The COVID-19 pandemic has had an unprecedented impact on all aspects of life. It has created new security challenges, inflamed old ones, and exposed inequality and instability in the global system.
History is a necessary reminder that pandemics are fundamentally human tragedies. Everyone is at risk – but not equally so. Political, economic, racial, gendered and other demographic factors can mitigate, as well as elevate, risk and fear factors, making the COVID-19 pandemic a security issue that transgresses geopolitical boundaries and traverses discrete levels of analysis.
COVID-19 has revalorised the concept of ‘human security’, first characterized in 1994 by the United Nations as ‘a child who did not die, a disease that did not spread, a job that was not cut, an ethnic tension that did not explode in violence, a dissident who was not silenced.’
Yet almost every international institution and nation state has been deficient in stopping the spread of the disease. Dissidents were and continue to be silenced; jobs have been lost at levels not seen since the second world war; violence has continued unabated or simmers under the surface, threatening civil and global conflict; and in too many parts of the world, children are dying from the virus or as a result of overburdened healthcare systems and inadequate food supplies.
If the question of security is ultimately about what makes us safe, then the COVID-19 pandemic has thrown into high relief the failure – with a few notable exceptions – of both states and international institutions to keep us safe. Indeed, in too many instances, decisions made – or more frequently, not made – by security regimes at the national as well as international level have made matters worse before making them better.
History is a necessary reminder that pandemics are fundamentally human tragedies. Everyone is at risk – but not equally so.
In other areas, COVID-19 has highlighted similar failures of states, global institutions and organisations to adequately respond to the challenges of a pandemic. Experts have warned for decades of the risks posed to human health by ongoing environmental degradation and global inaction on climate change. Existing tensions between global superpowers have been pushed to the brink, as the US slides into chaos and China finds itself increasingly geopolitically isolated.
The doomsday clock remains set at 100 seconds to midnight, representing the most heightened level of nuclear risk since WWII, and all the while conspiracy theories abound, fostered by online networks and spread uncontrollably across social media platforms.
If these are some of the lessons learned, then what comes next? For many on the upward slope of the curve or deep into the second surge, the question might seem premature if not inappropriate. But not to ask now could well consign us to an interpandemic period of indeterminate duration.
The challenge is to flatten and securitise COVID-19 without falling into the ‘sovereignty trap’, in which states tighten and thicken borders, engage in ‘vaccine nationalism’ and blame other states for the pandemic.
In pursuit of human security for a post-COVID future, CISS will continue to make the Global Forum a critical space to explore new thinking and effective global policies.
Over the next 3 years, Dr Nicole Wegner will examine popular assumptions about the “ideal soldier” and how cultural myths shape military policies and priorities in Australia and abroad.