The COVID-19 pandemic and our global security

13th May 2020

Is a global pandemic the greatest risk to our security? What did we learn from previous outbreaks and are these models working? Can we prepare better? How far do we let these ‘bio concerns’ affect the ‘big defence picture’ (national and international) and how much weight do defence policies and strategies give to the limitless socio-economic problems that arise? To look to the future, we must first look to the past and consider what we learnt from previous pandemics and how we assessed that risk.

Major globally impacting crises have always had an influence on how we shape our national security policy. The 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001 on the US saw greater international co-operation on counterterrorism. The cyberattacks on Estonia in 2007 encouraged more information sharing on cybersecurity, the 2008 financial crisis saw more legislation for financial markets and hybrid warfare and its impact on political systems and economies came further into the fore after the Russian intervention in Ukraine in 2014. Now we have a health, economic and geopolitical crisis resulting from a pandemic that has effectively stopped daily life as we know it raising questions such as; what do we spend the defence budget on and will we allow for more to be spent on biosecurity and less on the more obvious threat actors such as counterterrorism or war? The World Health Organisation (WHO), prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, suggested a flu pandemic as ‘the most feared security threat today causing illness and death on a large scale, over a wide area, in a short space of time’.1

From the mid-1990s a globally disruptive pandemic has always been considered a national security risk. ‘Human security’ included ‘health security’ as outlined by the 1994 UN Human Development report and in 2007 the World Health Report described ‘global public health security’ as ‘the activities required, both proactive and reactive, to minimize vulnerability to acute public health events that endanger the collective health of populations living across geographical regions and international boundaries’.2 Socio-economic factors together with casualty numbers, the speed of the infection and the fear of infection impacting on everyday life, are strong indicators and a means of measuring the potential impact of this non-conventional risk.

Gordon Corera, a security correspondent for the BBC, asks if global health security should more be central when considering our national security policy.3  Corera advises, according to the latest national security review, an international pandemic is considered a Tier 1 risk (highest priority) and ranked the same as terrorism, cyberattacks, and war, yet we appear unprepared. He identifies ‘a significant gear change’ for intelligence agencies suggesting they become more focused on governments concealing outbreaks and bio-screening at airports than the more obvious security concerns. The FC Post agrees adding that ‘national security, federal politics and economic priorities, need to adapt holistically to the new global landscape of complex security threats’.4 NATO Secretary-General, Jens Stoltenberg, confirms this stating NATO members need ‘to take seriously any attempt to utilise the health crisis to convey false narratives, disinformation and propaganda’.5 It is possible, even with the forewarning of SARS, H5N1 and Foot in mouth disease, those that assess the national risk did not fully anticipate a pandemic on such a globally debilitating scale as COVID-19. In many respects it seems that the SARS outbreak was considered a one-off event and precious research opportunities may have been lost as a result.

Health security, however, has not been ignored. Germany has had a pandemic plan since 2005. The US had a health-security strategy since 2009 and Ex-US president Barak Obama launched the Global Health Security Agenda in 2014.6  Christian Enemark in 2009 looked at countries’ preparedness for such an event. He noted fear of ‘a global pandemic’ was already being considered by the US who warned ‘public health measures to limit contact with others could threaten the functioning of critical infrastructure, the movement of goods and services, and operation of institutions such as schools and universities’. A pandemic would thus have significant implications for the economy, national security, and the basic functioning of society’.7  Stephen Blank, a former senior advisor to the CIA and Pentagon and a Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, suggests ‘COVID-19 has shown the world’s defence experts that we were blind’ and suggests the COVID-19 pandemic as ‘probably a dry-run for worse future pandemics’. He also sees this as a global fight suggesting the reason for the rather uncoordinated international response to COVID-19 is due in part to anti-globalism and ‘the meteoric popularity of extreme-right politics affecting the structure of our post-war security policy’.8 Blank, notes climate change is now recognised as a non-conventional threat actor and lists similar contributing factors to that of this pandemic such as ‘the risk of social disruption, conflict, food insecurity and economic crisis’.

Igor Ivanov echoes this global responsibility view suggesting ‘nuclear arms and other modern weapons are unable to combat pandemics, climate change, uncontrollable migration, and other challenges’ and goes on to mention ‘in the pandemic, for the first time in living memory, humanity is confronting a common threat that it must defeat collectively’.9 Muhittin Ataman, writing for The Daily Sabah, expects a shift not only in our defence policies but also our individual assessment of National risk. External threats to our security were easily identified, with the addition of non-conventional threats and pandemics as major concerns ‘the invisible health risk’ and its debilitating effect will make us question defence budgets and the amount spent on external threats.10  Niklas Novaky of the Martens Centre agrees. He noted that as counties come to terms with the national impact of the COVID-19 pandemic they will be less inclined to financially support initiatives that don’t directly affect their recovery.11 The consensus, however, appears to be after the initial national recovery effort that an international response is best. The World Health Report of 2007 predicting anything less than an international effort as futile. There are some expected National policy adjustments of course. Defending domestic technology and manufacturing from foreign acquisitions is now a more compelling argument says The FC Post.12