COVID-19 and Shifting Health Security Discourse

Shaheen Showkat Dar
August 28, 2020

Within weeks of its emergence in the Chinese city of Wuhan (Hubei province) in late December 2019, the novel Coronavirus has engulfed 213 countries and territories worldwide. Now infamous as Covid-19 Pandemic, the contagion has already killed over 850000 people (as of August 28, 2020). It not only poses significant risks to our physical and fiscal security (economy and public health)  but presents a substantial threat to our national security. It is imperative and urgent for Nation-states to manage this health risk effectively.

Indeed, the Coronavirus outbreak has cataclysmic impacts on the security of our biological and cultural survival, perhaps even more significant than the nuclear warfare of the 20th century. This silent potential of collateral damage brings forth the vulnerabilities in our security on an unprecedented level. Profile of the disease suggests that while 80 per cent of the cases fall in the mild category, chances of the virus affecting about 15 per cent of the population is severe, add to it another 5per cent who are critically unwell. Severe cases can potentially affect aged people and those with a compromised immune system and comorbidity.

As of now, the response to this disease is traditional- practising social distance and lockdown even by the most advanced, super and significant powers of the world. Decades of scientific and technological sophistication are proving helpless in finding a remedy or cure. People are getting restless with the performance of their governments concerning both their responses to public health and the looming economic crises. Observers fear that this growing frustration within civil society may trigger immense dissatisfaction and a demand for change which may lead to social unrest and political violence.

The inclusive concepts of national security have gained strategical importance since last decades. It more plausibly signifies protection from the threats of disease, famine, unemployment, societal crime, ethnic fissures, social conflict, political tyranny and environmental hazards. The lethality of COVID-19 is a sharp reminder to the world that health security is as important as any form of conventional security.

There is an agreement that conventional or military capabilities have limited use or protection against Health security challenges like Covid-19. Earlier, health security remained on the bottom rungs of national priorities. Over the past decades, however, security specialists are increasingly in agreement over the disastrous impacts that health crises may unleash on National Security.

In 2018, the World Health Organization recommended doctor to population ratio of 1:1,000, the "Golden Finishing Line" which is inadequate to survive the national medical emergencies like Covid-19. [1]   Over 44 per cent of WHO the Member States reported less than one physician per 1,000 populations. This doctor to population ratio is very alarming in the South Asian States. In India, it is 0.77:1,000 for 1.33 billion; Pakistan 0.806:1,000; Bangladesh 0.389:1,000 and Afghanistan 0.304:1,000. However, the countries with better performance in doctor to population including Germany 4.125:1,000; France 3.227:1,000; Russia, 3.306:1,000, the USA 2.554:1,000; Brazil 1.852:1,000;and China 1.49:1,000.

Keeping in view the Covid-19 threat to the national security of India, it should be noted that the healthcare sector is in deep trouble. A March 2020 report revealed that the country has one physician for more than 1,500 people with 2.3 intensive care beds per 100,000 people. Also, healthcare experts unofficially quoted that there were between 30,000 and 40,000 ventilators nationwide in March 2020.[2]  The more significant challenge is, how a country like India, with a population of 1.33 billion can deal with the Covid-19 crisis. This Pandemic needs a very focused and efficient approach to develop crisis-specific healthcare facilities and public awareness based on motivation to prevent its wide-spread. The health domain of India, as is common knowledge, is not up to the mark to combat COVID-19, since the strategies and SOP guidelines have not been fostered adequately by the policy-makers. The above argument is indicative of the fact that India needs to revamp and revitalize its existing policy structure to combat COVID-19 crisis.

Concluding Observations 

Covid-19 has devastated the economy and health worldwide. The States across the globe are struggling to find a viable coping mechanism. It is vital to remain vigil and follow the standard operating procedure and WHO guidelines. In addition to this, the following policy recommendations are suggested for better strategies to fight the Covid-19 successfully:

  1. It is imperative to generate mass health awareness programs in a bottom-up approach through media so that public will be motivated to obey the preventive measures like social distancing, use of face Mask, hand sanitization, etc. These measures should be backed by the sustainable development of necessary public health facilities to meet the treatment challenges.
  2. The protection of physical and mental health of frontline workers should be taken care of with priority, to ensure their continuous role in maintaining the management of Covid-19 responses and resolutions.

After six months of the ongoing Pandemic, it is time to act collectively and concertedly against this scourge. It is a rare diplomatic opportunity for all the affected States in the region or around the world to engage in resolving this novel security threat to lend priority over traditional military threats. 

[Views expressed in the article are Author's own]


[1] Raman Kumar and Ranabir Pal, "India achieve WHO recommended doctor population ratio: A call for a paradigm shift in public health discourse", Journal of Family Medicine Primary Care. Sep-Oct; 7(5): 2018. P.8141.

[2] "As coronavirus cases surge in India, 40,000 ventilators for 1.3bn people a worry", The Hindustan Times, March 23, 2020.

Author Note
Dr Shaheen Showkat is a scholar with expertise in South Asian security and geopolitics. He is the author of a book titled “Role of Negotiations in Conflict Resolution: A Way out of Kashmir Conflict” (2019).