National and International Issues

COVID-19, Biosecurity and the World Order

Towards the end of 2019, a deadlier version of Coronavirus was reported in the Chinese city of Wuhan; within days the virus spread manifold, compelling the Chinese authorities to report the matter to the World Health Organization. By April 2020, the Coronavirus has spread across 200 states, infected around 2 million people worldwide while killing over 150,000 people and the tally keeps rising. The alarming proportion of this deadly Coronavirus forced WHO to formally label it as a pandemic, asking states to gear up their efforts to contain this high-intensity global threat. Some states, especially China, through its concentrated and swift efforts contained the Coronavirus in its epicenter at Wuhan. However, the spread into Europe and the United States led to a high death rate and collapsed their medical services, thereby becoming the alternate global epicenters. Many states declared a national emergency and allocated trillions of dollars to fight this unseen enemy, thus far without much success. In a hitherto less explored angle, the incidents of USS Theodore Roosevelt and Charles de Gaulle aircraft carriers from U.S. and French navy respectively also suggest exposure of the armed forces to this virus with a capacity to severely undermine the respective ability to undertake operations.


In an overview, while, the world order would not remain the same in a post-Corona world, but to expect that COVID-19 would altogether change the global order is a little too ambitious. Nonetheless, a new approach for the survival of humanity, shared values and a cooperative world would definitely be needed. Thus, the global order would see a mix of continuity and change, with China becoming increasingly dominant.


Many people view the unprecedented spread of Coronavirus through various conspiracy theories, while others try to interpret it through scientific, astrological, religious, or some other manifests. This article views this global challenge through a dispassionate analysis using empirical evidence to examine its spread, intensity, recurring fallout and the overall impact on the global order. 

Taxonomy

The unseen virus under the microscope looks like it is covered with pointed structure and surrounded by a crown or corona. The virus is a much refined form of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) that emerged in 2003, causing widespread deaths and instilling scare. In February 2020 the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses (ICTV) named this version of the Coronavirus as ‘Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2’ (SARS-CoV-2), while the WHO announced COVID-19 as the name of new disease.

Though still a myth, the widely accepted impression is that the traces of COVID-19 have been found in birds, particularly bats that penetrate into the human body through close proximity. Once transmitted, it leads to respiratory congestion, often resulting in intense coughing, high body temperature and flu-like symptoms, ultimately affecting the lungs, whereby they severely restrict the ability to breathe, which may eventually cause death. Unfortunately, COVID-19 spread is linked to the medium of air, aggravated through mass-travelling and crowded gatherings. With no vaccine developed to cure this virus as yet, the only precautionary remedy is self-isolation and strengthening of the immune system.     


According to World Bank and IMF sources, the global GDP is about $88 trillion, while the global debt owed by governments is around $70 trillion. Out of this, the U.S. alone owes around $24 trillion. With the EU economy also being fragile, only Germany is in a position to sustain losses. More importantly, as per IMF the global debt from all sectors is about $250 trillion. This all suggests that the COVID-19 is a recipe for economic disaster of global proportions.


Many theories are being propagated regarding the origin of COVID-19. One associates it with the notion of a ‘new arms race’ considering it is a bio-weapon developed for deliberate use; another explanation promoting the same notion suggests it to be a result of military exercises of the U.S. and Chinese armies. However, such notions were clearly refuted by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. Another version argued this to be a scientific experiment gone wrong through a leak from a laboratory, eventually spreading worldwide. However, this version is also not accepted by the scientific community. A conspiracy theory doing the rounds relates Coronavirus to the 5G technology, as a source of high radiation with a capacity to kill all living creatures. However, a much credible and valid explanation is that despite an effective control of SARS-I, there was a unanimous view of the scientific community that the Coronaviruses of a different nature could emerge in the future with a higher ferocity. Whatever may be the most valid explanation, it is clear beyond doubt that COVID-19 is a severe fatal reality, posing unimaginable consequences for the entire humanity.

Biosecurity

In December 2014, President Barack Obama, while speaking at the U.S. National Institutes of Health on the fight against Ebola, had predicted the Corona-like possibility, when he said, “There may and likely will come a time in which we have both an airborne disease that is deadly. And in order to deal with that effectively, we have to put in place an infrastructure – not just at home, but globally – that allows us to see it quickly, isolate it quickly, respond to it quickly…. So that if and when a new strain of flu, like the Spanish flu, crops up 5 years from now or a decade from now, we have made the investment and we are further along to be able to catch it.”



An assessment report prepared by the Pentagon in 2017 predicted the outbreak of a novel influenza that could cause widespread fatalities. The report recommended enhancing the number of medical facilities and special equipment, including ventilators and masks. Similar concerns regarding the possibility of epidemic and pandemic events led to the high level pandemic exercise ‘Event 201’, organized by the John Hopkins Center for Health Security in collaboration with Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in October 2018. The purpose of the exercise was to predict future pandemics that “would require reliable cooperation among several industries, national governments, and key international institutions.” Also in February 2018, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General WHO warned, “We do not know where or when the next global pandemic will occur, but we do know that it will take terrible toll, both on human life, and on the global economy.”


Along with economic fallout, the socio-political repercussions are equally alarming. Non-existent to negligible action on the part of international institutions, such as UNSC, G-7, G-20, has brought multilateralism into question. The WHO is being politicized and increasingly marginalized; the EU populist leaders are shying away from global responsibilities and the whole social security system in the Western world is under stress.


The isolated reactions listed above notwithstanding, one is at loss to understand why the scientifically and technologically advanced world with its immense resources, highly professional intelligence communities and well-established state apparatus could not effectively emphasize and employ biosecurity for humans. So far their military establishments and security agencies only their visualized the emergence of any biosecurity hazards purely through the prism of terrorism. It perhaps never occurred to them that a huge natural pandemic could storm the world with this lethality. In this backdrop, one could argue that the state institutions and security/intelligence establishments have miserably failed worldwide. This failure has caused significant loss to human lives, created psychological trauma, exposed the vulnerability of health systems, revealed the inadequacy in essentially required medical infrastructure and equipment, and more importantly, the absence of a combined political will to tackle this unprecedented challenge to human survival.       

Big Data

Despite the spread of COVID-19 across continents affecting millions of lives, and the fact that an effective vaccine is yet to become available, there is a silver lining that states such as China, South Korea, Japan, Singapore and Germany were able to contain the spread through different ways. A case in point is China, which used big data techniques to effectively control the deadly virus.

The big data works through three tiers called the 3Vs: volume, velocity and, variety, which is a combination of text, image, voice and video data that can be modeled into predictive patterns. Big data sources range from internet clicks, ATM card usage, facial detection on road, airport passengers’ movement patterns, biometric patterns, use of specific words in research thesis, meteorological trends, smart chip real-time signals, color patterns in football matches, musical rhythm, and body temperature, etc. Several of these elements can assist predictive analysis.


It is quite apparent, therefore, that the world would not be the same once the COVID-19 pandemic is finally over. A new competition is being predicted amongst big pharmaceuticals, who would strive for market monopoly once the vaccine is ready. The entire life pattern of individuals and states in a changed world would be highly digitalized.     


China used big data, Artificial Intelligence with 5G technology, to gather real-time data from multiple sources. This data was fed to an algorithm which estimated the probability of COVID-19 spread from the traced infection point. This in turn helped deployment of scarce medical resources as per the severity of spread. Ostensibly, due to the absence of privacy laws, the Chinese authorities accessed all users’ mobile phone calls, texts, data, browser history, tag words, apps and their history. This gave the Chinese government an edge to analyze and control social behavior through the strictest measures. Furthermore, the access to health facilities is at the discretion of the state and the state-owned enterprises have to mandatorily go with the national plan in supplying the medical needs.

Global Impact

The full impact of the COVID-19 would take time to evolve but the most affected industries include aviation, tourism, hospitality, sports, energy and entertainment, several of which have already suffered loss of trillions of dollars. Resultantly, oil consumption has dropped significantly, millions of people around the world are now working from home, big industries have laid off millions of employees, giving rise to huge unemployment and altered social habits. All of these factors are putting a strain on domestic spending, which is already soaring to $47 trillion in 2019. This all would put the global economy on a severe decline. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit Report of March 2020, many countries may go into deep recession of all times and witness minus growth.

According to World Bank and IMF sources, the global GDP is about $88 trillion, while the global debt owed by governments is around $70 trillion. Out of this, the U.S. alone owes around $24 trillion. With the EU economy also being fragile, only Germany is in a position to sustain losses. More importantly, as per IMF the global debt from all sectors is about $250 trillion. This all suggests that tCOVID-19 is a recipe for economic disaster of global proportions.

The 2019 data from the World Bank placed below depicts that the overall picture of global economy and the minus growth would result into a severe economic recession, thereby leading many fragile economies to collapse.   

Along with economic fallout, the socio-political repercussions are equally alarming. Non-existent to negligible action on the part of international institutions, such as UNSC, G-7, G-20, has brought multilateralism into question. The WHO is being politicized and increasingly marginalized; the EU populist leaders are shying away from global responsibilities and the whole social security system in the Western world is under stress. The policing and surveillance is likely to increase, severely undermining the privacy of individuals and confidentiality of states’ systems. The health systems are disintegrating, the medical infrastructure is inadequate, and the equipment is scarce. It is quite apparent, therefore, that the world would not be the same once the COVID-19 pandemic is finally over. A new competition is being predicted amongst big pharmaceuticals, who would strive for market monopoly once the vaccine is ready. The entire life pattern of individuals and states in a changed world would be highly digitalized.     

Global Order

COVID-19 has put severe strain on the global order, which is being aggravated due to the lack of a global leadership at this critical juncture. The pandemic is being tackled through individual state actions like closing national borders, thereby making the phenomenon of globalization redundant in the political realm. Undermining international institutions through a general lack of cooperative approach has put multilateralism on the back burner and given a jolt to the neo-liberal order. Populist leaders around the world are pursuing their own ultra-nationalistic approaches undermining the idea of liberal democracies, thus giving way to authoritarianism. The notion of national security in the kinetic domain still persists, albeit at the cost of human security. Festering military conflicts in Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Palestine, Afghanistan and Kashmir still endure despite calls of ceasefire by the UN Secretary-General.

The U.S. has the largest defense expenditure globally with over $650 billion budget. The combined defense spending of the entire world cannot match its destructive military power. However, the political and economic costs are now taking a heavy toll on the U.S. global leadership with its ‘America First’ policy giving way to a power vacuum. The U.S. health system, infrastructure and medical services have fully exposed its vulnerabilities for controlling the pandemic. The decline of America was visible for a while, especially during the Trump administration, however, COVID-19 would definitely accelerate this phenomenon. The only state with a demonstrated ability to control this virus around the world is China, which is providing support to over 80 states, through its experience and methodology. Nevertheless, while China has made tremendous inroads into Europe, America, Asia and Africa through its soft power diplomacy, whether it is ready to take the global leadership role, remains unclear at the moment.           

In an overview, while, the world order would not remain the same in a post-Corona world, but to expect that COVID-19 would altogether change the global order is a little too ambitious. Nonetheless, a new approach for the survival of humanity, shared values and a cooperative world would definitely be needed. Thus, the global order would see a mix of continuity and change, with China becoming increasingly dominant.  

Conclusion

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the psycho-social character of the world, as despite immense financial, scientific and technological resources, the world was found lacking in a timely and effective response. The COVID-19 curve would flatten and lower sooner or later, but after having put the entire state structures, its leadership and humanity at large in dire straits. It would change the world at large in various ways, but it remains unclear whether the world would be ready to tackle a pandemic of similar proportions in the future. Therefore, it is time to resolve political disputes, end wars, stop economic exploitation, and work towards creating a collective approach for a shared destiny in a harmonious world order.


The writer is a Professor of International Relations and Dean, Faculty of Social Sciences Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.
E-mail: [email protected]


 

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