This essay is part of a series, Fletcher Voices. WPF invited students at Tufts University’s the Fletcher School for Law and Diplomacy to submit short essays reflecting on the impact of coronavirus. Zihao Liu is a Class of 2020 Master of Arts in Law & Diplomacy candidate at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, where he focuses on the intersection of International Security and International Business. He holds a B.A. in History from Cornell University.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is without a doubt one of the most influential events that have had major impacts on international relations in recent years. It has created an economic recession worse than the 2008 financial crisis, disrupted global supply chain more rapidly than the U.S.-China trade war, kept powerful warships at bay and opened a new front in great-power competition. Yet, surprisingly, pandemics like COVID-19 are rarely studied upon at major IR schools in the U.S., making it a blind spot that needs to be covered quickly.

Going through the curriculums of major IR professional education institutions, such as the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts, School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) at Johns Hopkins, Georgetown’s Walsh School of Foreign Service (SFS) and Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA), one can see that none of their IR degrees’ core curriculum requirements contain classes that focus on pandemic-related issues. Even though there are a few classes that include topics of global health, they are still limited to the context of international development or humanitarian assistance. In other words, there are few, if any, stand-alone analysis on infectious diseases and pandemics. For instance, at the Fletcher School, there are only two courses exclusively dedicated to global health issues and only one of them is specifically on infectious disease, which is a modular course that is not even offered every year. While students pursuing the Master in International Affairs degree at SIPA do have the option to take a range of public health classes from Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health, the classes are all elective courses offered to those concentrating in human rights and humanitarian policy.

There are several plausible explanations for the absence of pandemic studies in major IR schools in the U.S. One is that pandemics, compared to other events such as armed conflicts, do not feature as prominently in the public discourse of international affairs, despite having played critical roles in the progression of human civilization. Indeed, the most recent pandemic that exists in U.S. public memory seem to be the flu of 1918, which is more than a century ago. Another possible reason is that IR educators might think the study of pandemics should largely remain in the realm of public health schools, which understandably command more expertise and authority on such issues.

COVID-19 has painfully illustrated how a pandemic can encompass virtually all aspects of international relations in such a short time. As such, IR schools in the U.S. have an urgent responsibility to incorporate infectious diseases into one of the central education topics. A good model for reference is cyber studies. As a relatively new entrant into the sphere of international affairs, cybersecurity is studied extensively in almost all IR schools. Students can learn about cyber issues from the perspective of international relations without the need to become IT experts. Similarly, there is no reason why students cannot learn about pandemics from an IR perspective (or even vice versa) without necessarily becoming global health experts. The time is overdue for IR schools to complement their curriculums with pandemic studies, and the tragic outbreak of COVID-19 can serve as an appropriate opportunity.  

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One Response to Fletcher Voices: “Integrate Pandemic Studies into IR Education”

  1. Mike G says:

    Well written piece and hope you are well. It’s my sincere hope that China can enforce the right policies to prevent future pandemics and this does not become the new norm for the United States. I agree that US IR programs and US universities are in a unique position to help guide the global discourse on emerging threats, pandemics included. Ideally this would be a pursuit in collaboration with other international universities.

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