Collective Destinies in Pestilence by Asanga Abeyagoonasekera*

Myrtis
The Plague at Athens, 430-427 BCE

“No longer were there individual destinies; only a collective destiny. Made for plague and emotions shared by all.” Albert Camus

In 430 BC, an entire chapter of the Peloponnesian war documented by the Greek historian, Thucydides was about a deadly epidemic. According to him, while Athenians prepared for war with Sparta, its course changed dramatically due to a plague. First, Athenians believed it was the work of Spartans who have poisoned their waters, but eventually understood it was a plague. Over the course of history, epidemics have wiped out villages, populations and devastated and transformed empires. They wield much more power than any other security threat that could enter our society and today we all directly confront this threat. While many nations and political leaders marched towards embracing ultra-nationalist sentiments, believing their national interest is important than the other nations, will eventually understand with the growth of the outbreak the importance of transnational cooperation and building trust among nations.

Wuhan is a city of 11 million people. It is described as a city geographically at the very heart of China. It is roughly equidistant from the cities of Beijing and Guangzhou (Canton) on a north-south axis and also is equidistant from Shanghai and Chongqing on an east-west line. Currently, its residents are not allowed to move out of the city. San Fiorano is also barricaded and closed off from the outside world with nine neighbouring towns close to Milan that were the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak. Italian Prime Minister[i] says “This is Italy’s darkest hour” as lockdown in the northern regions and riots break out in prisons and country is facing the biggest challenge since the second world war.

The Coronavirus (2019-nCoV) epidemic has spread in 114 countries, as of 11th March there are 118,000 confirmed cases with 4291 deaths from around the world. The outbreak is declared pandemic by world health organization. The daily developments of the outbreak are similar to the incidents illustrated in Albert Camus’s 1947 novel ‘The Plague[ii]’. Seen as a parable about the German occupation of France the plot holds a far much deeper significance to everyday life through chronicling an outbreak in the North African city of Oran. While people suffer from death and isolation, Camus wonders what it means to resist a challenging environment and outlines human courage through a profound optimism about human nature to rise from difficult moments through small kindnesses and solidarity. Just like the authorities blocking people of Oran, police have barricaded the entrance to the Italian town and anyone who attempting escape the blockade faces up to three months in prison or a fine of up to 206 euros ($223). It is as if I am going through the pages of Camu’s chronicle when witnessing the human suffering documented from around the world. Given the current trajectory of the spread, it is poised to reach other cities which could follow the similar oppressive containment methods. It’s worth preparing for the worse. 

Distrust and Cooperation 

China is the primus inter pares among the developing countries. As an emerging power with significant economic strength, it is facing a security dilemma with the exiting global power, the United States of America. Apart from the heightened trade war between the two nations and security concerns of Chinese products, another new dimension of conflict inhibiting the dire need for cooperation during epidemics is added to the agenda.

While some reports were published misleading that the virus was a biological weapon either from laboratories in Wuhan or US inflicting Wuhan. Apart from nuclear weapons, China and the US engage in defensive biological warfare research for strategic deterrent or weapons of last resort. Distrust between the two nations at a time like this could aggravate this misleading information. What is required is to strengthen military to military bio-defence cooperation[iii] and trust and transparency between the two to minimize future hazards. Nations will require to work side by side to confront challenges from epidemics. Despite US-China trade wars it’s also an opportune time to strengthen collaboration for global health and epidemic preparedness.

Globalization in action

Was this a ‘black swan[iv]’ moment? A random and unpredictable event. Michele Wucker got it right by calling it a ‘gray rhino[v]’ moment which is a highly probable but neglected threats that have an enormous impact. No matter how powerful the nation, epidemics have no borders. The last time China had a similar outbreak was in in 2003 when the SARS epidemic which took many lives and weakened the economy even at its 10% growth rate. This time the Chinese economy is at 6% growth and the nation will face difficulty to introduce a stimulus with the current deficit. According to Reuters[vi] China’s economic growth is expected to slow to 4.5 percent in the first quarter of 2020—the slowest pace since the 2008 financial crisis and could cost the global economy $1.1 trillion in lost income[vii]. The disease will reshape economies around the world. It has already impacted the oil prices which had the worst fall since the 1991 US invasion of Kuwait[viii].

The estimates of the degree of infection are on the rise and this would directly impact the Chinese economy and the entire global trade. It’s commendable that the Chinese authorities have been transparent, sharing the DNA of the virus, unlike the previous SARS epidemic. In any government, the administrative capacity and competency could be weighed at a time of crisis, particularly at a time like this, so far Chinese authorities have proven their ability to follow the correct procedures and cooperate with the global community to overcome the challenges. At the beginning there was lapses and delay of acknowledgement by the authorities. As clearly explained by Jennifer Bouey Senior Policy Researcher at RAND Corporation “the first common feature response of SARS and 2019-nCoV is the delay in acknowledging the initial case cluster to be a public health threat. If we recognize that stability is what the Chinese political system values most, and an acute public health threat, such as an epidemic, is precisely the “black swan” that can threaten such stability, then it is not too difficult to understand the Chinese government’s reluctance toward acknowledging an epidemic. China’s law prohibits anyone from talking about a public health threat before an official government announcement”[ix].

Unlike in 2003, China is more globalized with around two hundred thousand people a day in and out of the mainland resulting in a higher degree of risk for the outbreak. It is also a time of globalization in action, spreading the virus from one remote corner to another faraway city in a few hours. Unlike in the 1970s where 310 million passengers travel from the air, presently, the number of air travels is in billions[x] for a year. Marc Lipsitch[xi] Harvard University epidemiologist coronavirus says the virus “will ultimately not be containable” and, within a year, will infect somewhere between 40 and 70 percent of humanity, “But don’t be too alarmed. Many of those people won’t have severe illnesses or even show symptoms at all”. 

Sri Lankan economy, navigating the global shocks 

In Sri Lanka, there was one Chinese traveller found positive, treated and sent back to China. Seen as a significant achievement by the authorities, the Health Minister took the front page of the news, not realizing its not the end but the beginning of many more to be diagnosed in the coming days. Along with the news cycle, the public focus will shift in a few days to upcoming Parliamentary election which will the cost taxpayers some several billion amidst the global outbreak and global economic slowdown which has already hit the tourism industry.

Sri Lankan economy which is at the lowest growth rate in South Asia will have further effects from the coronavirus. The tourism industry went through a hard recovery after the 2019 Easter Sunday terror attacks and while it was recovering was hit by Coronavirus. Chinese tourist visiting the Island will drop and Chinese infrastructure projects will also face some impact from the construction workers. Depending on the global impact on supply chains and how soon things will be back to normal, the Sri Lankan economy would have to navigate the shocks in the global arena. A caution on recent irrational government policies in the international arena UNHRC and turning down the US MCC loan, decisions are taken for the sake of elections will have ripple effects in post-elections, especially with the prevailing global economic slowdown. 

Coronavirus Election and the National Security Policy for Sri Lanka

While the government in power is seeking 2/3rd majority in Parliament in the upcoming Parliamentary elections in April, the political environment will be different from the past elections. You could call it a Coronavirus election. Should there be elections with the global pandemic? Regardless of the global health hazard, does the Government encourage public gatherings? Why can’t the Government postpone elections? Are some useful questions to carefully think twice? Government efficiency and President’s unilateral decision making on managing the epidemic will be a factor. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa who came to power projecting a national security threat from the Easter Sunday bombings will face another form of global security threat. Responding to disease outbreak is a multifaceted effort by the whole of Government. It involves provincial and local level to Mayors.

Successfully managing the spread of the virus relies on the efficiency of the overall system of government, not one individual. Has Sri Lanka prioritized who receives virus test? How fast the results could be delivered? Who is responsible to sanitize public transit places? How effective and efficient are the quarantine facilities managed? are some vital questions that require answers. The Government’s efficiency of managing the crisis will be a daunting challenge which will lead to building trust with the general public and the system in place which will eventually secure the vote in the coming election. A slight lapse or mismanagement would have a drastic public reaction and outcome.

We must understand this new reality to reduce the risk of future epidemics. Having a security policy is an essential ingredient that can add value to the process of preparedness during a national security crisis. National Security Policy (NSP) will capture the holistic security threats (health, climate, economic etc) to the nation in the next several years. An NSP was compiled at the National Security Think Tank(INSSSL) during last three years with several military experts from tri-forces along with the researchers and handed over to the Secretary Ministry of Defence General Shantha Kottegoda in 2019 October. According to the Sri Lankan National Security Policy which highlights that ‘a nation should develop the means and capacities to prevent and control epidemics that might cripple the country’. The document is worth circulating to the public and line Ministries for further inputs and development. Unfortunately, these documents go classified and not shared with the public just like the National Defence Policy (NDP) which was declassified and approved from the cabinet on November 11th 2019[xii]. Not many Sri Lankans know that the nation has a National Defence Policy. These policies belong to the people and not to a particular regime or individual, therefore it should be carried forward with improvements and amendments not to be hidden inside cupboards and shared with a restricted audience.

At a time with of a global crisis such as this with anxiety and uncertainty with multiple socio-political and economic shocks which could engulf distrust among nationswhat is required is cooperation, solidarity and acts of human kindness to each other. While epidemics teach us, a collective destiny is what we possess, we still tend to be fragmented and glued to our destiny securing our national interest, ignoring others.

*Asanga Abeyagoonasekera is the author of ‘Sri Lanka at Crossroads’ published by World Scientific Singapore(2019). He is a visiting lecturer for International Security at Colombo University and the former Director General of the National Security Think Tank(INSSSL) under Ministry of Defence and former Executive Director of Kadirgamar Institute(LKIIRSS). Young Global Leader World Economic Forum.

End Notes:

  [i] https://www.ft.com/content/7e5ee68e-6200-11ea-b3f3-fe4680ea68b5

[ii] La Peste is a novel by Albert Camus, published in 1947

[iii] https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/2020-03-05/us-chinese-distrust-inviting-dangerous-coronavirus-conspiracy

[iv]   Black Swan moment describes an event that comes as a surprise. The theory was developed by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

[v] Grey Rhino concept was coined by Michele Wucker, a fellow YGL and policy analyst who came up with the term after the 2012 Greek financial crisis.

[vi] https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/02/how-coronavirus-disrupts-global-value-chains/

[vii] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/feb/19/coronavirus-could-cost-global-economy-1tn-in-lost-output

[viii] https://edition.cnn.com/2020/03/09/business/oil-price-crash-explainer/index.html?utm_campaign=wp_todays_worldview&utm_medium=email&utm_source=newsletter&wpisrc=nl_todayworld

[ix] Jennifer Bouey, Testimony presented before the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific, and Nonproliferation on February 5, 2020. https://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/testimonies/CT500/CT523/RAND_CT523.pdf

[x] 2018 was 4.2 billion air travel for the year https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/IS.AIR.PSGR

[xi] https://www.businessinsider.com/coronavirus-outbreak-could-hit-3-billion-adults-harvard-expert-2020-3

[xii] Approved by Government of Sri Lanka (Cabinet Paper No 19/3132/103/173) on 11th Nov 2019

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