The March of 2020 was a month which seemed like a year, with days stretching out into weeks which seemed like eons. As the world is under the grip of the coronavirus, all other stories become secondary to the all-consuming spectre of an un-seeable, undetectable enemy. With talk of lockdowns and curfews extending for weeks more, it is difficult to remember December of 2019, when political theorists and social scientists were referring to COVID-19 as a ‘six-week story’. With talks of ‘flattening the curve’ and slow-downs to the global system till Q3 (September), any such take seems divorced from reality. At the same time, it is also unlikely that the novel coronavirus signals the end of human-kind, and however bleak and distant, there is a light at the end of this perilous tunnel. Perhaps then it is understandable to think about the post-corona world, and in doing so introspect on the decisions that have been made leading up to and during the virus.

If one good has been consistently scarce throughout this crisis, it is medical equipment: from N-95 face-masks to ventilators, the lack of access to relatively basic medical equipment has forced doctors and medical practitioners warn of ‘disaster medicine’, a utilitarian choosing of who to cure and who to leave to their immune system’s own devices. This is not entirely due to a lack of preparedness, or a failure of imagination. For example, the United States has vast stores of medical supplies in case of nuclear, chemical and biological attacks ready to be used to help a country crippled by an unthinkable horror. The horror the United States faces today is not nuclear, chemical or biological, but rather due to its own under-insured and bloated healthcare infrastructure. It would be wrong to mock preparedness for any crisis, let alone preparation that could prove useful in another situation. Our current concept of social contract argues that the state alone can protect us from external threats in return for a monopoly on violence. A question that needs to be asked however, is why so much was spent on preparing for one eventuality and not another, especially since both can be grouped under a singular umbrella (that of disaster relief).

Securitisation Theory stems from the belief that threats can come from non-military arenas, and contends with the fact that due to this, potentially any singular thing can be a threat to state and citizen. Education is arguably not an area that needs securitisation, but what of an education board that allows for say, medical students to ignore studying certain viruses for their examinations if in the future such a virus crops up? It is not always obvious what has to be securitised, and this means that decisions have to be made and policies adopted, which will inherently have human biases behind them.

The word bias has negative connotations against it and implies a callous favouritism. The 20th century showcased social sciences research which hoped to rectify this, to re-catalogue bias to a more empathetic framework: that it refers to well-intentioned leanings towards particular outcomes. Policymakers might not be wrong, just working with the best information they have processed through filters of learning that have made them the way they are. Consider the following example from Roland Bleiker’s work on political aesthetics: the Cold War was characterised by large-scale military spending by the United States and the Soviet Union in an arms race characterised best by stockpiles of nuclear weapons. Both states competed on a numerical level, far beyond any semblance of logistical sense, based on the concept of ‘balance of power’, a staple of realist international relations long considered fact. It was only after the collapse of the Soviet Union that it was revealed that some imposing missiles were not weapons of death but glorified sewage pipes with a cone on one end. Billions of dollars had been spent due to a mis-approximation guided by a belief treated as fact.

There is great benefit in hindsight, one that cannot be afforded to those in the hot-seat making calls under presumed or real cases of life or death. A post-crisis analysis of any event will reveal that certain decisions could have been made which would have led to better outcomes, or alternately how a single decision was the difference between success or failure. The same will be the case with the COVID-19. Buzan stated that this problem arises from the short-term goals adopted by most policy-makers, their relatively unimaginative understanding of what to securitise, and biased approaches towards areas of non-military securitisation.

For the scope of this article only the first can be focused on. While attributed to armed forces across the world, the idea of a command mentality permeates many political scholars and practitioners. Issues are not problems until they become problems, at which point responses to them must be rapid. Emphasis is placed on speed of response, not the ‘correctness’ of response. The command mentality thus allows leeway to correct initially poor responses by rectifying their responses in the future. Think of it like fixing a wiring issue in your house, only to have to then fix the problems caused by that wiring, as opposed to calling an electrician the first time.

News has broken of an American aircraft carrier suffering from an outbreak of COVID-19 and being forced to anchor at Guam, a floating airport of ordinance rendered immobile by a virus. There is no moment more emblematic of the current crisis we are in than a ship more powerful than entire countries rendered impotent in such a manner. The time for critique might not be now, but it will come. Generals always prepare to fight for the last war, but it seems that some might be prepared for a war that will never come, ignoring the ones they stumble into. The idea of a six-week story seems insensitive and comical, but in a time when a virus is prompting unprecedented breaches of personal liberties, perhaps some lessons should be learnt to make sure the next such outbreak is.