The COVID-19 pandemic has once again exposed our soft underbelly, particularly of the richest and the most militarily powerful countries in the world. The outbreak has revealed how ill-prepared the world is to fight a disease whose onset was entirely unexpected. However, it is not so much the inability to produce an effective antidote for the virus but the failure to provide the necessary healthcare service to those afflicted by it—the most susceptible and vulnerable among them being the elderly and those with compromised immune systems—that has put in sharp contrast expenditures of governments for military preparedness compared to appropriate expenditures on the preparedness for a health emergency, such as the one we are facing now.
It's a war, a new kind of it—a world war of sorts, one may say—since the entire international system is at the point of a breakdown. But the frontline fighters—doctors, nurses and other medical workers—do not have the proper equipment or, if at all, not in adequate quantity, to ward off the virus and prevent its propagation. The basic medical supplies in countries most affected by it are under tremendous strain, e.g. Italy and Germany and even the US.
As COVID-19 wreaks havoc on its healthcare system, people's normal lives and on its economy, the US—possessing the biggest economy and the largest military apparatus in the world, with its mighty presence in hundreds of military bases for the sake of US national security and national interest—has shown how ill-equipped and ill-armed it is to thwart this new enemy. In the face of the pandemic, its entire system has fallen short.
The US case and indeed that of the European countries demonstrate that while trillions of dollars are being spent in the name of national security and national interest, it all turns out to be a big cipher when it comes to the question of actual security of the people vulnerable to a situation like the one they are facing today. In the US, the hospitals are already strained and some of them are at the tipping point. Reportedly, in the US, the coronavirus could result in 10 to 34 million hospital visits, according to the Harvard Global Health Institute. About one-fifth of those patients will require intensive care. The following data is equally interesting, not to say discouraging. According to the NYT, with 2.8 hospital beds per 1,000 people, the United States has fewer than Italy's 3.2 beds per 1,000, China's 4.3 and South Korea's 12.3. The estimated 45,000 intensive care unit beds in the country would be swamped by even a moderate outbreak of about 200,000 in need of ICU admission.
The situation is so serious that the US government is literally scouring the globe looking for medical supplies, according to the New York governor. We are also informed that healthcare workers from Oklahoma City to Minneapolis have sought donations of protective equipment. And the staff at a Detroit hospital have begun creating homemade face masks for workers. The United States has appealed for donations of respirator masks to combat a shortage of the lifesaving equipment. European countries, which have better healthcare than most of the world, are also suffering from the acute shortage of medical equipment, specially ventilators.
But while the media is being swamped with news about the deadliest disease to visit the planet in the last hundred years, a significant news report about the world production and trade in arms has gone totally unnoticed. It shows the trillions of dollars in legal arms trade—the largest exporters during 2015-19 being the United States, Russia, France, Germany and China, taking credit for the 5.5 percent jump in arms sales over the preceding half-decade. The US not only leads in arms exports, it is also the world's leading arms manufacturer with the largest defence budget. The approved 2019 Department of Defense discretionary budget is USD 686.1 billion. It has a USD 617 billion for the base budget; the remaining USD 69 billion has been set aside for "war funding".
The reference to arms trade is to situate in perspective the problem that the world is grappling with in terms of human security at the moment. The rich and the powerful states are trying to outdo their adversaries and prospective enemies by spending trillions of dollars in perfecting the killing machines and investing in human resources to operate those, in conducting wars thousands of miles away from their own shores for decades, threatening often to blow the enemy to smithereens, in maintaining huge nuclear arsenal as deterrent, thereby encouraging the proliferation of conventional weapons, in maintaining hundreds of military bases in others' lands, and in keeping local conflicts alive so that the arms industry can rake in billions of dollars yearly, with countries setting aside billions of dollars for war funding, of all things. And no one talks about the biological arsenal held by some countries (16 of them are known to have BW). Shockingly but not surprisingly, most of it becomes irrelevant, totally useless, in the face of an enemy of a different kind. It seems ironic that hospitals in the US are facing the prospect of shortage not only of respirators and ventilators; fast-moving items like testing reagents, swabs and masks are also running out. And that is the picture in the countries most affected by it.
Time has come to recast our minds to who our actual enemy is. It seems like a cruel joke when the US offers to help Iran fight the pandemic at a time when Iran is facing the most stringent US sanctions. In fact, not only not those sanctions have been revoked, a more stringent sanction has been imposed last week in the midst of the pandemic, thus stunting Iran's efforts to import the lifesaving medicines and equipment it needs to fight the pandemic and save lives.
One could ask if it is feasible to prepare for an unanticipated health emergency. What is the datum level of adequacy? Can one prepare a hundred thousand ventilators and keep it ready for some unknown future health crisis? There may be some merit in these observations, but surely there can be little excuse for the basic medical supplies running out so quickly without any arrangement for prompt replacement. The question is, if tons of accoutrements of war can be stockpiled for a war that might never occur in even the distant future, why can't the fast-moving medical supplies be stored as strategic reserves, not only in the US but all other countries?
COVID-19 has come as a catastrophe but it has carried some important lessons with it for all of us—for all countries large and small, powerful and not-so-powerful. One of them is to prioritise our budget expenditures. Catering for medical contingencies of such a large scale will carry a retrospective cost, but that is an investment we must make so as not to pay dearly in future costs—particularly in human lives. People's health and wellbeing is the best guarantee for national interest and national security.
Brig Gen Shahedul Anam Khan, ndc, psc (Retd), is a former Associate Editor of The Daily Star.