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Pandemics Present and Future: Coronavirus in Context

Randolph Kent
Commentary, 30 March 2020
Coronavirus, Global Security Issues, Information, Intelligence
The coronavirus pandemic should be a telling reminder that the global community has, in all too many ways, not benefited from the lessons that it should have learned from the past.

Over the past three months, a plethora of analyses has emerged about strategic successes and failures, and the strengths and weaknesses of implementation processes for dealing with this most recent pandemic. Two issues that have not received adequate attention are the consequences of what will be called coronavirus infodemics’, and the issue of pathogen movements and forced displacement. Both need to be understood when dealing with the present and preparing for the future. 

Pandemics Present 

Where coronavirus will stand in the recent history of pandemics will in part depend on how its health impact compares with pandemics such as the 1918 Spanish Influenza (H1N1), the 1957 Asian Influenza (H2N2) and the 1968 Hong Kong Influenza (H3N2) which claimed millions of lives. Another way of judging the historical consequences of individual pandemics is the extent to which a pandemic event, for example, has had an impact on the structure of society, its economic systems and political constructs. And yet another way to look at the implications of a pandemic such as coronavirus is to analyse the extent to which the activities of states, international institutions and others which have assumed relevant roles and responsibilities have drawn lessons from the past to deal with not only the present but also the future. 

By definition, pandemics cross borders, flow across regions and more often than not spread their contagions around the globe. Coronavirus is clearly an example of the last, but with two twists and one already well-known fact

The first twist is the impact of the internet. Well beyond conventional means of communications, coronavirus has shown both the positive and disruptive consequences of the internet and certainly of social media. In crises fraught with unprecedented uncertainty, the internet has, on the one hand, demonstrated ways to engage with the vulnerable that facilitate health care, establish standards and promote precautionary measures. On the other hand, as the director general of the World Health Organization (WHO), Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, has warned, the disruptive consequences of the internet and social media have resulted in what he has called the coronavirus infodemic, which S Harris Ali and Fuyuki Kurasawa argue compromises outbreak response and increases public confusion about who and what information sources to trust; generates fear and panic due to unverified rumours and exaggerated claims; and promotes xenophobic and racist forms of digital vigilantism and scapegoating. One popular conspiracy theory has held that the virus was developed as a means to wage a biological war against China. In China, a rumour spread that bioweapons research in a Wuhan laboratory resulted in the genetic engineering of coronavirus that was then released. Such conspiracy theories – to date, unfounded – do little to promote platforms for cooperation 

Here, the abiding lesson is seemingly quite straightforward, but inordinately complex. Governments and public health authorities as well as the private and quasi-private sectors have to find ways to control and limit the consequences of this ‘post-truth age’. This could well be one of the greatest challenges to be faced in dealing with the present and certainly when it comes to a more uncertain future.

A second twist that differentiates previous pandemics from those of earlier times is the dramatic increase in forcibly displaced persons around the globe. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, forcibly displaced populations are now at the highest level ever recorded – 70.8 million, including 41.3 million internally displaced, 25.9 million refugees and 3.5 million asylum seekers. The sheer enormity of this figure must instinctively lead one to question how coronavirus detection, self-isolation, intensive care and burials could ever be effectively undertaken. The fates of significant portions of the forcibly displaced have not been so uncertain and so open to rapid change in a long time.

One case in point is the Iranian government’s decision to return Afghan displaced persons to their country of origin. Since the outbreak of coronavirus in Iran, over 100,000 Afghans have been deported or returned voluntarily to their war-ravaged country, including unaccompanied migrant children, single-parent families and physically disabled persons, and a further 53,000 undocumented Afghans were also returned to their country of origin in the past few weeks. 

Mass displacement poses an unprecedented challenge. Whether it be the Rohingya from Myanmar, displaced Syrians or Venezuelans seeking protection in Colombia, should coronavirus begin to take its toll, few governments have the capacities for dealing with such crises, and those crises will spill over into local populations not only in states providing assistance but also in neighbouring countries and across regions. 

Affected states will need to have a fully integrated response, at least on a regional level. It will have to go well beyond the conventional and initially culturally insensitive response to the Ebola crisis in Western Africa between 2014 and 2016, and understand that, as humanitarian researcher Ben Ramalingam put it in his study, some of the greatest mistakes are made when dealing with a complex mess, by not seeing its dimensions in their entirety, carving off a part, and dealing with this part as if it were a complicated problem, and then solving it as if it were a simple puzzle, all the while ignoring the linkages and connections to other dimensions of the mess’.

The sheer complexity that one can anticipate arising out of the unprecedented movements of people across the globe will demand a fully integrated multisectoral approach. 

Pandemic Futures 

Almost two decades ago, the CIA warned that the many benefits of modern molecular biology will have to be weighed against the danger that ‘the effects of some of these engineered biological agents could be worse than any disease known to man

The types, dimensions and dynamics of pandemic crisis drivers – bioengineered or natural are growing and will continue to grow – in some instances, exponentially. They foretell of potentially unprecedented global impacts, the consequences of which may in all too many instances be irreversible. Scientists already recognise that there are probably at least 2,000 potential pandemic drivers. Of those, the US-funded project, PREDICT, has identified 984 viruses, 815 of them new to science (see p. 60). Of these, the WHO sees nine as ‘apocalyptic’ (see p. 60). These do not include those drivers that intentionally or unintentionally escape from laboratories and could become ‘engineered pandemics’.

Where coronavirus fits into PREDICT’s catalogue of new viruses is at this stage not completely clear. Its impacts, however, clearly support the dystopic warnings that the consequences of coronavirus and future pathogens are multifaceted and interlocking. They are examples, in the words of two eminent analysts, of messes – reflecting a ‘complex system of problems that are so tightly bound together that the problems are not inseparable, they don’t even exist apart from the system of which they are a part

Despite these grim forecasts, the potential of science to anticipate and respond to such threats has to be taken into account. It is not irrelevant that the scientific search for antibiotics – for non-viral threats – has generally taken approximately a decade if not more. For coronavirus, many reputable scientists are assuming that a vaccine could well be developed, tested and put into use over a period of less than two years. Increasingly, science has the capacity to respond to viral threats at a speed hithero unimaginable.

At the same time, there are parallel scientific advances that also can be anticipated as major factors in anticipating virus threats in individuals as well as in communities – rural and urban. A combination of biotechnology and nanotechnology will most likely be able to individualise health monitoring via nano-electronic biosensors in the body and similarly provide the sorts of treatments required to deal with ill health. The provision of medicine may well be provided through a combination of such biosensors and 4-D printing, which through the advanced data analysis capacities of artificial intelligence will have the ability to anticipate types and levels of disease on individual bases and provide appropriate responses. 

However, a key consideration in dealing with potentially complex crises such as pandemics is the extent to which governmental, inter-governmental and non-governmental organisations fully appreciate the fluctuating nature of messes. According to a growing number of analysts, policy planners and decision-makers have all too often ‘become collectively short-sighted’, a kind of ‘futures blindness’ in which potential implications of transformative change and complexity are ignored. Today, a considerable number of organisations and certainly those found in most governmental bodies are deemed to be relatively insensitive to substantive change. 

Whatever the future may hold, such behaviour patterns will have to change fundamentally if the benefits of science and technology to deal with future threats will be able to protect the global good.

Randolph Kent is a Senior Associate Fellow. 

BANNER IMAGE: Courtesy of Thor Deichmann/Pixabay

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

 

Author

Dr Randolph Kent
Senior Associate Fellow

Dr Randolph Kent is a Senior Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, as well as a Visiting Professor at the African... read more

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