect for the sovereignty of the state, the survival of the population, and the rights and liberties of individual citizens, because only two of these can be achieved simultaneously.

The authoritarian regimes are seemingly inclined to strengthen their illiberal sovereigntism, which respects the authority of national states and the survival of the general population. In such regimes, the quarantine is strong, populations are forced to obey it, and information about the real epidemic situation is known only by those in power. Established democracies, even in times of emergency, follow their constitutional procedures, which pay attention to the interests of government and citizens. But these procedures result in the slow adoption of anti-epidemic measures and thus considerable loss of life, diminishing the population. In countries where governments are weak and dysfunctional, it is up to citizens, communities, businesses and society at large to find ways to survive just another crisis under conditions of decentralized anarchy.

The post-Soviet states were not spared the choices of this trilemma. Back in March, Marlene Laruelle and Madeline McCann showed the differences in early response to the COVID-19 epidemic by post-Soviet authorities. The authors demonstrated that there were four country groups: “early responders” (Armenia and Georgia), “late responders” (Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Moldova, Ukraine), “laggards” (Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan), and “deniers” (Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Belarus).

Today, at the beginning of May, this classification already looks different. All post-Soviet governments, including those of the deniers, have acknowledged the risk and introduced some form of quarantine, varying from fairly strict social distancing in Georgia and Russia to Turkmen covert operations against the sick and those who have come in contact with them. The public health systems do not have the resources for mass testing, and thus the statistics on contagions and COVID-related deaths from these countries are rather unreliable. Also, the post-Soviet populations tend to distrust public anti-epidemic measures and either socially distance however they want or disregard the risks and try to conduct business as usual. However, most of these governments seem to choose between two options: some disregard the law and pursue the illiberal sovereigntist choice, while others are too inefficient to decide at all, so that individuals and communities must make their own choices (anarchy).

The Ukrainian government, despite some delay and fears of a huge economic loss, attempted to introduce a strict quarantine regime in mid-March. Small businesses were closed and public transit was shut down, citizens were required to self-isolate, and national borders were closed to personal travel. Ukraine’s Security Council, the public health system, the president, and the interior minister tried to convince citizens of the necessity of those measures.

But the government’s decision to introduce a quarantine (now extended to May 11) was not only late, it was made in violation of existing laws and legal procedures. For this reason, fines assessed against violators of social distancing guidelines were often dismissed by the courts. Testing, either mass or large-scale, cannot be done in Ukraine, mainly because of shortages. And in the last week of April, more and more urban dwellers seemed to be ignoring the “stay at home” orders, while large gatherings of people protesting the quarantine have continued.

In response to the growing reaction, which is not limited to frustrated residents of large cities, the Ukrainian government appears to be avoiding making hard decisions. Instead, the prime minister announced that, after May 11, an “adaptive quarantine” will be introduced: masks and social distancing will remain, while local authorities will decide on the rest of issues.

In keeping with a trend toward lack of responsibility in national politics (reported in Focus Ukraine recently), the Ukrainian government seems to want to sidestep responsibility for its biopolitical function as well, which will increase the chance for decentralized anarchy.

The opinions expressed in this article are those solely of the author and do not reflect the views of the Kennan Institute.

About the Author

Mykhailo Minakov

Mykhailo Minakov

Senior Advisor; Editor-in-Chief, Focus Ukraine Blog
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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier US center for advanced research on Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the South Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more