Coronavirus and the security debate

Coronavirus (COVID-19) Sheffield, UK
Photo by Tim Dennell, Flickr

In February the Government announced that it was undertaking an Integrated Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy Review. Responding, the Commons’ Defence Select Committee invited three military academic experts to give evidence on 10 March. It was business as usual, with no mention of coronavirus or pandemics.

What a difference a week makes. On 17 March a former Chief of the Defence Staff and a former National Security Adviser were up before the Defence Committee. This time the discussion was dominated by coronavirus with both the witnesses stressing that pandemics had been a top tier risk when they were involved in the 2010 Review.

CAAT is a member of Rethinking Security, a network of organisations and academics working in the UK for an approach to security that can better meet everyone’s needs, from the local to the global level. It had seen the Integrated Review as an opportunity to push for a wider debate than the usual one where security is often discussed as though it is synonymous with military strength. 

Campaigners wanted the focus to be on human security rather than, as is so often the case, the security and power ambitions of the UK state. Now, the dreadful pandemic is shifting the debate, showing everyone what a real threat to their security looks like and how, despite pandemics being described as a top tier threat on paper, resources have not been devoted to addressing them. Rather, they had gone on aircraft carriers and nuclear weapons.

As novelist Arundhati Roy wrote in the Financial Times on 4 April: “The mandarins who are managing this pandemic are fond of speaking of war. … But if it really were a war, then who would be better prepared than the US? If it were not masks and gloves that its frontline soldiers needed, but guns, smart bombs, bunker busters, submarine, fighter jets and nuclear bombs, would there be a shortage?

It is not just pandemics – many imminent, major threats such as climate change, environmental degradation, energy security and economic marginalisation are not military and, to date, have been seen as side issues in the security debate. Coronavirus has also drawn attention to food security. All need to be discussed widely in the media and elsewhere, and placed at the centre of the Integrated Review.

Seeing security in military terms and prioritising military solutions to problems can also increase insecurity as shown by the military interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and elsewhere. A military approach is also likely to endorse the promotion of arms exports. These exacerbate human rights abuses, tension and conflict, with clear and harmful implications for global and UK security.

So if anything good is to come out of the current pandemic, it must involve new thinking on the many issues that are necessary for human security. The level of resources to tackle the threats must then reflect what is needed, not the lobbying of arms companies or residual delusions of global military power.

This article was originally published in CAAT News – you can read the whole magazine online here.

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