Fungalovid-2025: Global Health Politics in IR

Inspired by Daniel Drezner’s Theories of International Politics and Zombies as well as too much TV watching, I have designed for my International Relations  and Popular Culture (IRPC) course a game called Fungalovid-2025. The scholarship of IRPC understands the role of popular culture as both a reflection of international politics but also as a learning device that informs our expectations of political crises.  Fungalovid-2025 confronts my students with a global pandemic and demands of them to formulate in country groups a 2-month and a 12-month plan on how their country will proceed with handling the outbreak. Their choices and behaviors are informed by reading World War Z by Max Brooks, by our previous class discussions, living through their own pandemic, and in varying degrees their personal engagement with zombie-themed popular culture goods. This game is not only great for IRPC, probably a niche area for many, but it also works in introductory classes on international relations to illustrate socially constructed realities, international cooperation, and self-interested policymaking.

I begin the exercise by flooding the students with a whole host of information about a pandemic rapidly spreading across the globe. Beginning with a global tour of the Pope, who has fallen ill and sadly passes away after experiencing a symptoms that seem like the flu/covid mixed with some vampire type reanimated lifestyle, the students get snapshots from around the world, showing how the disease looks like. Here I speak about information from local papers, which are not sure what is happening, individual governments initially responding with lockdowns and public advice, the complexities of international meetings/responsibilities still taking place (i.e., G20 meetings, etc.), social media images and stories spreading to aid in the panic-making, varying unconfirmed sources of the outbreak (including blaming different countries),  taking advantage of historical tensions between countries and amplifying them in light of the pandemic, and also creating my own examples of celebrities trying to create moral amongst (Western) societies.

The goal is to confuse my students and overwhelm them with the rapidness of the disease but still provide enough information to allow them to have a starting point. I also give two snapshots of confirmed cases and death rates, one after one month of the pandemic and one after the second month. The problem with my data is that China refuses to share theirs with the other countries, meaning that one of the most populous countries in the world has simply N/A written in their columns. The students are divided into seven groups, representing six different countries (I would recommend using great power with historical tensions, but also adding one or two smaller countries from the global south). The seventh group is a representation of the World Health Organization (WHO), which actively advises countries to cooperate and comes up with shared solutions to the ever-growing problem.

Depending on how long your class is you can decide how many rounds of planning you allot. In my most recent session, which lasted 65 minutes, I gave my class two rounds of planning, which were 15 minutes long each. After walking them through the story of the pandemic (providing the slides to them as reference material), I sent them off into their first planning round. This round will not go well, because the amount of information coupled with the task of coming up with plans on how to protect their countries is a lot for one session. I don’t see that as a weakness, as it allows the students to recognize the gravity of the problem. Usually what happens is that students try to come up with first solutions that are relatively unorganized. The WHO group tries their best to encourage states to cooperate with each other, highlighting the transnational issue of the pandemic and the value of working together. I have yet to see groups talk to each other in the first session, even though they are encouraged to do so.  

After the first round, I recommend a debriefing session. Here I ask my students what sort of things they have started thinking about. Students can hear what each group is concerned about in their short and long-term plans. I also inquiry what they are bothered by in this exercise, which demonstrates through their varying comments that the lack of information, the confusion about the source of the disease, and also China’s refusal to share information are contributing to the hardship of “solving” the problem. I appreciate this recognition, as international relations are generally a condition of imperfect knowledge.

In the second round, the students are much more focused and begin to form alliances of information sharing, financing of vaccines, and creating domestic initiatives to protect the people, the economy, as well as political institutions. Interestingly, as if replicating behaviors we saw during the Covid-19 pandemic, usually Western countries align quite quickly, utilizing their financial powers to get access to medical solutions and resources, while simultaneously leaving behind states in the global south due to the “lack of resources they have to offer” (a quote from my students). At the same time, China, still refusing to share information (even after being offered generous incentives), develops serious isolationist behaviors to deal with the pandemic. However, the game provides room for new structures of organization, which largely depend on your students’ levels of creativity. In my most recent iteration of the exercise, a student created a culture specific international organization, excluding, and purposefully harming other countries that do not fit in this cultural group.

The second debriefing session includes a presentation of plans for the short- and long-term future of the country, including an assessment of the WHO on how cooperation is going (or not). But I also initiate a conversation as to why this entire exercise, which quite strongly demands cooperation and working across borders to tackle one specific problem, simply does not work. Students here have spoken to the national interest, competition, hierarchies, self-interest, historical tensions, but also a frank recognition that they simply responded to the selfish behavior of others in kind.

I am happy to share my slides and the outline of the game, including the instructions. I know it is a bit of an out-of-the-box game, putting students in a confusing and strange situation, but it also offers key takeaways from international politics that sometimes are easier to digest when experienced rather than just discussed.

2 Replies to “Fungalovid-2025: Global Health Politics in IR”

  1. Hi Jennifer, I love your concept. Dealing with a multitude of information/disinformation/misinformation is a great competency to foster in our students. Would you kindly email me the slides and the outline of the game, including the instructions – all the way to Australia. Regards, Brett Peppler (brett3855@gmail.com)

  2. Dear Jennifer Ostojski, thank you for the interesting Post. I would also love it if you could send me your slides, the outline of the game and the instructions.
    (paul.hofmeister@edu.donau-uni.ac.at)

    Best wishes Paul

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