Considerable controversy has surrounded the origin of the COVID-19 virus. Most scientific evidence now points to this as a zoonotic disease (originating from animals), which began in the ‘wet markets’ of Wuhan in China, where a whole range of products (including bats, a possible source) are sold for human consumption. However, speculation—and allegations—of it being a ‘lab created’ virus has continued. It seems that extreme theories of the virus being part of work on biological warfare, which escaped from a laboratory in Wuhan, may be more imagination than truth.
However, the fact that some scientists consider this to be a possibility is indicative of what could happen—even if, this time, it did not. It is no secret that some countries are actually working on biological weapons. Irrespective, the very fact that genetic engineering and science enables the creation of such viruses is truly scary. Sci-fi scenarios of engineering a virus to selectively attack certain populations may no longer be fiction. Like cyber-attacks, these viruses too will be untraceable as regards point of origin. Thus, a covert attack can be undertaken with full ‘plausible deniability’. While the kind of investments required may limit the creation of such biological agents to nations, it is not impossible for a sufficiently well-funded non-State actor to create such viruses. Also, it could be stolen from a government facility. These possibilities, and the devastation that they can unleash, should give pause to all nations.
A Biological Weapons Convention has been negotiated, and was signed in 1972. As many as 183 countries have signed and ratified this, but a few countries have not. Worse, as there is no clause for verification of compliance, it is entirely possible that more than one country is violating this. For example, according to reports, Boris Yeltsin (former president of Russia) confirmed that in earlier years, the Soviet Union did have a clandestine biological weapons programme, which he ordered to be terminated in 1992. Meanwhile, there are rumours from time to time of similar clandestine programmes in one country or another. One can only hope that the worldwide devastation caused by COVID will persuade all countries to sign, ratify and respect the Convention.
Till this is done, and having experienced how a pandemic can not only cause untold human suffering but also put a whole country’s economy in reverse gear, health will become a key security concern for all countries. Each one will take steps to protect its own interests. India, too, needs to consider health security as an integral part of overall national security.
In this context, COVID has thrown up an interesting dilemma facing each nation and the global community.
On the one hand, there is the rapid global spread of the pandemic pointing to the close trade and tourism linkages between countries: in less than a year from the first cases in China, the virus had infected over 60 million people in 190 countries, and resulted in more than 1.4 million deaths. The development of a vaccine and the testing of possible cures requires cooperation of researchers across national boundaries if these are to be done in the shortest possible time. Also, cross-national exchange of data and experiences in handling the outbreak would immensely benefit all countries. These factors emphasize the need for global coordination and cooperation.
On the other hand, contrary to these positive reasons and benefits of global cooperation, there is nationalistic pressure within each country to safeguard its own narrow interests. Thus, if—for example—the US view is that it is ahead in vaccine development, it may be tempted to not join a cooperative international effort. Instead, developing its own vaccine will give it huge commercial and strategic advantage. The companies which produce the vaccine will make a lot of money, and the country can export the vaccine selectively, providing it to allies and friends, while withholding it from enemies. There are already many indications of such ‘vaccine nationalism’. This will be a further step to protectionism that such a pandemic engenders. To protect their citizens, countries had closed their borders (many, like India, barred any incoming passenger flights or vehicles). Even as these are slowly reopened, the protectionist sentiment is unlikely to go away. Meanwhile, the disruption in global supply chains—partly due to lack of production because of lockdowns in various countries and partly because of difficulties in logistics—has ignited action to move manufacturing back ‘home’, rather than contract it to companies in other countries. Therefore, as a result of COVID, one is likely to see de-globalization gather momentum.
COVID has brought us face to face with a deep question: do we value all lives equally? This is no longer an issue in the realm of philosophy, but has become an immediate moral issue which will dictate our actions when faced with the poser: to whom do you give the next hospital bed? The Lombardy region of Italy, when faced with this issue in the context of an acute shortage of hospital beds to take care of pandemic-affected patients, decided that priority would be given to the young. They had longer to live, and so could contribute more to the economy, and their chances of survival were greater. Though it may seem callous to leave the old to die, it was a necessary decision to a practical problem involving hard choices. Others could have used the logic of determining whose need is greater, and come up with a contrary answer (obviously, in general, the elderly would be in greater need of hospital care). In a pure capitalist society, the allotment of hospital beds could be on the basis of pricing, which would have ended up as practically an auction. In this case, the rich would get medical care, and the poor would be left to die.
With the rapid rise in cases, Mumbai began to face the issue of shortage of hospital beds. Delhi, too, at one point seemed to have almost no available ICU beds. It is not yet known what criteria the authorities will follow in such cases. Doubtless, hospitals elsewhere are faced with similar dilemmas in regard to hospital beds, ventilators, ICU facilities, medicines and doctors. A similar dilemma will arise when vaccines become available: who will get it first and what will be the order of priority? These issues are both practical and philosophical, and there are no easy answers.