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Swine Flu: A National Security Issue

Gp. Capt. Ajey Lele (Retd.) is Senior Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • August 13, 2009

    The security architecture of any state is normally based on traditional concepts like dealing with issues related to war and peace. This is no longer true in the 21st century when threats cannot be defined only in military terms. Swine flu pandemic is an example of this. Such threats demand solutions which lie beyond routine medical cure.

    Security challenges are broadly categorized as military and non-military threats. Swine flu, a non-military challenge to security, has the potential to destabilize India and reverse decades of hard work in the social and economic sectors. This may sound like an overblown statement when all but less than twenty deaths have been reported all over the country. However, the threat from swine flu should not only be looked at from the perspective of the number of people infected or dead. More people might be dying in road accidents in a day. But, here the issue is more than counting the number of dead bodies.

    This outbreak demonstrates that we are a “risk society”. In the recent past India has faced outbreaks of diseases like Chicken Gunia and Malaria. But this time the situation is different. Swine Flu has already been declared a pandemic. The World Health Organization (WHO) has a six scale categorisation for the spread of any disease. The sixth and final stage on this scale is ‘pandemic’, indicating the maximum global spread. This is the first influenza pandemic since 1968. The only saving grace is that till date the virus has been mild. Thus, two months back when the first major outbreak had taken place in Mexico, the WHO had categorised it a moderate risk. But now with almost every second case getting confirmed at places like Pune, will it remain in the moderate category in the days to come, particularly in India?

    The danger with diseases which belong to the category of human to human transmissions is that it becomes very difficult to control their spread particularly in a populous country like India. Today, the Indian medical system is just not prepared to scrutinize the large volume of cases in time. India does not have sufficient high-tech laboratories. When strictly viewed from a cost-benefit point of view it is just not advisable to have them. To build and maintain BSL (Bio safety level) III/IV laboratories mainly to tackle pandemic threats which are extremely uncommon is a huge financial liability. But of course this standard does not seem to apply to nuclear weapons!

    Over the years the Indian public health system has become overstretched. It can be argued that it is but natural to have hiccups in any public health system when all of a sudden such a large volume of cases need to be attended to. However, logic stands defeated when mass hysteria seems impending on the horizon. When people are dying and the disease is contagious, nobody has patience to understand the compulsions of the state.

    Swine Flu needs to be viewed as a security threat because it has already started degrading the quality of life for the population and even the common man understands that very few policy options are available with the government. Remember the Surat plague scare a few years back? More than half of Surat’s population had run away within the first 48 hours. Today, the closing of schools is not leaving much of an impact on society because there are no immediate financial losses. But imagine a situation when shopping malls and markets get closed. Over a period of time this could well begin to impact upon the economy. The airlines industry which is already in the red is likely to suffer the most in the near future, and over a period of time the tourism industry will also be affected.

    The bad news about swine flu is that experts feel that it is here to stay for a minimum of two years. According to reasonable estimates it might take a minimum of seven to eight months to prepare a vaccine. If the situation were to worsen in the meantime, there may be an adverse impact on foreign investment. Today, a badminton team leaves India because of security concerns; tomorrow the reason could be swine flu. One thus needs to factor in the swine flu threat in the preparation for the 2010 Commonwealth Games. Since this issue is directly related to human health, ‘business’ and ‘political’ interests are likely to prop up. Swine Flu being a communicable disease may also mean less numbers of NGOs volunteering to support the government on the field.

    Against this backdrop, there is a need for securitization of threats like pandemics. But securitization should not be viewed as an attempt to find a military solution, though there is also the possibility that such issues could well generate interstate and intrastate conflicts. Threats of this sort demand long-lasting solutions and the State will have to play a major role in it. Social and political realities need to be kept in mind before taking decisions. For, every action has the potential to turn into a controversy be it a minister’s statement to the media or the supply of medicines to a particular locality. It is essential that the government quickly puts in place a robust and fully transparent public health system.

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