The Strategic effect of the Scourge of our Times

Sub Title : The scenarios that are emerging from the Coronavirus pandemic, which has perhaps not yet gone even fifty percent down its calamitous path, are limited by the power of human thinking and visualization. An analysis of the what nations and societies must contend with as the tragedy continues to unfold

Issues Details : Vol 14 issue1 Mar-Apr 2020

Author : Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain, PVSM, UYSM, AVSM, SM, VSM & BAR (Retd)

Page No. : 12

Category : Geostrategy

: April 1, 2020

I watched the Hollywood film Contagion, sitting glued and wide eyed. A 2011 film captures almost in entirety the situation of 2020 brought on by the pandemic called Coronavirus or in more specific terms its latest strain called Covid 19. It too depicts the jump of the virus from animals through bat droppings consumed by pigs which were then slaughtered in a Chinese butchery. It graphically captures a pandemic scenario quite similar to the one we are currently facing. In 2020 Covid 19 is effectively proving to be the scourge of our times quite similar to what the London Plague of 1665-66 or the Flu of 1918 may have been. The Plague also known as Black Death may have killed 25 million people in Europe and approximately 2 million in Britain. It killed 145,000 people in Rome and 300,000 in Naples. Worldwide deaths from the Flu of 1918 were estimated to be in the range of 50 million with 675,000 alone in the US. In all these pandemics, the discovery of vaccine to counter the virus took time to develop and mature. Non-pharmaceutical interventions such as isolation, quarantine, good personal hygiene, use of disinfectants, and limitations of public gatherings, which were applied unevenly achieved far greater success in breaking the chain of infection. That is exactly what will probably happen in 2020 with the Covid 19 pandemic. It is probably the greatest challenge the world is facing since the end of the Second World War; 9/11 and its aftermath pales by comparison. In his seminal essay titled ‘The World after Coronavirus’ the Israeli historian and celebrity author Yuval Noah Harari writes, “The decisions people and governments take in the next few weeks will probably shape the world for years to come. They will shape not just our healthcare systems but also our economy, politics and culture. We must act quickly and decisively. We should also take into account the long-term consequences of our actions. When choosing between alternatives, we should ask ourselves not only how to overcome the immediate threat, but also what kind of world we will inhabit once the storm passes. Yes, the storm will pass, humankind will survive, most of us will still be alive — but we will inhabit a different world”; Very profound words from one of the finest modern day thinkers. What Harari says is nothing but just another notion of existential security.

My personal realization of existential security remained rooted to the military outlook of kinetics and force till 1998 when at India’s Army War College I was first exposed to the idea of non-military threats and the real definition of security. Writing a dissertational thesis on the subject ‘non-military threats to national security’ I was to realize that security really meant the ability of society to survive and progress, aspire and improve its quality of life and the effects of various factors on those aspirations; economics being one of them, sociology and politics being two others. It being all about the ability of human beings to put down food on the plate, provide shelter, overcome ailments, pander to basic emotions and have a quality of life while creating a hope that the next and subsequent generations would be better off in the warding off the threats which prevents the achievement of those aspirations by their generation. In other words, of all the types of security we could think of – border, internal, energy and the like, the most important is human security. While all forms of security are intrinsically linked, the ultimate impact felt on humans is the most important. The advent of Coronavirus and specifically the strain of Covid 10 is thus one of the biggest threats to human security which could wipe out many of the gains the world has made in recent decades.

Norms of security have focused on conflict through 45 years of Cold War. Its end transformed into focus to internal conflicts and terror, the termination of conventional conflicts and the trend towards economics as a form of war. A global pandemic has the potential of changing everything, creating new asymmetry with unrealized effects, shifting zones and domains of security while altering the ways people lead their lives. It’s a question of how intense the effect of this pandemic will be, for how long and with what level of devastation on different parts of the world and in different countries. At the time of writing China, from where it all started appears to have flattened the curve of geometric progression sufficiently to allow President Xi Jinping to visit Wuhan the epicenter of the initiation of the pandemic. It is relatively unimportant at this juncture whether the virus was the result of a man-made ploy to gain strategic advantage through knowledge of its proliferation and control, or an accident if it was artificially and unintentionally initiated. Allegations are already flying and will continue for many years adding to the unending trust deficit in international politics.

When will the virus decline or die out? That is very difficult to predict because not enough is scientifically known about the virus. Advisories of different kinds are doing the rounds but different medical researchers are saying different things. “It will die in summer” is a common belief but the virus continues to persist in hot and humid Singapore. Social distancing impact will be varied by national disciplines (existing as well as ordered). So, there are still a lot of ‘unknowns’.  A definite answer to this will dictate how the post Covid world develops. What are important to gauge are the levels of intensity to which the virus will rise in its spread, the number and type of regions that will be afflicted and the time frame that it will last. It is also important to assess what aspects of human existence will be most affected and the impact on individual nations and the world when we begin to recover from it. There is also no guarantee that a revisit by the virus won’t occur in nations which may have exterminated it.

There is every likelihood that the lockdown by nations and sealing of borders may temporarily lead to practices which promote inward looking to cater to homeland populations. Yet no nation can remain safe with that approach. Guaranteed extermination of the virus and recovery can only be achieved by international cooperation, the norms being the same as trade or security cooperation. The United Nations and its various institutions will no doubt be the most essential entities and much will depend on their effectiveness, their ability to remain independent and financially backed up. If economies tank even temporarily many nations, especially the richer ones may be forced to cut back contributions to the UN. That will be catastrophical. Thus far efforts to fight the scourge have only dwelt upon national strategies with the internet coming handy to spread information coming from the limited research which has occurred with much more in the making. However, if this is considered a world war like situation sooner than later an international cooperation effort will have to be launched.

If the anticipated effect actually rolls out the world over, two issues will come to the fore; the loss of jobs and small businesses and the sudden dearth of resources. National efforts will therefore have to focus upon survival of the weakest elements of society. It is not as if soup kitchens will be needed immediately but arrangements for something bordering on that may be necessary. Around the world many people live and work away from their families. The trauma of concern for their homes and families will be immense especially in the case of those involved with the running of essential services. With the transport sector under complete lockdown, essential services too may suffer, especially if people decide to give priority to their families over loyalty to their jobs.

It is essential services, availability of resources, and law and order that will form the bedrock of challenges. Italy and France both smothered by the virus are facing major problems in health care. It has not reached proportions of law and order issues. That is probably the last stage when resources and services both collapse. Most countries have sufficient police forces to prevent this but efficient management of the same is the key. The Armed Forces always play a key role in such situations and must be retained as the ultimate reserve, under progressive training to be better aware of the threat and handling a non-traditional military operation. In the case of China President Xi made the PLA responsible right from the outset. Whether that is a good model will always remain debatable.

Hypothetically if this situation escalates and elongates before it starts to improve in terms of the number of cases, it is the resurgence which will need to be guarded against.  Four domains will pose a challenge in the recovery process; disruptions that would have occurred in the social, economic, political and security cum diplomatic domains. Nations which would have executed complete sealing of their borders will have to re-examine their travel protocols leaving various restrictions in place. China as the epicenter of the pandemic will have to bear the ire of the world as it becomes more evident that information was insufficiently shared by it when the signs of it being something really big were evidently available. With accusations galore regarding culpability we need to be ready for changes in the norms of international cooperation and behavior. A cold war of sorts could well be on the cards for some time hampering full recovery. The national and international banking systems would offer the other challenge at the recovery stage. If economies have collapsed, especially across financially weaker   nations then financial networks which support credit cards and cashless transactions would be similarly constrained. That did not happen after the international monetary crisis of 2008 but then networks had not reached levels that exist today.

The unpredictability factor in international politics is bound to intensify as nations reassess their interests and scramble to rebuild economies which would have taken a hit. Again hypothetically, some smaller nations which may have been hit hard economically will offer opportunity to larger and more influential countries for rebuilding external influence as they struggle to recover. Some regions have yet to reveal any major signs of impact which are evident in other areas but if this were to become a worldwide phenomenon some of what we have witnessed in the movement of populations from perpetual conflict zones to relatively more stable areas could well be repeated in much larger volumes. Mass move of displaced populations from resource depleted areas could pose a massive security challenge which could transcend generations and contribute to instability. Considering that the world seems to be just about emerging from the threats of international terrorism a roll back into that situation could well be on the cards as displaced people struggle to rebuild lives; a tailor made environment for obscurantist ideologies and criminal networks.

Robustness of societies lies in doing trivia happily. It all contributes to jobs and consumption which help in creating a healthy economy. If people were to stick to only basic needs after this experience it would have major impact on network chains. Don’t expect global solidarity. Nations are essentially selfish. They help if the returns exist.

In the recovery stage what can be assessed is that economics will form the essence of international relations. The key anchor of globalization – the US-China trade relationship – will change even more. China cannot be replaced by US as a major industrial producer (even for the US market). Other countries ASEAN, Bangladesh, India will all chip in but that would still not be enough. Nor can any country buy as much grain from USA as China does. So an economic relationship will continue but will be politically fractured as both parties search alternatives; these don’t exist on scale which both of them need. Will the economic crisis resulting from mostly demand decline lead to “I will go it mostly alone” approach or will the G-20 see opportunity for the creation of a new Bretton Woods agreement? All this will be very difficult under a reelected and over confident Trump along with an angry Xi Jinping heading two years later to the 20th Congress of the Chinese Congress Party.

For a strategic analyst this is an exciting scenario emerging from the tragedy of a pandemic which has not gone even fifty percent down its anticipated path of unpredictable destruction. Scenarios are limited by the power of human thinking and visualization. All one can hope is that it we do not live to see a potential Armageddon.



To fight the Corona virus, the options open to us were to go in for a partial lockdown to impede the spread of the virus or to go in for a  complete lockdown, the impact of which on the spread of the virus would be exponentially greater than the first option. Implementing a partial lockdown is a herculean task, perhaps possible in smaller countries and which have enough availability of resources. They can have a higher percentage of people tested as also implement measures required to distance high risk groups. It would be appreciated  that it is not possible in a country the size of India.

The virus outbreak has led to an obvious economic slowdown. The one prompted by the spread of the Corona virus is peculiar because both demand and supply have collapsed simultaneously as demand  has gone down because people cannot venture out and there is also some stress on salaries. This has affected the operational cash flows of businesses (money they get from customers). In addition, the lockdown has also  caused issues with their line of credit (getting loans etc), constraining them to rely on their cash reserves.

In the case of a partial lockdown the economic system would not have come to a grinding halt as it seems to have now but it would take longer to contain the infection thus resulting in a protracted slowdown, which small and medium businesses are incapable of sustaining, because of  limited cash reserves which most of them would be having.

It is axiomatic that going in for a 21 day complete lockdown makes sense both from the point of effectively fighting the virus and the economic standpoint.