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COVID-19 and International Relations: tackling a crisis within a crisis

COVID-19 and International Relations: tackling a crisis within a crisis

2020 has been challenging globally, but for countries that are already in the midst of political and societal unrest, the impact and suffering caused by the coronavirus pandemic is amplified; they are facing a crisis within a crisis.

This is especially evident in the Middle East, which, when it comes to international relations, has always posed a myriad of challenges.

“Summer always seems to be the cruellest season in the Middle East” writes Steven A Cook, senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. “The June 1967 war, Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982, the hijacking of Trans World Airlines Flight 847 in 1985, Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, and the Islamic State’s rampage through Iraq in 2014. The summer of 2020 has already joined that list”.1

Yemen – ‘a situation impossible to manage’

Yemen, which endured civil war in 2014 and a Saudi and UAE led intervention in 2015, was in an already desperate position before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Even before the conflict began in 2014, Yemen was considered the poorest country in the Middle East and North Africa. Now, according to the UN, the country is suffering the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.2 The conflict further destroyed the country's economy, its infrastructure and left an estimated 24.1 million people—80% of the population— at risk of hunger and disease.3

In a country like Yemen, already facing famine and a devastated healthcare system, the arrival of coronavirus has been catastrophic. At the start of the pandemic in March, the Head of Health at the Red Cross warned that coronavirus would be ‘impossible to manage’ in conflict zones.4 UN officials have also raised concerns that coronavirus could infect up to 16 million people in Yemen – 55% of the population - based on epidemiological projections.

Continued unrest in Lebanon

COVID-19 had already spread to Lebanon when an explosion in Beirut on 4th August 2020 killed at least 200 people and injured over 5,000 others. Already in a precarious economic position before the pandemic - their public debt-to-gross domestic product was the third highest in the world5 - and facing large scale anti-government protests, the timing of the explosion heightened tensions even further.

Shortly after the explosion, the Lebanese Government resigned amidst growing public anger. In addition, the growing economic hardship caused by lockdown and furlough has led to further civil unrest, including a young man being shot by soldiers during a protest and several banks being set on fire.6

“The combination of coronavirus on top of an unprecedented economic crisis has created the perfect storm" says Firass Abiad, CEO of the Rafic Hariri University Hospital in Beirut. "It never rains, it pours - and what we're seeing is crises after crises".7

A lasting impact on international affairs

COVID-19 has shone an intense spotlight on the complex political, economic and cultural differences between countries and their ability – and willingness – to crisis manage.

“Contradictions in national politics, state, society and inter-communal dynamics within countries may have been sharpened [as a result of the pandemic]” comments Siphamandla Zondi in the South African Journal of Political Studies. “In some cases, exemplary political and state leadership have been seen, but in others the depth of the governance decay and leadership crisis have also become more visible.”8 

A crisis on the scale of what we have seen in 2020 is likely to have a lasting impact on international affairs – however it is too early to know the exact outcomes.

“Every global crisis impacts the international system, its structures, norms and institutions” says Dr Volke Perthes, Senior Advisor at the German Insititute for International and Security Affairs. “It is too early to make definitive statements. The catchphrase “nothing will ever be the same again” is almost always wrong... [However] the broader geopolitical impact [of the pandemic] – on the international order, inter-state rivalries, conflict and cooperation – is unlikely to produce a uniform overall picture. The shape of the world after the pandemic remains subject to political will, leadership, and the ability of international actors to cooperate.”9

Using International Relations Theory to drive change

Since its inception as a discipline, International Relations has sought to shed light on the problems and tensions that emerge in global politics.

International Relations Theory helps us to understand the complexities of international arenas and derive possible solutions to global issues like COVID-19.

Studying an Online Masters in International Relations can help you get to grips with key theoretical debates and enable you to understand how policies can address rapid and sophisticated change within societies.

“We live in a globalised world; hence it is very important to understand the politics of other states” says Hawa Abdulrahman, an Online Masters in International Relations graduate from Nottingham Trent University. “A Masters in International Relations [gave] me the necessary theory I need in order to understand the politics of states, especially as they relate to each other”.

Whether you want to pursue a career in government policy or gain a place in an international think tank, an Online MA in International Relations can help you to better understand global challenges and accelerate your career opportunities.  For more information please visit our course information page or give our Admissions team a call on UK: 0800 032 1180 or Intl: +44 (0)115 941 8419.


  1. PERTHES, V (2020) The Corona Crisis and International Relations: Open Questions, Tentative Assumptions (Online) Available at: <> [Accessed 21.10.20]
  2. UNKNOWN (2020) Lebanon: Why the country is in crisis (Online) Available at: <> [Accessed 19.10.20]
  3. UNKNOWN (2020) Lebanon: Why the country is in crisis (Online) Available at: <> [Accessed 19.10.20]ABIAD, S (2020) Lebanon: Coronavirus and economic meltdown leaves country on the brink of collapse (Online) Available at: <> [Accessed 21.10.20]
  4. ZONDI, S (2020) COVID-19, Politics and International Relations: Hopes and Impediments (Online) Available: <> [Accessed 21.10.20]
  5. COOK, S (2020) The End of Hope in the Middle East (Online) Available at: <> [Accessed 19.10.20]
  6. THE WORLD BANK (2020) The World Bank in Yemen (Online) Available at: <> [Accessed 19.10.20]
  7. UNITED NATIONS (2020) The United Nations in Yemen (Online) Available at: <> [Accessed 19.10.20]
  8. MARTINEZ, E (2020) Coronavirus would be ‘impossible to manage’ in conflict zones, says Red Cross head of health (Online) Available at: <> [Accessed 19.10.20]