By Simon Dalby, Balsillie School of International Affairs

For much of the so called Western World, it is now about three months since major efforts to contain the spread of the COVID-19 disease started. In many places in Europe and in North America these measures came too late to be really effective. However, the measures have nonetheless clearly slowed the disease spread, and allowed in most cases so far, the health systems to more or less cope with the influx of seriously ill people. But large numbers of people have died in these countries, and serious failures in governance have been dramatically revealed in jurisdictions that were unprepared. In the United States, the situation has been aggravated by the failure of the Trump administration to accept its responsibilities for planning in a timely way and then coordinating appropriate public responses. The lack of a timely response also highlights, once again, the failure on the part of numerous decision makers to adequately comprehend the dangers to contemporary societies which don’t fit into traditional notions of national security.

The COVID disease has also revealed the numerous inequities in contemporary societies, and the vulnerability of many people deemed “essential workers” in particular. The high rates of mortality among health workers dealing with infectious diseases is not a great surprise, although the absence of essential protective equipment in many places has made this much worse. But the casualty rates in workplaces including meat processing plants, as well as among taxi and bus drivers, emphasizes their social vulnerabilities as well as the importance of social distancing for reducing disease spread. These groups are precisely those who cannot do social distancing, and who are now paying a terrible price for their social condition. This has highlighted the structural vulnerabilities in contemporary economic systems where, ironically, those deemed essential are also frequently the most financially precarious – and most marginalized – groups often also seen as a security threat by the forces of law and order.

In early June the media focus on the pandemic was partly eclipsed by the outrage concerning the broad daylight killing of a man in Minneapolis, accosted by the police because he apparently had been using what might have been a counterfeit bank note in a store. George Floyd died on the street due to police violence, and the whole episode was caught on camera. As the images spread around the world they have revived the Black Lives Matter campaign and have led to an outpouring of protest in numerous countries in solidarity with the American activists confronting highly militarized police forces in numerous cities. The vulnerabilities of African Americans in particular to police violence, and assumptions that order is best maintained by brutality, have once again been harshly highlighted. The question here is: “Whose security?”

In Britain these protests have included the removal of a statue of a slave trader which rapidly found its way to the bottom of a local river. Perhaps most notable was the protest in Brussels where a flag from the Democratic Republic of the Congo was displayed at a statue of Belgian King Leopold who, in the nineteenth century, oversaw the colonization of that part of Africa and the wholesale slaughter of millions of Africans. The history of European colonial violence, a frequently forgotten precursor to the construction of the present-day globalized economy, has now also been highlighted in these protests. Black lives didn’t matter to British slave traders nor to Belgian royal colonists, and the consequent loss of lives then eerily resonates with the video camera images of violence on American streets today.

The response in Washington has been to heighten “security” with the huge irony of a fence, if not a wall exactly, being constructed around Donald Trump’s White House. One American senator published an opinion piece in the New York Times, calling for the American military to be sent into the streets to provide security, regardless of the niceties of the American Constitution which the US forces are supposed to uphold, and which mostly prevents precisely this kind of action. Clearly this is about using violence, or the threat thereof, to subdue people who are, well, protesting the use of the violence which makes them insecure in the first place.

The contrast between the Senator’s oped in the pages of the New York Times with the paper’s profile of Dr Bonnie Henry, the chief medical officer in British Columbia, is noteworthy. Dr Henry’s quiet and gentle manner, and determination to use persuasion and the best instincts of residents of that province to limit the pandemic’s spread, rather than draconian enforcement measures, has led to one of the most successful responses to the pandemic in North America. Early action to partly close the economy and careful epidemiological tracking of cases, has, at least so far, dramatically limited the number of casualties in comparison to many other jurisdictions on this continent.

This contrast goes to the heart of the issue of how security is now understood. In the aftermath of the events of 9/11 the response was a military one, and the subsequent invasion of Iraq, and continued violence in Afghanistan in particular, has fed into the wider use of force in Western societies. The widespread use of military equipment, liberally spread to police forces in North America, and the resulting militarization of policing – where conflict is so often the assumed condition of police action – has ironically led to numerous people being made more vulnerable. Where public health budgets are inadequate, first responders to health emergencies are often heavily armed police, not the health care workers and counsellors who are needed. The widespread epidemic of chemical dependencies that afflict impoverished communities, treated as something that needs military swat teams to challenge drug users, only makes vulnerabilities even worse; hence the demand to defund police forces so money can be spent elsewhere.

The refusal of protesters in many parts of the world to back down in the face of threats of violence, and the widespread support for the Black Lives Matter campaigns, suggests that, perhaps, just perhaps, the long term legacy of histories and colonial violence – and the pernicious effects of the more recent militarization of “security” in the aftermath of 9/11 – are finally getting the urgent reconsideration they need. Before they were swept aside by the war on terror, the 1990s discussions of human security emphasized the importance of thinking about prevention before the fact, rather than violent responses after the fact. The pandemic response of careful planning and calm measured actions, epitomised by Dr Henry in British Columbia, suggests that security in a rapidly changing world, where the new threats to human welfare are from disease and rapidly accelerating climate change, will be much better provided by collaborative planning and sensible preparation. The alternative is to wait and see what happens, and then try to use violence to quell protests after state failures have once again revealed entirely predictable human vulnerabilities. Only by stretching the term to impossible lengths can this latter course of action be meaningfully rendered as “security”.