• Florence Gamboa, Deryk Baladjay & Julio Amador III

Securitizing COVID-19

Photo Source: SCMP

How to deal with a non-traditional human security challenge such as the COVID-19 pandemic? The COVID-19 pandemic has asymmetrically affected all states. Some states such as Japan, South Korea and China have fared better than others owing to strong institutions, early response time, and sound policy priorities. Others such as the Philippines were hit badly by the pandemic and are yet to recuperate owing to weak or developing institutions, mixed response time, and misplaced policy priorities.

Above all else, human security is defined as “freedom from fear” and “freedom from want”. These are expanded to encompass seven dimensions: economics, food, health, environment, personal, community, and political. The COVID-19 pandemic transcends being a mere health crisis as its dispersal, and the various responses to it, have affected all aspects of human life. Long-standing issues and problems were further exacerbated by the pandemic.

How Not to Do It: The Philippines

The Philippine strategy against COVID-19 is mainly state-centric. The Duterte administration prioritizes the use of the military instead of health and scientific professionals, relying on lockdowns or community quarantines to stem the pandemic. The administration’s country preference in combatting the pandemic also heavily impacted the people. Human security was taken for granted for most of its efforts.

The Philippine healthcare system was quickly overwhelmed. The policies enacted brought about a severe effect on the Philippine economy. In 2020, the economy contracted 9.5% from 2019. The community quarantine led to a drop in domestic production, gainful employment, and an overall curtailment of demand. By April 2020, the Philippine Statistics Authority reported an all-time high unemployment rate of 17.7%.

As vaccines began to rollout across the world, the Duterte administration’s preference for the Sinovac vaccine from China caused vaccine hesitancy—going so far that only 25% of the population are willing to be vaccinated. Worse, 12% of hospital personnel at the Philippine General Hospital were willing to receive the Sinovac vaccine. Beijing’s trust deficit across the Philippine demographics is a stark contrast to the administration’s cordial acceptance of Chinese vaccine, in a bid to gradually warm ties with China. In fact, the reason for said vaccine preference was publicly admitted so as not to upset relations with China.

There are further examples of misplaced priorities at a domestic level: The use of face shields, the Duterte administration’s misplaced prioritizations on the War on Drugs, which surged by 50% since the pandemic began, and the untimely passing of the controversial Anti-Terrorism Act.

The Philippines was greatly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic due to misplaced priorities and improper management. The abovementioned factors contributed to the burden of ordinary Filipinos amid a novel disease.

How To Do It: East Asia

Japan was able to contain the spread of the virus through its ecosystem approach which included quarantine, social distancing, and the isolation of infected cases. The success did not last as the Abe administration began to prioritize the 2020 Summer Olympics. Japan’s overall handling of the pandemic has been controversial domestically.

South Korea, by contrast, was among the highly acclaimed in the Asian continent. The Moon administration implemented the “three T’s” of testing, tracing, and treatment. South Korea’s success stems from lessons learned after the influenza outbreak of 2009 and the MERS-COV outbreak in 2015: strengthening institutions, reframing policy around health infrastructure, and fostering public-private partnerships. Other strategies were employed to create a uniquely Korean sophisticated contact tracing system such as the speedy return of test results, manufacturer’s financial risk in carrying out government directives, and a network of testing sites.

Meanwhile in China, where the pandemic began, unorthodox strategies were employed at a national level. This included an early reporting system, real-time situation monitoring, large-scale surveillance, and expedient preparation of medical facilities and supplies. Intensive cooperation between the Chinese government and its people prevented economic setbacks.

Vaccine diplomacy vs. Vaccine competition

ASEAN has differing results in its inoculation program despite several pre-existing cooperative frameworks. With the economic vitality as focus, ASEAN states have undertaken medical interventions to the detriment of human security. Vaccine preferences have also played a role. China’s Sinovac and Russia’s Sputnik-V are more readily available for ASEAN than vaccines produced in the West.

The role of vaccines in international relations cannot be understated. If the West, and the United States specifically, wishes to maintain strong ties and continue to compete with China, it will need to do more to provide the region with vaccines. An example of this was during President Duterte final State of the Nation Address. He thanked China for the speedy donation of vaccines and threatened the US with a firm dismissal (then) of the Visiting Forces Agreement if the US failed to uphold its vaccine promise.

The Way Forward

It is essential that a more nuanced approach to health crises need to be undertaken. An approach that respects human dignity, adheres to institutional processes, and maximizes the use of resources. Given the instability of vaccine availability, cooperation among states is key.

ASEAN and its member states, such as the Philippines, could learn the lessons from Japan, South Korea, and even China. Proper priority was placed on the health of citizens, collaborating with civil society, and utilizing proper communication. Japan’s refocusing towards the Olympics proves that that a country risks losing the opportunity to robustly respond to shock events like the pandemic. South Korea has shown the benefits of a proactive public-private partnership. China has shown the importance of synergies between government and constituency.

Ultimately, states must navigate through vaccine diplomacy and internal priorities to develop and sustain a human security agenda at every level of society


This article is based on a report released by the Amador Research Services by the same title. The authors acknowledge the assistance of Matthew Uy in the preparation of this article.


Julio S. Amador III is CEO and Founder of the Amador Research Services. He was a former government official specializing in foreign policy and national security. He lectures in different professional schools and serves as resource person on international issues. He was a Fulbright scholar at Syracuse University where he earned his master’s degree in International Relations and a certificate in security studies. He was also a member of the inaugural cohort of the KAS Network of Young Asian Security Experts.


Deryk Baladjay is an Assistant Editor at the Philippine Strategic Forum and part-time Research Assistant at the Ateneo School of Government. He is an MA degree holder in International Studies major in Asian Studies from the De La Salle University-Manila. His research and policy interests are in security, conflict and peace studies in and around East and Southeast Asia.


Florence Principe Gamboa is a Senior Associate at the Amador Research Services. She is also Managing Editor and Coordinator of the Philippine Strategic Forum. She obtained her Master's degree in International Studies from the University of the Philippines Diliman.

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