What the COVID-19 Crisis Means for ‘Security’ and ‘Global Governance’: Lessons from the Climate Crisis
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What the COVID-19 Crisis Means for ‘Security’ and ‘Global Governance’: Lessons from the Climate Crisis

By Dr. Dhanasree Jayaram
Assistant Professor, Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, and Co-Coordinator, Centre for Climate Studies, Manipal Academy of Higher Education (MAHE), Karnataka, India

What the COVID-19 Crisis Means for ‘Security’ and ‘Global Governance’: Lessons from the Climate Crisis

The novel coronavirus disease outbreak across the world has presented before us with an unprecedented situation. It has not only shook the foundations of various systems and structures that we believed to be (more or less) stable (including economic and political systems) but also opened up new opportunities for breaking several disciplinary shackles in academia. Now, more than any other time, the academic community needs to reflect on well-established norms in research that have dictated research and development for a long period of time.

The climate and environmental crisis significantly influenced a shift in this field, but the movement kept losing steam every now and then; and the focus would fall back on environmental and climate change when a disaster strikes, only to be forgotten once the situation normalizes. The unfolding and fallouts of the novel coronavirus disease outbreak are here to stay for some time (not certain for how long) and for us to outlive them, the international system requires a major overhaul. What we could not learn from the environmental crisis, the health (pandemic) crisis that we are in could set in motion, triggering a better understanding of ‘security’ and ‘global governance’.

The politics of ‘security’ 

The call for integrating social, economic, environmental, health and other variables into the security discourse and practice is not new. Even before the end of the Cold War, these voices existed but were far and few between. However, the post-Cold War context provided a fillip to the human security discourse, especially after the United Nations (UN) also recognized this concept and approach (in 1994) to shift the focus from territories and arms to people and development. As noted by the UN, “the human security approach is a proven analytical and planning framework that supports more comprehensive and preventive responses by the United Nations, cutting across sectors, developing contextually relevant solutions, and adopting partnerships to help realize a world free from fear, want and indignity.”

However, these acknowledgments have not translated into effective policy responses and a change in our approach towards national security. A recent article clinically spells out the lop-sidedness in how we define security threats, even contextually, as he describes in the case of the deadly 2019-2020 fires in Australia that killed people and scores of species as well as damaged infrastructure and destroyed huge swathes of land. According to him, “our most urgent sources of insecurity” are being overlooked in favor of imaginary threats, defined through “foreign powers and cold wars” in the Australian context. 

The nomenclatures also most certainly do not help. Calling some threats ‘traditional’ and others such as food, water, environmental and health security, ‘non-traditional’ is a matter of choice, with deep-seated agenda and serious repercussions for policy outcomes, including budgetary allocation and institutional support. What is ‘non-traditional’ today may become ‘traditional’ tomorrow? The lines between traditional and non-traditional threats are extremely blurred and the world we live in is so interconnected that such a siloed approach can be disastrous. The novel coronavirus outbreak has taught us this valuable lesson – reiterating the economic, political, political and security implications at all levels, in all countries. 

Parallels between the climate crisis and the coronavirus crisis

Ever since the gravity of the novel coronavirus outbreak came to light, many analysts have attempted to draw parallels between climate change and the novel coronavirus. For instance, the similarities betweenflattening the curveof COVID-19 transmissions and “bending the curve” of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and the public health “breaking points” in the COVID-19 responses (to contain the virus) and “tipping points” in climate change (in terms of mitigation and adaptation) are uncanny, to say the least. There are umpteen indicators to draw these parallels, especially to over-emphasize the need for dealing with uncertain, unmanageable and unavoidable risks in security policies.

 Environmental risk assessment can no longer be based upon historical records, as “we are not outside of the historical records,” as “we have shifted the boundary conditions of environmental systems.”

Importantly, what lessons have we learned from the previous pandemics such as the Spanish flu, the Black Death and the cholera outbreaks (from a historical perspective)? There are many, including the fact that governments need to anticipate the cascading impacts of the various measures (such as lockdowns, quarantines, and social distancing) implemented by them to contain the spread – just as is the case in gauging and managing the cascading impacts of climate change on various societies and sectors. Herein lies the relevance of discourses on inequality, injustice and other forms of structural violence that are most certainly sidelined in the rubric of security policies and strategies. While the virus itself is not discriminating between different sections of the society (affecting the rich and poor alike), the government responses are most likely to cripple economies, particularly the socio-economically backward sections such as daily wagers, delivery workers, house helps, construction site workers and many others in the informal sectors in countries such as India. 

Yet another argument that is gathering more attention is the need for shifting away from ‘anthropocentric’ approach towards security. This type of thinking debunks the reality of an unbreakable bond between humans and natural ecosystems (in fact, the former are a part of the latter). Increasingly, studies are finding interlinkages between the growth of pandemics (such as Ebola, SARS, swine flu, and Nipah) and environmental destruction (and biodiversity loss). Hence, as we think of framing our security policies, we clearly need to reset our relationship with the natural world. There are already calls for banning wildlife trade in many countries in the wake of the novel coronavirus outbreak. Furthermore, even as some are rejoicing over the reduction in levels of air pollution and cleaner environment, we must be warned that these could be short-lived, as countries try to reinvigorate their economies once the crisis subsides in the coming months, as was the case after the 2007-08 financial crisis. Nevertheless, this crisis also presents an appropriate opportunity to set in motion major structural reforms (from the bottom up) in the world economy to ensure climate-sensitive development and sustainability. 

Re-envisioning security when global governance fails yet again 

Global governance has remained a normative and idealistic aspiration for the entire world – a mirage that many advocates but only a handful practice. While states continue to cooperate on a few fronts, the failures of international cooperation (and neoliberalism) even during the peak of the ongoing global health and economic crises have opened the gates for re-envisioning security and governance. This can be compared to the international community’s failure to prioritize climate action even though science portends a major crisis. 

Global problems require global solutions – such axioms are often used in the international security discourse too. As health crises (such as pandemics) repeatedly metamorphose into global emergencies, global health governance through formal and informal mechanisms is assuming greater significance. Of course, one or a few countries’ competences in tackling such threats (maybe in the health sector) will not be enough to protect the international community from various shocks in economic and political domains, to which most countries are not immune. 

Currently, as we are debating the effectiveness of various political systems and approaches in addressing the problem, we tend to forget that crisis management in today’s world permeates territorial boundaries. This is visible in the manner in which many regional organizations and groups of countries are coming together to discuss ways of tackling the novel coronavirus spread and its ramifications. At the same time, countries that invest too much in the process of globalization without paying adequate attention to strengthening their domestic structures may now be forced to rethink their economic and political strategies – shifting from globalization to glocalization as a part of structural reforms to endure global turbulences.

The year 2020 has been rough so far. The set of problems that we face today are interlinked – novel coronavirus disease crisis, climate crisis, the United States-China trade war, and oil price war, to name just a few. With this, there is evidently enough fodder for countries to adopt a completely different approach to security and governance. While human security may be the most appropriate framework for dealing with such interconnected challenges, compartmentalization of threats and responses (based on the nature and scope of threats and whom/what is being protected) may not be the best way forward. Our traditional notions of security, most often expressed in terms of national security, need to be re-evaluated and re-envisioned so that issues such as pandemics and environmental change find their rightful place in security planning and policies. 

About the Author

Dr. Dhanasree Jayaram (ORCID: 0000-0003-0483-7943is Assistant Professor, Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, and Co-Coordinator, Centre for Climate Studies, Manipal Academy of Higher Education (MAHE), Karnataka, India. She is also Research Fellow, Earth System Governance Project, and the author of Breaking out of the Green House: Indian Leadership in Times of Environmental Change (2012). She can be reached at dhanasree.j@manipal.edu or @dhanasreej (Twitter).

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DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in this insight piece are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the IndraStra Global.