The Impact of Health Security crises on contemporary international relations

by Sauro Dasgupta - 9 July, 2020, 12:00 3572 Views 0 Comment


Public Health is a topic of discussion that our leaders have always thrust into the lower echelons of power. It has hardly been given importance and States have sought to increase defence spending instead. This has had an adverse effect on nations, most of which are unable to combat a public health crisis like COVID- 19. Ironically, poor nations like Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Bhutan spend almost 9-10% of their GDP on public health whereas India spends just 2-2.5% of its GDP on the same. Greater social spending on health and education has manifold benefits, something that is visible in the Scandinavian nations, Germany, France and New Zealand. New Zealand has become a role model of combating the COVID- 19 and its ways must be emulated by us in our fight against this pandemic.   

Historically, health has occupied the lower echelons of our national priorities. Over the past decade, however, national policymakers have increasingly recognized the deleterious impacts that health crises may have on national interests. As a result, particular health issues occasionally have been elevated within the national agenda if they have affected the foreign policy of the country or are perceived as threats to national security and national interest. Identifying a health issue as foreign policy or security issue may lead to higher prioritization and more attention from top policymakers which brings greater political support and more funding. While health professionals may welcome the higher profile and greater resources given to their issues, characterizing a health issue as a security threat may alter our understanding of the same and may involve the military and non-health domain people in the solution of the problem rather than health experts or medical professionals. The State must decide the health issues that are to be given priority at par with national security issues and those that must be included in foreign policy.

McMurray and Smith (2001) sought to consider the impact globalization had on the health and wellbeing of societies as they move up the economic development ladder and become interlinked with the global supply chains, which can have a profound impact on the stability and prosperity of states and the well-being of the people.  Brower and Chalk (2003) extended the work on the threats of infectious diseases, with specific reference to HIV/AIDS and public policy responses by United States government agencies. There is a need to develop strong linkages between sub-state, state and international agencies when addressing the security threat posed by infectious diseases and other bio-hazards. By applying a securitization approach to preventing infectious disease outbreaks, securitizing actors would be entrusted with a greater capacity to deal with disease outbreaks and pandemics. There is a need to raise these deeper theoretical issues in the context of securitization theory and the gap in the available securitization literature in this regard must be filled, something that cannot be done by these actors and need the full cooperation of the medical, academic and research fraternity.

COVID- 19 is the Novel Coronavirus which has emerged as an important paradigm in both research and medical science. Coronavirus is the name attributed to the virus because of its structure, ‘Corona’, i.e. crown. This virus is not new. But the random mutations in the virus is altering the DNA sequences so frequently that the mutants are in no way similar to that of the wild type. These mutants have the novel capacity of invading and infecting and have high mutational rates. Without knowing the entire genome sequence of COVID- 19, no new drug can be administered and no vaccine can be used. It seems as if this COVID-19 is the most important nanometre-sized particle and the most important topic of discussion, though its size is of the order of the nanometres.

The world was at an inflection point even before the threat of the coronavirus had entered the lexicon. The coronavirus cases and the death toll continue to rise. For a global economy that was already struggling, this shock might just take away even the last shreds of support for enhancing the international flow of money, goods, and people. People have become scared of the Novel Coronavirus and are taking several measures to combat these corona particles. The genome size of the corona is approximately 27 to 34 kilobases having single-stranded RNA as its genome enclosed in an envelope rich in lipids. This coronavirus is a retrovirus and can palpably cause infection and is sufficient enough to infect mammals and birds since it is zoonotic.

It remains questionable as to what extent the principles of ensuring global health is adhered to by states. An important characteristic of the regional order, especially in Asia, Africa and Latin America,  is the obstinate retention of sovereignty, both as an intrinsic operating principle of a state’s foreign policy, pride, nationalism and as a jingoistic domestic policy against external interference. Hence, the realities of the regional order mean that a largely protectionist and anti-West sentiment prevails here. One good example of this can be seen in the Indonesia where Health Minister Supari placed national sovereignty above the sharing of virus samples during SARS epidemic (2009) or even when China refused to share information with the rest of the world about COVID-19 as well as disallowed an Independent Enquiry into the causes of the spread of the same.  Nonetheless,  in the case of Indonesia, there is a degree of co-operation proceeding for it was later willing to share information with some nations but it is not so in the case of China, whose aggression has only increased by dangerous proportions in the wake of COVID-19. So, in considering why a state chooses to securitize health threats, we must understand that when domestic costs clearly outweigh international benefits, a country is expected to become hostile..When the potential costs and benefits are greater, the country becomes conciliatory.

Nations have suffered a lot as a result of COVID-19. USA is leading the world with the maximum number of cases of COVID-19 and victims of the same. Italy’s condition is no better. In fact, Italy is the European country having the most Coronavirus victims. In West Asia, Iran has been unable to resist COVID-19. Almost 10% of Iranian MPs and clerics have been diagnosed with COVID-19.

Unfortunately, more than seventy people’s lives have been claimed by COVID- 19 in Iran. Over the years, Iran has been diverting most resources towards Defence and National Security, while allotting a paltry amount to health, education and social security. The Government and the private sector have not been able to uplift the health system of the country. Iran has abysmal public health care infrastructure and on account of UN and US sanctions, its tensions in the region, it becomes a global pariah and a rogue state to all and its ill- will and troubles with its allies like India, China, Pakistan and North Korea has made its condition very miserable. Further, its harsh laws deter the entry of foreign healthcare workers and medical personnel. Therefore, it fails to receive aid from international bodies or their allies. However, when Iran refused to screen Indians stranded in the country for corona virus, India despatched a temporary lab, medicines, doctors, healthcare workers and medical personnel to Iran for testing, screening the people for coronavirus. evacuating Indians and foreign nationals from there and later announcing to donate the lab to Iran. Now, Iran has approved the use of advanced Israeli devices and methods to screen Iranians and foreign nationals for coronavirus, quarantining them and ensuring their recovery. In Europe, along with Italy, Spain, France and Germany have reported a huge number of cases of coronavirus. The fundamental question is that despite Europe having such a sound public healthcare system, which, many commentators opine, is more advanced than its North American counterpart, how did such a situation arise?


Covid-19 is simply accelerating a push-back against globalisation that has been taking place for some time with the rise of economic nationalism across countries. Globalisation has undeniably been in retreat for some years now and the coronavirus pandemic is likely to exacerbate this process. Though there is a lot being said about international cooperation and the international community, one of the devastating impacts of Covid-19 will be that nations are going to look even more inwards. Rather than look beyond their borders, nations will focus on their national interests.

In the United States, the Trump Administration has declared the outbreak of COVID-19 as a ‘National Emergency’. President Trump has announced that he would use all the Federal Government’s resources and capabilities to combat the coronavirus in the US. After much reluctance, he has agreed to get himself screened for COVID-19. He has assigned the monumental task of leading the US response to COVID-19 to Vice President Mike Pence. However, many critics have questioned President Trump’s decision, in consonance with Vice President Mike Pence’s lacklustre response to the Indiana HIV outbreak in 2014. Ironically, then Indiana Governor Pence was assisted in his response by then Indiana State Health Commissioner, Jerome Adams, who is the current Surgeon General of the United States. A few days ago, Adams said that people could get themselves screened for COVID-19 and nobody would prevent them from doing so. However, he opined that the face masks that people were wearing to safeguard themselves against the coronavirus would not be able to protect them in the entirety. He felt that people were wearing them for psychological and mental satisfaction alone. The use of masks, gloves and sanitizer is prevalent to combat coronavirus. Here, it may be added that ethyl alcohol present in the sanitizer will cause the dissolution of the lipid in the viral envelope and will destroy the viral structure. A person suspected of being a victim of COVID-19 should be quarantined to prevent its spread to the community. Social Distancing is important. COVID-19 is pandemic and before allowing it becomes a global epidemic, we should safeguard ourselves and the community.

Sauro Dasgupta
Author is pursuing his bachelor’s degree in Political Science with a specialization in International Relations at Jadavpur University, Kolkata, India. He can be contacted at 9836629563.

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