COVID-19: Time to Rethink International Peace & Security

COVIDscan, cc Flickr NIAID, modified,

At time of writing, the United States is the emerging epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic and over one-third of the world’s population is on some sort of lockdown. The virus has spread like wildfire across the planet and poses the greatest existential global threat since World War II.

Case fatality rates in some regions of Europe are in double-digits and shortages of personal protective equipment and ventilators are hindering the response. Markets have crashed at a faster pace than during the Global Financial Crisis due to a collapse in global demand, and major US banks estimate that US GDP could fall by as much as 35% by the end of the second fiscal quarter. Demand for commodities from emerging markets has plummeted and investors have pulled over $96 billion from these markets since the start of this ‘black swan’ event. The economic and health impacts of the crisis will have a destabilizing effect on the most vulnerable in societies across the globe. If governments do not take decisive and collective action to respond to this health and economic crisis, it will quickly become a political one, especially in fragile states.

Despite the complexity and transboundary nature of this multifaceted crisis, governments in both poor and rich countries have retreated inwards, enacted unilateral travel and trade restrictions and worked to protect their citizens and territory in a way not seen in modern history. The Westphalian state of old seems to be making a comeback in an unprecedented way.

States must not fall into the trap of isolationism, nationalism and protectionism, which will only hinder response efforts and the trade in medical commodities and their components. Instead, they should pursue multilateral solutions while at the same time strengthening national systems. Governments must actively work to forge new multilateral health security mechanisms and norms that govern how they collectively manage, mitigate and respond to pandemics and Public Health Emergencies of International Concern, as the current architecture is no longer fit for purpose.

When you can be in Hong Kong in the morning and New York in the evening, diseases can spread at jet speed. Every country’s national interests are inextricably linked to the health of people across the globe. COVID-19 has reminded the world how connected the planet is and how a novel virus from a place many people had never heard of could change their lives and long-term economic prospects.

Governments around the world must acknowledge that globalization has allowed people and nations to prosper on a scale never before thought possible and that this interconnectedness has fostered peace and stability through commerce. States must remember that the impacts of ‘turning off’ globalization in the long term would have dire economic and humanitarian consequences that would outweigh the impacts of the pandemic, and ensure they work collectively to develop new paradigms, norms and rules to govern how states interact on matters of health security.

COVID-19 must not only be seen as a health threat but a threat to international peace and security. The disease has already killed more Americans than terrorism has to date (including 9/11) and no foreign or external threat to the US economy has ever inflicted this much damage. Great powers across the globe and their military establishments were woefully underprepared and ill-equipped to defend their citizens and their homelands from the greatest security incident since World War II. This is cause for concern and demonstrates that states need to rethink defence and security paradigms, and to invest and tool adequately to manage non-traditional hazards and threats. In 2019, NATO members’ cumulative military spending was approximately $1 trillion, yet WHO’s proposed budget is less than $5 billion for two years. Defence policy needs to be developed using a broader lens, and definitions of security need to be adapted to encompass health, human and food security instead of focusing purely on ‘hard security.’

Governments must also work through alliances like NATO to improve readiness, response, procurement and supply chain mechanisms that foster interoperability and preparedness. World leaders (especially P5 members) should also leverage the venue provided by the UN Security Council to engage in private dialogue on sensitive matters and use the Council to steer the UN and multilateral response. Security Council members could even consider holding special sessions of the Council with ministers of health and the director general of the WHO, along with the UN secretary general, in order to discuss how to eventually normalize travel and trade, or how The International Health Regulations 2005 (IHR) regime can be reformed and strengthened. This ‘Health Security Council’ would be perfectly placed to act as the preeminent diplomatic platform for states to discuss health security matters of international concern, serving to complement the technical WHO and IHR mechanisms, but also concretizing the critical role of the Security Council as a key political platform for inter-state deliberations on health security.

Under this rethought health security paradigm, donors (including departments of defense) should increase support for national centers for disease control and multilateral health and humanitarian agencies, not just for altruistic reasons, but because it would pay security dividends.

More than 70% of epidemics occur in fragile contexts. Nearly two billion people live in countries or settings affected by fragility, crises and conflict, and at least half of the world’s poorest people are projected to live in such areas by 2030. COVID-19 will further magnify poverty, food insecurity and gender inequality in weak states, acting to undermine hard-won development gains and intensify humanitarian needs, but also to destabilize weak states. This in turn will lead to greater competition for finite resources, fueling radicalism, political alienation, conflict, increased migration flows and other negative coping mechanisms, especially in places like the Sahel.

Out of the ashes of COVID-19, governments must seek to develop new international institutions and ramp up support for battle-tested ones. For example, states and major development players could consider creating a new global alliance to stockpile personal protective equipment (PPE) that could act in a similar way to The Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunizations (GAVI). The latter grouping brings together private foundations, the UN system, development banks, donors, research partners, impacted states and implementing organizations and governments who, together, are able to shape markets and influence prices and supply. In addition to developing new mechanisms, donor governments should continue to support tried-and-tested mechanisms that feed and provide health services for the most vulnerable, while helping to prevent or quell new conflicts and migration flows at a time when global coping mechanisms have been eroded.

Unlike others before it, this global crisis will not end with a peace deal or an outright victory. The disease is likely to exist in pockets around the globe in the long term and, until a vaccine is developed, will probably strike in waves for the foreseeable future. This epidemiological reality means that globalization and regular travel and trade cannot be turned back on in one go, and that a phased approach backed by science will be needed. States will need to develop new global norms, standards and rules that govern how international markets and traffic can be resurrected in a way that also safeguards national health security. In order to do this, a ‘new way of working’ should be developed and codified (potentially in a treaty instrument) and broadly endorsed. States could convene expert working groups on specific pillars (e.g., commercial aviation, maritime traffic, customs) co-chaired by the UN, WHO and/or experts and industry leaders. This could be done virtually via the G20 mechanism, or through the UN Security Council or General Assembly and its work could crystalize into a series of technical norms, a convention, or even a binding treaty instrument.

A global health crisis of this complexity and magnitude requires equally grand global political and technical remedies and this will require leadership. Leaders must suppress isolationist temptations and instead work together to collectively rethink security paradigms and develop new policies and international instruments and mechanisms capable of leveraging the full weight of the international system to combat this immense challenge. Leaders must come to the realization that a security crisis of this nature and magnitude (as with others before it) requires multilateral solutions and instruments, and they must in turn champion initiatives to enhance international cooperation. The sooner these are defined, the faster states will be able to reopen the global economy and come together to neutralize this novel threat.


Benjamin Syme Van Ameringen has previously worked as a risk management consultant and on health-related matters in the UN system. The opinions expressed do not represent the position of any state, organization or entity.

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