By Dr Ajay Lele
The world has witnessed two World Wars — wars amongst the nation-states. Post 9/11, there has been a global war against terrorism. However, in recent history the world has not witnessed anything like the present, when the entire world is required to fight a war against a virus called Covid-19. As things stand today, the prevailing situation could turn into anything between 'a wakeup call' to a 'dooms day scenario'.
Pandemics are not new for human civilisation and in the last hundred years, the world had witnessed few pandemics. Mostly, they are known to have originated from avian influenza viruses. Influenza is caused by a virus (there are four types: A, B, C and D). Covid-19, the coronavirus is not an influenza virus. Some known viruses from this family include SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV.
In the past, during the Spanish Flu (1918-1919) around 40 to 50 million people died. While Russian Flu (1889-1890), Asian Flu (1957-58) and Hong Kong Flu (1968-70) had around more than one million deaths during every epidemic.
While during the Second World War (1939-1945) had around 40 to 50 million deaths happened and the First World War (1914-1918) had more than 20 million people losing their lives. A broad comparison indicates that a major pandemic can kill the almost same number of people as that of any Great War and that too in a very limited time span.
Now the question is, 'have the world powers prepared themselves for the pandemics as they have prepared for warfighting, learning from the experiences of the past'? Probably, the answer is a big no. Investing in a soldier is very important to ensure peace. However, investing in a doctor is probably more important, because it is for human survival. You can fight a war or remain ready for war (at least theoretically to achieve peace!) provided you survive!
It is the medical profession which has got the capability to bridge the gap between science and society. A medical profession is a term which has wide-ranging shades and could include medical practitioners, hospitals, research laboratories, biotechnologists, pharmacists, healthcare and medical-instrumentation industry. Here, the word 'doctor' is a representative for all this, the way the term 'soldier' should be viewed as a symbolic depiction of global defence architecture.
Over the years, a significant amount of developments have taken place in the biotechnology industry. The primary focus of this industry has been on new drug development and research towards improving the capabilities for disease cure. However, it appears that this industry has expanded in a more 'reactive role' than a 'proactive role'. For example, the research has mostly been restricted to work on diseases like AIDS and few others. There has been less effort to prepare for likely or unknown threats to human health. Vaccine development is one area where possibly much more could have been done.
Post 9/11, during September and October 2001, anthrax-laden letters were posted in the US, that killed five people. This one incident had led to a massive release of research funds (US$41 billion) to counter the threat from bioterrorism. However, beyond the development of basic research and industrial infrastructure, these funds have not led to any significant research and innovation. There have been unconfirmed reports of various malpractices towards the utilisation of these funds.
Take the case of SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome), MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome), swine flu, and the Zika virus. These infections have happened in the recent past. All these cases had a major learning value for the future. However, once the infections were controlled, a general lethargy was found to learn from these incidences and prepare for the future.
Particularly, the countries like China and Saudi Arabia which had first-hand experiences to tackle these health emergencies have done little to address the futuristic health challenges. Money and technology definitely is not a problem for these states, but unfortunately, they decided to invest more on a 'soldier' than on a 'doctor'. Imagine mindless investments done in the South China Sea by China for building artificial islands with airstrips etc or Saudi Arabia deciding to assist the US towards policing the world!
If the US President Mr Donald Trump is to be believed, then Covid-19 is a "Chinese Virus". Today, the world is at the brink of a collapse essentially because the mindless investments made by the major power to strengthen their military and strategic interests, without realising where the actual threat lies. Let us hope that 'carriers' of such threats end up becoming their 'defenders' too.
(The author is Senior Fellow, IDSA, New Delhi. Views expressed are personal.)