The Cold War transformed the way the world understands the concept of security. The primacy laid on military security began to be questioned after the misadventures in Vietnam and Afghanistan by the U.S. and the U.S.S.R, respectively. In 1994, the human security approach was introduced as a part of the Human Development Report (HDR). According to the report, newer dimensions of human security include economy, health, food, environment, community, personal, and political security. Since then, the traditional understanding of security in politico-military terms has evolved. Non-traditional threats to security have been widely accepted by the governments and international organisations alike, as these threats challenge national security.


In modern times, various scholars have argued for the inclusion of human security as a part of national security. National security is not limited to the protection of borders. However, there is a need to accommodate pandemics and epidemics as a threat to national security since they threaten the nation’s socio-economic and political stability. Those who subscribe to traditional notions of security argue, “If everything is a part of security, then nothing will remain a security priority.” However, these arguments have been challenged after the world has witnessed many non-traditional threats to international security in recent years. Similarly, scholars have been debating whether pandemics could become an existential threat to humankind. In the 21st century, disease outbreaks have caused severe disruptions to the status quo, as is analysed in this article.


National security is not limited to protecting borders and aggressions. It is a much broader term, which accommodates economic security, foreign policy, technological and innovative strength of a nation. In the post-Cold War era, the world has become much more open in terms of accommodating the non-traditional security aspects within the national security discourse and practice. The 9/11 attacks, the global financial crisis in 2008, epidemics such as SARS, MERS, Hantavirus, H1N1, Marburg virus disease, avian influenza and Ebola have gradually broadened the definition of national security by contributing new threats to security in various contexts.


These diseases are easily contagious owing to the increasing trade, connectivity, and mobility of people and goods in the modern age. For example, in South and East Asia, due to the number of key trading routes and essential Sea Lines of Communication (SLOCs), such diseases spread before they can be traced and contained. In the past, the aforementioned regions and other parts of the world have been marred by infectious diseases such as the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), H5N1, H7N9, and Dengue Haemorrhagic Fever.


From time to time, these health risks have also shaped international dialogue and have managed to bring in the non-traditional aspects of security as an important aspect of the discussion. This has uncertain and damaging implications for civil unrest, political instability and changing landscape of armed conflicts between nation-states. While these diseases create new complications in dealing with security issues, they also exacerbate existing problems within a state, like in the case of West Africa, which is discussed in the latter part of the article.


How can Diseases Threaten National Security?


National security can be threatened in numerous ways due to a pandemic/epidemic, as seen in the case of COVID-19. Apart from increasing the rates of morbidity and mortality, the loss of life affects the reliability of the nation’s workforce. This may result in several strains of problems such as class divide, economic nosedive, and political instability, as is being experienced in both developed and developing countries. Susan Peterson, in an article titled “Epidemic Disease and National Security”, talks about the threats posed by diseases against the United States (U.S.). One of the significant threats emerges from the country’s vulnerability to attacks by biological weapons. The possibility of a contagious pathogen venturing out of a microbiological laboratory cannot be ruled out.


Global health security is defined as the “action required to reduce the vulnerabilities of the human population by minimising the risk to health across the globe.” In the U.S., experts are also calling for building national and international mechanisms to prepare for crises like the current one. President Trump had earlier postponed the G-7 summit in order to include countries such as India, Russia, Australia and South Korea. Many leaders like Prime Minister Modi called for international cooperation in fighting the coronavirus pandemic. Today, the world is plagued by ‘global’ problems, which require ‘global’ solutions—threats such as zoonotic diseases, antimicrobial resistance, and pandemics remain massive challenges for the world to combat. The majority of nation states realise the importance of identifying measures to secure global health.


Disease Outbreaks and Conflicts in the Past


In the era of globalisation and world trade, the above-mentioned types of health concerns have assumed greater significance than in the past. More than 34 percent of overall deaths worldwide have now been attributed to contagious diseases. Less than 0.64 percent of the overall deaths are caused due to wars.


Thucydides, in one of his works, describes the subject - “During the Peloponnesian Wars, disease demoralised the Athenian people, undermined the political leadership, and weakened the army, preventing it from achieving key military objectives.” There have been several points in history when diseases have changed the battlefield dynamics. In 1812, typhus plagued the armies of Napoleon Bonaparte while his army was marching towards Russia. Nearly 80,000 soldiers lost their lives. The American Army lost in an embarrassing battle to typhoid fever during the Spanish-American war. The Spanish flu in 1918 killed nearly half a million Americans. This exceeds the deaths during all the wars fought by the U.S. in the 20th century combined.


Moreover, the militaries are also affected due to pandemics, not just civilians. During World War I, the U.S. was both involved in the war and was busy fighting influenza back home. The situation became complex since the virus had been contracted by the military personnel across various camps in Europe and the U.S. By September 1918, the American involvement in the war was at its peak. In the following two months, pneumonia and influenza affected 20 to 40 percent of the Army and Navy personnel in the United States.


Due to such high morbidity rates, the routine functioning of the armed forces was affected in the U.S. in terms of training and induction. Thousands of personnel were declared to be non-effective. In many cases, the American troops had to be redirected towards taking care of the sick and the dead, as opposed to being active in the battlefield. In World War I, as mentioned before, more soldiers lost their lives due to pneumonia and influenza than by fighting during the war. This is not the first or the last time when disease outbreaks had been linked directly or indirectly to wars.


Conflict theatres have been equally affected by disease outbreaks and health insecurity. According to the US Centres for Disease Control (CDC), in 2014, the Ebola virus outbreak turned out to be risky for the stability of the West African region, especially in countries such as Liberia, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, and Guinea. The outbreak’s epicentre was in an intersection of these countries, which is home to more than a million people. Due to the region being densely forested and the borders being porous, the containment of the disease proved to be difficult. During the ongoing pandemic, dealing with security threats in West Africa, such as terrorism has proven difficult for the countries. The United Nation’s calls for ceasefires across the world have had a limited effect on temporarily halting conflicts. In the midst of the pandemic, Nigeria, Chad, Niger, and Burkina Faso witnessed terror attacks in March-April 2020.


National Security in the 21st Century amid Epidemics & Pandemics


Some of the East Asian countries like Taiwan, South Korea and Japan have all learnt from their history of dealing with disease outbreaks. This has not only driven them to institute more effective domestic health policies but has also aided their diplomatic efforts overall. National security in some of these countries has had a health security component attached to it since then. In the case of Taiwan, outbreaks such as H5N1 and SARS have had a few consequences. Firstly, an institutional effect took shape. Since 2003, some of the Taiwanese state agencies such as the Department of Health have been involved in drafting a new set of policies that later categorised such epidemics and pandemics as a threat to national security. Other affiliated agencies towed the same line soon. As a result of epidemics being treated as a threat to national security, several changes in foreign policy have been visible since then in Taiwan, especially when it comes to epidemic prevention in partner countries. Several initiatives have been adopted by Taiwan to oversee health initiatives abroad. Health specialists were sent by Taipei to Burkina Faso and Chad in 2006 to manage the H1N1 outbreak. The two countries are diplomatic allies of Taiwan. During the H5N1 outbreak in Vietnam and Ghana, Taiwan donated preventive materials such as protective masks and Tamiflu to help the countries develop prevention capabilities. The idea was to adopt “epidemic prevention before a domestic outbreak.”


Global health security needs a major overhaul as a result of the vulnerability we face today since it can impinge on national security in many ways. Every major juncture in history has shown us a reflection of the vulnerabilities a nation state can face due to diseases. It is about time that the world displays its preparedness against the same. If the pandemic should serve as a lesson for the global community, then health security must be a top priority in the years to come. For instance, biosafety standards in countries such as India have to improve. Experts say that India requires five more facilities that are equipped with the BSL-4 technology to undertake more advanced research on pathogens, which pose potential bio-threat to the country. Disease outbreaks will happen in the future too and hence, the need of the hour is to learn and adapt, as quickly and efficiently as possible. 


Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are personal.