COVID-19 and Its Threat to Global Security
COVID-19 is not the first pandemic. Treating the international spread of infectious disease as a matter of high politics also not a new thing. A couple of pandemics has happened in the past – SARS, H5N1, H1N1, Ebola, etc. However, their political consequences are not nearly equal to what COVID-19 has given to our world today. COVID-19 pandemic has sparked debates on the effectiveness of the political system all around the world. There has never been a time when political leaders' fates get determined by a disease as it does now.
During this global health crisis, several social unrest and political upheavals occurred in different parts of the world. In Thailand, student-led protests demanding constitutional and monarchical reform took place for a couple of months. President Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus faced a huge rally, questioning his leadership’s legitimacy by the anti-government movement. Some other protests have broken out, flaring the geopolitical tensions. These situations are intricately triggered partially by the severe consequences of the pandemic to their socio-economic circumstances, accumulatively combined with other existing grievances.
The political consequences of COVID-19 accelerate more security threats to our planet. There are numerous perspectives to see the COVID-19 pandemic as a security threat through various viewpoints. Global security is described as freedom from fear of human-made physical violence or direct threats to an individual's safety, state’s physical integrity and sovereignty. However, the COVID-19 pandemic is primarily threatening "individual safety". The dangerously invisible threat caused by COVID-19 to individual health is inevitable. According to the WHO, the plague has affected nearly 100 million people and killed more than 2.1 million in 218 countries worldwide. Governments have imposed lockdown policies to avoid COVID threat, enjoining its population to stay at home. Many are unemployed, socially, and economically unstable, and eventually risking state integrity. Whether the virus is man-made or natural in originally born, this pandemic emphasized the concept of human security with the threat has shifting from nation-states to the people they govern.
To protect their population, different governments have their own policies and measures in fighting this pandemic. The only assured distinction is state capacity. Logically, the security risks would be more concerning to vulnerable states. Nevertheless, the COVID-19 pandemic has shown that it has no boundaries. The top 5 affected countries now are the world's most developed and industrialized economies namely the United States, India, Brazil, Russia, and France.
COVID-19 has heavily been securitized. It has become an extreme version of politicization. The conception of an issue to have a consequential security dimension is not a natural given. Politicians and decision-makers designate it. The phenomenon of COVID-19, which has been labelled as "dangerous", "threatening," or "alarming" by world leaders provides the path for social and institutional power to move this issue beyond health, politics, and economy.
The securitization process of COVID-19 can be assessed from how it's been framed through speech acts. COVID-19 has been articulated with some alarming dictions. The WHO Secretary-General Tedros used “fear, fight, threat” many times in his first COVID-19 address. The usage of "war" to describe the fight against the pandemic proves that the pandemic is seen as an adversary to national and global security.
Besides language and diction, one important indicator is the mobilization of security-related resources in dealing with the pandemic. Countries used the military assets, personnel, and infrastructure to do the mitigation measures, including transporting medical supplies, building the temporary hospital, and controlling the local lockdown. Some governments even appointed military general to lead the COVID-19 combat, justifying how COVID-19 esteemed as an emergency to the nation's security and need to hold war strategy. North Atlantic Treaty Organizations (NATO), the strongest military alliance in the world, has also been deploying its resources to help against the plague.
Today, COVID-19 can arguably be the No.1 threat also because of its acceleration to other global security risks. It has laboriously brought multifaceted security challenges. It has negatively impacted national and international security beyond public health, risking democracy, bringing economic collapse, and increasing vulnerabilities of new and emerging forms of terrorism such as cyberattacks.
Leaders of the world have been framing COVID-19 into a level of perilous security threat. In his address during the first UNSC meeting on this pandemic, the UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, stated that the epidemic could further entrench ongoing wars and provide a more feasible situation for the terrorist. He emphasised that it will unfold bioterrorist attacks and continuously hinder existing international, regional, and national conflict resolution efforts.
The Council has also held a high-level meeting on international peace and security maintenance to address the post-COVID-19 global governance. In the resolution, member countries agreed that pandemic has reshaped the concept of global security risks and potentially trigger crisis and instability, particularly in conflict or post-conflict situations and exacerbate the security-related problems. Conclusively, COVID-19 pushed the concern to reform global governance to an alarming level.
Geopolitically, the pandemic has inflamed the U.S.-China tensions, provoking more blame games and pressures towards Beijing to take responsibility for the wide-spread disease. On one occasion, President Xi responded strongly with a clear statement that acts of hegemony, bullying, blackmail, and extreme pressure on China will eventually lead to a dead-end. He added by reaffirming that the Chinese people would not sit idly if China's sovereignty and security are undermined. COVID-19 has aggravated the already strained relations between China and the Western world. This politicization of the pandemic is definitely risking the global security order.
The World Economic Forum assessed how COVID-19 has put formidable security threats between nations back into the spotlight and impacted global disorder trajectory. The release by the COVID-19 Disorder Tracker, which has monitored demonstration activity, state repression, mob attacks, and political violence, critically during this pandemic address the interlacing relations between COVID-19 and global security. Despite the downtrend of protests, the global catastrophe provides opportunities and advantages for more government repression and armed groups' deadly violence. Moreover, COVID-19 poses a more dramatic life threat in conflicting zones caused by the lack of medical supplies, fragile medical capacity, and travel restrictions.
COVID-19 may originally be a health issue, however, the extension of its consequences is jeopardizing the state of global security. The response of world leaders and multilateral actors towards this striking plague are demonstrating the trends of securitization. The security threat that COVID-19 brings to our world is exceptionally vicious, challenging each individual state’s capacity and global governance. It is not only endangering human security but it has also precipitated the existing international security threats. The complexities of the COVID-19 pandemic as an object of securitization would prolong the threat, making collective cooperation eminently needed than ever before.
Thomas Noto Suoneto is currently a postgraduate student majoring International Political Economy at the University of Birmingham, United Kingdom. Noto is a Founder and Host of Foreign Policy Talks Podcast. His areas of interest are on geopolitics, global economy, East Asian development and democracy. He was formerly active in the largest foreign policy group in Indonesia, Foreign Policy Community of Indonesia (FPCI).