COVID-19 Is a Human Security Crisis
The following article was originally published on April 16, 2020, on the East Asia Forum website and is reprinted here with permission.
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COVID-19 cases are growing at an accelerated pace, infecting 2 million people around the world. With this staggering number of victims, the pandemic is now being compared to a war. We do not yet have an effective vaccine or proven treatment, and the development of a vaccine may take a year or longer. The world is currently left with non-pharmaceutical interventions to slow and mitigate the transmission of the virus, including bans on public events, school and university closures, and even local and national lockdowns.
The COVID-19 pandemic is not only a health crisis, it is a human security crisis — depriving our freedom from fear, freedom from want and freedom to live with dignity. The pandemic demands a human security approach of comprehensive, across-the-board human protection and empowerment.
When the concept of human security was introduced in policy discussions in the 1990s, the approach was criticised for broadening security threats beyond war. In 2020, we are learning that an epidemic, which has killed close to 120,000 around the world as of 14 April, undermines our security and safety.
In responding, a medical solution alone is not enough. Measures should also address knock-on effects in health, economics, politics, society and culture.
On the economic front, stock markets have plummeted as the global outbreak intensifies. The pandemic has caused an economic contraction more serious than the global financial crisis in 2008. The global value chain has been hard hit. The economic effect is not elsewhere but everywhere. The closures and lockdowns have affected both goods and services industries. The entire world population is suffering from fear and want.
The pandemic also impacts politics, both domestic and international. Some seek to gain from the pandemic, leading to further competition and confrontation among nation states. For example, former US diplomat Kurt M Campbell and Brookings program lead Rush Doshi have remarked that China — after failing to take immediate steps during the initial outbreak — is now claiming success in battling the virus and is spearheading the provision of medical assistance to other nations, including Italy, Serbia and Iran. The COVID-19 pandemic also risks affecting traditional security by sending the wrong signal to those keen to develop biological weapons.
The virus does not respect national borders in its transmission. No nation can get out of the pandemic alone. If nation states tilt for competition and confrontation, we will certainly lose this war. The only option is to cooperate to shape a globally and regionally coordinated response.
Although COVID-19 initially hit China hard, its neighbours in the Asia Pacific have so far suppressed its transmission relative to Europe and the United States where cases are surging.
One reason behind this is that the Asia Pacific region has learned lessons from the 2002–2004 SARS outbreak. As a result, countries in the Asia Pacific introduced travel controls, border closures and lockdowns sooner, although some have done better than others. This was backed by enhanced health and medical coverage in the region. ASEAN included infectious diseases as a shared security challenge in creating its ASEAN Community and has swiftly mobilised the ASEAN Health Sector.
Accurate information sharing is key to successful containment and to prevent misinformation. In the immediate future, the Asia Pacific region needs to mobilise medical professionals to assist countries in need. If so required, the military should be mobilised to build emergency hospitals and to utilise military medical teams trained in handling emergencies. Military ships could also be converted into hospitals.
The most important immediate priority is to develop a vaccine, diagnostic tools and treatments for COVID-19. In order to avoid duplicated efforts, we will need to share best practices and clinical test results to develop an effective medical intervention to halt the pandemic.
In shaping a regional response, the Asia Pacific should utilise its existing regional architecture, including the East Asia Summit and ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting Plus. Regular teleconferencing by leaders can help enable the identification of challenges, the sharing of best practices and the creation of new approaches to address the pandemic and its knock-on effects. Regional cooperation will ease the fear and want of the entire regional population and allow us to live with more dignity.