Covid-19 challenges the conventional security paradigm

Photo: Collected

Coronavirus is razing the world to the ground, continuing to claim human lives—the latest count exceeds well over 200,000, with the number of infected running over three million. The deadly virus is reported to be mutating, with no prospect yet of getting it under control. The comity of nations, both mighty and weak, stand haplessly helpless before a mortal threat. The US as the most powerful country, militarily and economically, is suffering the most. This virus has condemned the whole human machine to a juddering halt.

Is this moment not apposite for questioning the conventional security paradigm? If security means freedom from want and from fear, for citizens and nation-states alike, we all have to agree that humanity is facing its greatest insecurity in modern times. What is the value of the global defence establishment worth trillions of dollars, engaging the best brains to invent and produce lethal weapons that can obliterate nations and civilisations? Now the military might is meant for establishing supremacy/hegemony, although in crises like this, the military usually helps the civil authorities in many ways. But, at what cost?

The latest trend shows global defence spending is rising by almost 4 percent a year since the last decade. In 2019, the US remained the largest defence spender, with a yearly spending of USD 732 billion. The defence budget increase in the US of almost 7 percent was the largest in ten years, and has increased ever since Trump took office. US investments in weapons procurement and weapons research and development alone were larger than China’s total defence budget of USD 260 billion, followed by India (USD 71 billion). Knowing full well these limits, even many low-income economies invest much more in military security than in education or health.

Such military spending, most of which is unproductive, happens at a time when the world witnesses unseen levels of inequality, environmental degradation and climate destabilisation. There are new surges in nationalism, populism, conflict, trade wars, and mounting public health threats. The pre Covid-19 preoccupations with narrowly conceived traditional issues like state security, state/non-state terrorism, or economic competition, are not unimportant, but we have entered into a “new normal” in our individual and collective lives. This is the time for some collective soul-searching on what national and global priorities should be, with limited resources. If security means primarily the provision of human wellbeing, and protection from different vulnerabilities, what kind of a security paradigm can supply these desired ends?

A report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) claims that climate change affects the social and environmental determinants of health. Climate change is now increasingly recognised by major national security agencies as a preeminent security threat, precisely due to its role as a “threat multiplier” that increases the risks of social disruption, conflict, water and food insecurity, economic crisis, displacement of millions and future pandemics, by amplifying disease vectors. In a hard-hitting report published by medical journal The Lancet, scientists and health experts concluded that increasing climate impacts—from heat waves to worsening storms, floods and fires, already threaten to overwhelm our health systems. Another research shows rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere are reducing nutrients in cereal crops, raising the risk of malnutrition even for those who get enough to eat.

There is one thing that almost all health shocks have in common: they hit the poorest and the most vulnerable, the hardest. Acting as a poverty multiplier, they push families into extreme poverty when they cannot afford health care. At least half of the world’s population does not enjoy full coverage for the most basic health services. When health disasters hit, which would occur more frequently in a world scarred by climate change, global inequality is reinforced. The poor would be much more adept in coping with and recovering from the lasting effects of storms and floods, if they have a resilient and well-resourced health system in place.

Against this fact, the Trump administration has aggressively rolled back not just on the pledge to reduce carbon emissions, but has axed the National Security Council’s global health security office, sought to cut funding to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, and has now threatened to cut funding for the World Health Organization.

However, coronavirus has opened a portal into a new world, presenting opportunities to reframe our vision. The following are a few areas I feel can be remoulded into the “new normal” world. First, we need a change in mindset of national and global political and military leaders in reframing the new security paradigm. Holding on to centuries-old lens of sovereignty predicated on a zero-sum game in inter-state relations cannot help us to deal with emerging global challenges. For this, we have to get multilateralism back on a firm saddle. Political scientist Joseph Nye cogently argues that while the US has led in the production of global public goods since World War II, now global cooperation is needed, because power has become a positive-sum game for achieving global goals.

Second, the change in mindsets may not come overnight, even after this pandemic. So we need increased investments in liberal, health, environment and ethics education. In a democracy, leaders are elected by voters with an average understanding of societal issues. So the task should be to enhance the level of knowledge and awareness and to inform the average voters better, as cosmopolitan citizens.

Third, coronavirus has caught the global health systems totally unaware. All nations must now invest adequately in preparedness and prevention of pandemics. This will require more medical research and development. Promoting universal health coverage must be an effective way to reduce the long-term health impacts from future pandemics, and increase our resilience and adaptive capacity to climate change.

Fourth, the USD 100 billion pledge by the rich countries as climate finance should be realised by this year, with 50 percent of the money going for adaptation for the most vulnerable. As Dr Saleemul Huq argued in a column in this daily, the stimulus packages flowing in trillions now, all over the world, should focus on supporting the poor and most vulnerable in society to enhance their resilience, and to invest in cleaner production to reduce all kinds of pollution. In other words, the support to resuscitate the economy after the pandemic should promote health, equity, and environmental protection. We must recognise that restoring climate stability is our ultimate security.

For all these measures, at this time of economic crisis, no new money can be mobilised. But a chunk of the massive budgets for yearly military spending can be sliced off easily to invest in productive sectors, to ensure and enhance real human, national and global security. At this critical moment, we only need willing leaders to effect such a security paradigm.

Originally this article was published on May 06, 2020 at  The Daily Star. The author Dr. Mizan R Khan is the Deputy Director of International Centre for Climate Change & Development (ICCCAD), and Programme Director of LDC Universities’ Consortium on Climate Change (LUCCC).