by Paul Rogers, openDemocracy
30 October 2020
Back in late February, a month or so into the COVID-19 pandemic, the World Health Organization was warning of the dangers of the disease, about its potential to spread and to kill, and about the critical need to test for the virus. A few countries in south-east and east Asia were very quick off the mark, especially those that had experienced SARS seventeen years earlier. But most European states were slow to take it seriously, even when Italy was suddenly plunged into crisis and forced to opt for very strong lockdowns.
As openDemocracy reported right back in the spring, in theory the UK had an excellent National Biosecurity Strategy but failed lamentably to follow it and ended up with one of the worst records of disease control in the first few months. The US under Donald Trump was even more dilatory, and he persists in claiming COVID-19 is beaten even as the country edges closer to a quarter of a million deaths.
As the first wave in Europe was starting to ease back in June, the WHO was once again warnings of dangers ahead, this time the risk of further waves starting later in the year. That is now happening at a pace that has exceeded the fears of health professionals as, time and again, COVID-19 has been underestimated. The Czech Republic really thought it had been successful until very recently but now fears the disease is out of control, France and Spain are heading into lockdowns and even Germany is hugely concerned in spite of its early success.
Meanwhile in the UK the argument that the overriding need is to protect the economy rages in the right-wing press, where those warning of tens of thousands of deaths through the winter are dismissed as doomwatchers and naysayers. In spite of this Boris Johnson may still be forced to agree to a national lockdown and it also looks increasingly possible that his own position could become untenable before next spring.
The UK’s position certainly is a reflection of a dangerous mixture of ideological certainty and sheer incompetence, and where it could have been a world leader if its own National Biological Security Strategy had been followed it now looks in deep trouble. While this should not be forgotten, the wider issue is that so many other countries have failed to address the challenge with the urgency it needed right from the start, in spite of all the WHO warnings.
Deep roots of the disaster
There are more than one explanation for this. For a start, we can see how countries with utterly single-minded leaderships, often mixing arrogance with egotism, have suffered most. In this regard, Narendra Modi, Jair Bolsonaro, Vladimir Putin and even more so Trump stand out from most of the rest. There is, though, much more to it than that, with two particular elements most relevant.
One is the slide towards neoliberal economics over the past forty years, boosted by current anti-elite nationalistic populisms. This means that many central government capabilities have shrunk because so much of what the state used to do has been handed over to the private sector. The primary requirement of that sector is profitability. At the same time the shrinking of the state means that there is simply not the central capability to coordinate, still less actually organise, the national responses that have been so clearly needed.
The second factor is less obvious, more deeply embedded and even more difficult to counter. It relates to a prevailing thinking about security that sees it primarily as a state-on-state issue with military capabilities at the core of preparedness. The so-called military-industrial complex is easy enough to describe, with all its integrated elements, deep linkages to government, revolving doors, sole suppliers and the rest. This is part of a security culture that privileges national interests, which are defined principally by an establishment that dominates the narrative, has a short-term outlook, suffers from institutional inertia and is dominated by an atmosphere of hegemonic masculinity.
There have been repeated warnings of the risk of pandemics: we have seen the terrible human consequences of the flu in 1918-19 and more recently of HIV-AIDS. Lessons should have been learned by more than those few Asian countries that had the experience of SARS and the WHO’s warnings should have been heeded. No doubt within government circles in many countries there were individuals, often health professionals, arguing the case for taking pandemic risks seriously long before COVID-19 came on the scene, and more determined voices once it started spreading.
If, though, you have decades of a culture that prioritises a state-centred rather than a people-centred or even a community-centred understanding of security, then the ability, let alone the willingness, to think differently in a crisis all too easily goes out the window.
The next six months will be very difficult for many millions of people but the crisis will pass and COVID-19 will be brought under control. The lesson that has to be learnt then is that it will be essential to think differently about what is meant by security, learn much better lessons from all that excellent work in recent years on human and common security, and apply them determinedly to ensuring a more genuinely secure and just future. Apart from anything else, we may then be able to deal with the even bigger elephant in the room – climate breakdown.