If we can be prepared for war, then why not pandemics? Nature teaching us; will govts learn

April 28, 2020 5:52 PM

While the governments across the world have moved to salvage the coronavirus situation now with varying degrees of urgency, they had ample time and resources beforehand to prepare for a disaster of such magnitude.

Amit Dalal, Executive Director of TATA Investment Corporation Ltd.
  • By Amit Dalal

Coronavirus has taken the world by storm. But, the warnings of a possible deadly pandemic were always there, and while the governments across the world have moved to salvage the situation now with varying degrees of urgency, they had ample time beforehand to prepare for a disaster of such magnitude. Governments had resources at hand, but those resources were collectively used for building up a strong defense system instead of healthcare and other social utilities. From the prevailing situation stems a very important question that governments across the world must answer, “why is more money being spent on building a nuclear arsenal that could destroy lives rather than on building healthcare infrastructure that could protect lives?”

The US, in August 2019, formally withdrew from a treaty with Russia as the military prepared to test a new non-nuclear mobile-launched cruise missile developed specifically to challenge Moscow in Europe. This put an end to a landmark arms control pact that limited the development of ground-based missiles with a range of 500 to 5,500 kilometres and has sparked fears of a new arms race. I am surprised why newscasters haven’t asked the US President whether the US has more missiles or ventilators.

Globally there is a lot of wasteful spending on defense. Nuclear weaponry is one; another is drug warfare. But, the desire to use these is not there. Military spending of all nations rose by 2.6% to $1.8 trillion in 2018, according to new data published by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). It is now at its highest level since 1988 and 76% higher than the post cold war low in 1998. Some of that money could go to healthcare. Forest fires is one of the areas where we need more readiness to deal with the fallouts. There is a rise in water levels and even change in currents; we need contingency plans for that as well.

Bill Gates has been warning for years about the risk of a deadly pandemic much like the present coronavirus and raising the alarm that our societies weren’t prepared to handle it. In an interview three years ago, the billionaire philanthropist talked about the potential for a worldwide health crisis and the fact that we were largely unprepared. “The impact of a huge epidemic, like a flu epidemic, would be phenomenal because all the supply chains would break down. There’d be a lot of panic. Many of our systems would be overloaded,” Gates told CBS News from the 2017 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. “But being ready for epidemics of different sizes, there’s a lot more we should do”. Perhaps if Bill Gates had warned us that we would be on the threshold of World War III, all the governments would be inspired to increase their allocation to defence.

Just as a general leads his army from the front, governments too should lead their countries from the front if the world is to achieve any success in its march towards sustainability. Governments need to be wholly invested in this agenda. The national strategies for sustainable development should provide an overarching framework for all priorities within the country. The time has come to reallocate budgets. The world cannot afford such lockdowns which destroy jobs and economies.

The current crisis is World War III against coronavirus, except coronavirus is the undisputed WMD and the world has Zero Weaponry to defend itself. Governments have been found wanting and weak hands offering assistance to the impacted with grossly deficient healthcare infrastructure. The World Health Organization website states that every year natural disasters kill around 90,000 people and affect close to 160 million people worldwide. They have an immediate impact on human lives and often result in the destruction of the physical, biological and social environment of the affected people, thereby leaving a longer-term impact on their health, well-being and survival. There are numerous articles on “The Big Thaw”. Scientists who assess Earth’s health see indisputable evidence that our planet has been getting warmer, in some cases rapidly. Most believe that human activity, in particular the burning of fossil fuels and the resulting buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, have influenced this warming trend. In the past decade, scientists have documented record-high average annual surface temperatures and have been observing other signs of change all over the planet: in the distribution of ice, and in the salinity, levels, and temperatures of the oceans. Should not the leaders of the World spend time and allocate resources to prepare the world against a Global Natural Disaster.

The current global pandemic and the resultant healthcare and economic chaos shows the world is ill prepared and it is hard to deny that we are at a tipping point. The question now is, at what point will governments awaken from their stupor? When will they give it the due importance it exhorts? When will they sound the call to the new arms of fighting? 

It is often said that it is never too late to take action. A large part of work could be done through social contribution, just as is being done now amid coronavirus pandemic. There could be reserve forces to carry out relief work such as distributing food and other such tasks. The point is, there needs to be a thinking in this direction at the highest level. The private sector is most suited to help out in such situations. Where we fail is in laying out a red carpet for them.

If governments across the world do not act now towards building a sustainable future, it might soon be too late to do anything. If thousands of nuclear missiles can remain underground waiting for the unknown enemy to launch first, the world can afford hospitals with vacant beds in ICUs and isolation wards which await the next launch of coronavirus or a natural disaster. The World has been warned by Nature. It is for us to remain prepared.

  • Amit Dalal is Executive Director of TATA Investment Corporation Ltd. Views expressed are the author’s own.

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