Covid-19 is not a Hiroshima moment or even a 9/11 moment that will reset U.S. national security comprehensively. But in key respects its impact will be deep and enduring: The pandemic will bring major challenges abroad into sharp focus competition with China, enhanced collaboration with the EU, and the cultivation of new allies in particular and finally make the case for associated investment in U.S. defense and diplomacy.
Lessons learned during the spread of Covid-19 will transform government and private-sector approaches to the manufacturing of critical technologies and the sourcing of components and supplies. Critical supply chains likely will get shorter, the locations of suppliers will matter more, and final assembly of critical technologies will move or stay closer to home. Pandemics will repeat themselves.
Mistakes and misunderstandings need not. Resolution of every issue in 2020 and beyond goes to and through data. So three things need to happen: we need to make our infrastructure digital, and protect it accordingly; be able to do every function from wherever we are located; and the United States must be the world's leader in the data science, analysis, and use, according to our values of security, privacy and civil liberty. The existence of bad actors. Even though we have all been affected by Covid-19 and our fortunes were tied together, that doesn't negate the threat of bad actors.
All the traditional adversaries and competitors are still pursuing their interests at the expense of ours. Our perennial competitors are still advancing, and new attack vectors are always being used: state-sponsored cyber attacks to obtain advantage in therapies and vaccines; acceleration in opportunistic cybercrime against unprotected networks; and influence operations to shape public opinion, whether for fraud or to undermine democracy, are all evidence of that truth. There is nothing new under the sun-least of all human pathogens.
Plagues of disease have shaped history as long as it has been recorded and influenced national security as long as there have been nations. Yet history may be an unreliable guide to the impact of the current pandemic. Three things in particular distinguish Covid-19 from earlier plagues that affected a wide geographic area. First, Covid-19 was not an unknown or unknowable disease when it began to spread on a global scale in late 2019 and early 2020.
The decoded genetic signature of SARS- CoV-2 permitted its identification in newly infected people through relatively simple tests, and researchers have learned more every day about the targets, infectiousness, and other characteristics of the virus. Second-Chinese disinformation and U.S. political finger-pointing aside-Americans should not have been surprised when Covid-19 reached them on a large scale in March 2020. North America was the third continent behind Asia and Europe to face an outbreak in a highly interconnected world.
Finally, and most importantly, many people in 2020 could make viable behavioral choices to reduce the risk from Covid-19 in ways unimaginable to their ancestors. Advanced technology and the changing nature of professional jobs meant that hundreds of millions of people could continue to earn their paychecks, feed themselves and their families, and even address other health concerns while remaining largely sequestered at home. No such options existed as recently as the 1918 Spanish Flu outbreak, when the certainty of needing to survive took precedence over the possibility of exposure to a dangerous disease.
Far from easing public fears, however, the scientific transparency, early warnings, and mitigation efforts surrounding Covid-19 appear to have lowered Americans' physical and economic risk tolerance even further when it comes to new pathogens. The Spanish Flu of 1918 fell into a dusty corner of history regarded as a twist of fate beyond human intervention. Covid-19 likely will remain front and center in the public mind-regarded as something that must never happen again.
That makes it an almost certain driver of change. Rather than raising wholly new ones, the Covid-19 pandemic so far has elevated or clarified geopolitical concerns-especially competition with China, the future of the European Union (EU), and the risks of biological warfare and cyber attacks.
The Covid-19 pandemic dealt a serious blow to comforting theories that recently held sway across U.S. political boundaries, about the evolution and intentions of the world's fastest rising power. Throughout history, the spread of infectious disease has killed millions, sickened billions, and cost trillions of dollars of global economic output. As the world now struggles to combat the novel coronavirus, it faces the grim reality that it is not just developing countries, but developed ones, that require revitalized and better-coordinated health systems.
It is now clear that Covid-19 is a deadly contagion that threatens the livelihoods of all, regardless of socioeconomic status. Pandemics and epidemics have increased in recent years, catalyzed by globalization, climate change, and rapidly growing populations. Although countries pledged to develop health-care capacity at a global, national, and local level in the wake of previous epidemics, few have achieved the necessary provisions.
The resources devoted to mitigating health risks have remained anemic. When health crises hit, they have been managed with dedication and the allocation of essential funds, but are often forgotten after the risks fade. This has left the world vulnerable to pandemics. In 2006, the World Bank estimated that a normal virulent flu could reduce global economic output by almost 5 percent, effectively causing a global recession, assuming the efforts to limit the disease were as ineffective as previous attempts.
The Covid-19 pandemic, thought to have begun in November 2019, has spread to more than two hundred countries and territories, affecting the health of more than 2.5 million people and the wellbeing of countless others. The UN Trade and Development agency estimates that the slowdown associated with Covid-19 could cost the global economy up to $2 trillion. Six months after the novel coronavirus first appeared to have infected humans; several deficiencies in the global response became clear. Recent months have seen considerable misinformation and disinformation circulating among global partners, which has limited the world's ability to efficiently and effectively respond to the crisis. Covid-19 has rendered some of the better health systems in the world inoperable.
A country's first line of defense is the capability of its health system to detect and control contagious diseases. Underinvestment in preparedness and reliance on treatment rather than a preemptive response has proven costly in terms of lives and dollars addressing a swiftly spreading pandemic requires having readily available high volumes of medical facilities and health workers proportionate to the population. Most countries have not devoted the necessary funds or consideration to developing these requirements. Immediate action and attention from policymakers is needed.
Consequently, given the world's vast population, community-level capacity building is also needed. Communities should be prepared to educate, provide for, and undertake strict measures to curb the spread of infectious diseases. Governments should educate and prepare communities by conducting routine simulations.
In addition to devoting the necessary domestic resources for infrastructure development, governments should also invest in preparedness to maintain global and national security. A pandemic that has infected millions of people cannot be mitigated using unilateral approaches. The novel coronavirus has led countries to ban not only the movement of people but also the equipment needed to combat and contain it, such as personal protective equipment.
Governments are primarily responsible for their populations, but a global crisis calls for solidarity. Countries should build their national health systems and promote medical research and innovation. Countries also need to develop systems that share necessary epidemiological and genomic data, vaccines, and other medical countermeasures. At this crucial time, policymakers and communities should support each other and the vulnerable groups around them. A pandemic is a global problem that requires a global resolution.
The writer is a columnist.
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