Last autumn, a report compiled at the request of UN Secretary-General António Guterres raised the alarm on the “very real threat of a rapidly moving, highly lethal pandemic”. The message was not new. For decades, experts warned it was not a question of ‘if’ but ‘when’ the next major pandemic would emerge. These warnings were ignored at our peril. In mere months, COVID-19 has caused hundreds of thousands of deaths, unprecedented global economic damage, heightened inequalities, increased food insecurity, triggered a surge in gender-based violence, provided a cover for environmental rollbacks and is likely to see a significant reshaping of the international order.
The dysfunction and chaos wrought by COVID-19 has stirred many debates, the notion of security being one. Like pandemic disease, several of today’s most pressing security challenges are non-military in nature: the climate emergency; extreme poverty; far-right extremism; inadequate healthcare and social protection; repressive governance; biodiversity loss.
Although many states recognise that these threats are increasing, there has been a lag in the implementation of policies to address them. In 2012, the then UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon described the world as “over-armed” and “peace under-funded”. Today, military spending is at its highest level since the end of the Cold War – US$1917 billion. Yet against these non-military challenges to international security, weapons cannot protect us. In the devastation of COVID-19 lies a lesson and a warning that security can only be achieved by addressing the root causes of what makes us insecure.
“I think people should be angry right now. Tremendous resources are channelled into the production and procurement of weapons in the name of security, and we’ve been blindsided by a virus that has swept around the world,” says Jessica West, a senior researcher at Project Ploughshares, a Canadian peace research institute.