Pandemic: A National Security Concern
History is replete with instances of pandemics impacting sovereignty of nations and altering social, political and economic landscape. The mighty Byzantine empire fell due to the Justinian Plague that appeared in Egypt and spread to the entire Mediterranean in the 6C AD. The fear among the people is said to have bolstered their religious beliefs, leading to rapid expansion of Christianity. The feudal system in England had collapsed in the aftermath of the Plague in 1350 AD. Ravaged by Smallpox pandemic in 1520 AD, the Aztec empire had lost its ability to counter the Spanish colonisers. Some environmental scientists had sought to establish a link, indirect though, between the pandemic, which had claimed over 60 million lives, and the Little Ice Age. They had suggested that due to the disappearance of the humans, the lands had remained uncultivated. This, they surmised, had yielded space to dense growth of vegetation, which had absorbed additional carbon dioxide from the earth’s atmosphere, leading to its cooling, and causing ‘Little Ice Age’.
Outrage against the draconian Epidemic Act enacted in the wake of 1856 Plague had given a fillip to the Indian National Movement. Bal Gangadhar Tilak’s article against the Act in Kesari mobilised people against the law. Chipekar brothers had killed Assistant Commissioner Plague in Pune .
Effect of pandemic is like that of war in terms of the potential damage for nations. Both entail loss of human lives, disruption of economy and demoralisation among the people. Countries which succeed in taking control of wars, as also of pandemics, have the advantage of leveraging the vulnerabilities of the losing side to further their own hegemonistic agenda. The nation losing the battle also remains exposed to the threat of internal strife.
The 1994 Human Development Report of United Nations had suggested that national security should be viewed not only in terms of territorial integrity but also from the prism of human security, of which health security was an important component. Given the national security dimension of pandemics, it would be imperative to have dedicated structures to forewarn and prepare, prevention and mitigation of outbreak of the disease. MEDINT (medical Intelligence), therefore , would have to be treated as a distinct discipline in the realm of the national security intelligence.
MEDINT could be viewed as a product of a designated agency derived through collection, collation and analysis of medical, bio scientific and environmental data; the USP of the product being to forewarn about likely pandemics and to suggest tactical counter-measures to prevent and mitigate outbreak.
The designated agency for MEDINT could be the restructured Central Bureau of Health Intelligence and kept under the administrative and operational control of the National Security Council Secretariat. Though the unit should ideally be manned by scientists and experts, officers with counter-intelligence skills could also be drafted into the proposed organisation, as inimical foreign nations are known to exploit the pandemic to weaken the affected countries economically. The proposed unit can also be used to gather information about developments in the bio-science front at the global level.
A provision in the Constitution may be made for declaring health emergency, like financial emergency, to empower the Government to suspend the right of people to assemble in large numbers, whether for political, religious or social purposes. During Health Emergency, all elections may be postponed. The incumbent may continue as caretaker till such emergency exists. There may not be any provision of President’s Rule during such proclamation.
A Health Council as the conglomerate of representative of all political Parties in Lok Sabha or State concerned shall recommend proclamation of health emergency to the Union Cabinet for promulgation by the President. The council may periodically meet to suggest measures to improve public health infrastructure. Recommendation of the council may be unanimous as in GST council.
The perception, that we are unprepared to handle the second wave of Covid-19, could have been prevented if we only had a professional body for threat analysis and strategy formulation.