The catastrophe triggered by COVID-19 has spread fear like no other event in recent memory. It has put the spotlight on indecisive leadership, bumbling governments, and misguided priorities. Right now, the daunting task is to stop the spread of the virus, and helping the sick and the needy.
But few occurrences offer more potent ground for a rethinking of what is human security. That security lies in reducing poverty, providing growth, and opportunity, access to education, affordable health care, a cleaner environment, and human rights. The crisis offers a chance to fashion human security in the lives of the people and not in the weapons that states have. In short, improved conditions for the human family.
More and more, the shattering events over the last few weeks – infection, death, lock-downs, hunger, and economic meltdown – have tested the traditional concept of national security. That people are secure when states have military, political, and economic power. The crisis proves that existing security structures cannot protect citizens against a rare threat that transcends borders, devastates countries, and disrupts lives. Yet despite the worldwide disruption, the cost of the pandemic in human and material terms will be nowhere near the ravages of wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria.
Looking back at it, the uncontrolled defense spending and unbridled militarism have been a criminal extravagance. The trillions spent on national security haven’t made people safer. Expensive and lethal weapon systems lie idle while hospitals grapple with a lack of ventilators, doctors, and masks. Both major arms sellers and buyers are paying a big price for their unpreparedness for a pandemic.
It is a fact that even the wealth of rich countries hasn’t come to good use either. Like never before, global economic inequalities are evident laying bare the hollow claims of economic progress. In all nations, millions of the most vulnerable are suffering from the economic impact of the crisis. And the health crisis will sink multi-million more people into poverty as growth rates plummet exposing the basic weaknesses of the least ready countries.
There is an instant need for a social safety net for people impoverished and marginalized by sudden and severe health and economic crises. The longer-term remedial measures are re-starting the economy by supporting businesses, employment, and incomes, protecting workers in workplaces, and finding solutions between government, workers, and employers. Additionally, poverty reduction, checking the excesses of capitalism, and conflict resolution can play a role in offsetting the inequalities of globalization and reduction in the human costs of violent conflicts.
More important than ever is that democracies must avoid an escalation of political demagoguery. This leads to polarization, scapegoating, and xenophobia. It fans the flames of political and religious divisions. Right now open societies have a good opportunity to offer a contrast to the furtive behavior of authoritarian states.
The same restraint holds in international relations. In the last century, already savaged by the Second World War, the U.S.S.R. and the United States started a new military and political confrontation. The Cold War polarized the world into US and Soviet client states. It encouraged adversarial responses, authoritarian tendencies, and interventionist impulses round the globe. This era ended with the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, and the U.S.S.R. allowing freedom to the people under communist rule.
Unlike the hostile actions during the Cold War which endangered humanity, this is a time to pursue the principles of non-aggression, non-interference, respect for independence, equality, and peaceful co-existence. Being a common threat, COVID-19 has given another chance to countries with the same or different social systems to build and grow friendly relations. To create a balanced order in which no power can act with impunity, states find effective ways to find peaceful solutions to outstanding historical issues and disputes in the world and commit to solidarity and cooperation. To paraphrase Aaron Sorkin, a world without walls doesn’t need men with guns to guard it.
The effort to improve human security needs a merging of resources. It requires a common try and united fight rather than every nation is for itself. It is unlikely, though that altruistic motives will suddenly drive elites who control the global agenda to change the irrational priorities so cruelly exposed by the pandemic. The main reason for this is, of course, is that it would mean a reduction in their monopoly on power. Our collective challenge is to find the political means to challenge the entrenched status quo to have a safer world.
- The writer is an analyst and commentator on politics, peace, and security issues. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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