A GLOBAL war is being waged against a pandemic that may change the world. Thousands of people have already perished across the continents and the numbers are multiplying by the hour. There is hardly any country — from the most developed to the poorest — that has been spared.
It’s the biggest catastrophe in recent times and its full impact is yet to be felt. The coronavirus has devastated, among others, the world’s mightiest economic and military powers that have now become the epicentre of the contagion. According to official estimates, the death toll in the US alone could reach anywhere between 100,000 and 200,000. The situation in the eurozone is not very different.
A leaked British government report, published by the Financial Times, had even outlined an extreme scenario which sees up to 80 per cent of the UK public being infected, leading to 500,000 deaths. The exponential rise in the death toll in Italy, Spain and France demonstrate the fierceness of the calamity. The same report has quoted a Harvard professor predicting that between 40pc and 70pc of people worldwide would likely be infected in the coming year.
The coronavirus has devastated the world’s mightiest economic and military powers.
For poorer countries like Pakistan, the statistic has become irrelevant given the abysmal public health services and lack of capacity to deal with the enormity of the challenge. The economic and social cost of the pandemic for less developed countries is incalculable. Many of them may fall further into poverty. Merely containing the virus may not be the end of the problem.
While the present wave of infection has still not peaked, another wave remains a real possibility that reinforces the view that it is going to be a long battle. The only known approach to effectively addressing the disease is social distancing and there is always a very short window where the measure could help contain the virus. Many countries have paid a huge price for missing that short window.
While the number of reported cases in Pakistan may still be comparatively low, a greater disaster is waiting to happen. Many experts believe that we have already missed that short window because of our delayed actions and the prime minister’s voodoo approach. Imran Khan’s recent address to the nation amplified the crisis of leadership in the country in times of one of the most serious crises the country has ever confronted.
He has continued with his anti-lockdown narrative, aggravating the policy confusion. That is the last thing the country needs at this moment. What is not being understood is that it is primarily a public health crisis and must be addressed on a priority basis. It cannot be dealt with unless social distancing is strictly implemented, however high the economic cost may be.
Nothing could be a greater disaster for the economy and the poorest segments of society than the uncontrollable spread of the disease. The signs are already there with the rising number of locally transmitted cases. It is not surprising that a major source of the local spread of infection can be traced to a group that had recently gathered at Raiwind for the tableeghi ijtima. What is more worrisome is that no one talks about it. It has contributed to the spread of infection beyond our boundaries, with two cases of the disease in the Gaza Strip being traced to the same congregation.
It may take years or even a generation for the world to recover from its aftermath. The crisis has amplified existing challenges and vulnerabilities that require a global response. A major lesson is that the threat to human security caused by such epidemics is beyond geographical and national boundaries.
It must change the whole concept of national security. It is not military power that saves nations from catastrophes that take a far greater toll in terms of human life than do the world’s battlefields. In its severity, the crisis caused by the coronavirus could be compared with the effects of the Second World War.
Further along the disease trajectory, the economic costs are much higher. According to some estimates, the global GDP could shrink by almost 2pc as a result of the pandemic. The situation looks much bleaker as it is nearly impossible to have a clear idea of the shape of things to come given the multiple dimensions of the crisis.
It remains to be seen how a public health emergency, combined with global recession, can change politics around the world. While world leaders grapple with ways to deal with the coronavirus pandemic and its fallout, the crisis certainly seems to have slowed down international and regional conflicts for now at least. Epidemics of such huge dimensions have in the past often changed the course of history, as have other catastrophes like the two world wars.
The devastating effect of the coronavirus should serve as a wake-up call for the world, which must now concentrate on human development rather than building its military might. While ignoring public health, climate, environmental and other social issues, countries have been spending most of their money on weapons and boosting defence capabilities.
According to a report of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the total world military expenditure had risen to $1,822 billion in 2018, representing an increase of 2.6pc from the previous year. While the US is obviously the biggest spender, there are other countries too that have spiked their defence budgets, fuelling regional tensions. For them, public health has remained a low priority.
But the coronavirus has exposed the vulnerability of even militarily powerful countries. For example, with all its resources, the US is finding it hard to contain the infection. The world’s mightiest military power appears helpless in the face of the virus attack. This battle, which may take a much larger human toll, can only be fought successfully through greater international cooperation.
It is also the time for Pakistan to reset its priorities. To be truly secure, it needs not only to strengthen its economic, food and environmental security but also to invest more in public health. Being a nuclear country and congratulating itself on being the sixth largest military force cannot help it fight this public health battle.
The writer is an author and journalist.
Published in Dawn, April 1st, 2020