by Gemma MacIntyre
The transformative effect of Covid-19 upon the world is becoming more clear by the day. Since the first recorded cases in China’s Wuhan starting in December 2019, the disease has transcended borders, thereby claiming 170,000 lives to date, affecting millions more, and forcing entire states into lockdown. The severity and pace of the virus so far have led many to ask the question: why were governments so slow to respond? This frustration is particularly salient given reports that multiple scientific, medical, and intelligence experts alerted authorities about this novel coronavirus months prior to politicians initiating our current states of emergency. This delay has led many to label Covid-19 as an intelligence failure, perhaps the most notable in history.
The American President Donald J. Trump has come under significant attacks for delaying preventative measures – and prioritising economic interests over the advice of health and intelligence authorities. An article in the New York Times from mid-April 2020 stated that the US intelligence community ‘identified the threat, sounded the alarms and made clear the need for aggressive action’ in early January 2020. Yet, contrary to this urgency, Trump was reluctant to impose a lockdown. This hesitance came primarily for economic reasons but was similarly influenced by his well-documented tendency to overlook the guidance of expert authorities. Similarly, in Britain, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been chastised for skipping up to five Covid-19 related meetings, having a detrimental impact on the UK’s rate of response (The Sunday Times 2020). It has been reported that while Britain was initially well-prepared for a pandemic outbreak; austerity cuts and fears of a no-deal Brexit distracted the government from its health-focused objectives. Crucially, had the British Government taken earlier action, it would have been able to respond much more effectively.
However, it is not enough to associate the spread of Covid-19 entirely with political personalities (albeit, they do play a role). Rather, one has to explore the various reasons why, despite warning signals, this deadly virus has been able to have such a dramatic impact, wreaking global havoc in its spread. Globally, it seems, few expected what was to come. Upon reflection of where global health ‘sits’ in the international security paradigm, it seems the reasons for intelligence failure are much more complex and deeply-rooted. On the one hand, global health has been perceived as the foundation of international prosperity. Without strong health infrastructure, the productivity of the international community’s labour market cannot function. Sub-Saharan Africa provides a case in point: many of the development challenges within the region stem from health problems. Yet, the mention of global health as an international security challenge is scarce.
Over the course of the twenty-first century, UK and US intelligence analysts have rightly emphasised important security challenges, such as international terrorism, cyber security, and inter-state war. Interestingly, despite its importance to global prosperity, health has rarely been perceived as an international security threat: more often, it is perceived as a by-product of, or contributing to, other security issues. Arguably, the reason for this is that, unlike other security challenges, pandemics lack the same sort of human capacity to be controlled. This characteristic has made viruses such as Covid-19 less apparent in international security studies; yet, paradoxically, more difficult to contain. Viruses cannot be tracked via policing or intercepting devices: nor can they be interrogated or detained.
Nevertheless, the health-focus of intelligence communities should not be minimised by these challenges. Rather, this new strain of coronavirus invites a new strain of security studies: one that, as the world becomes ever more interconnected, is paramount to global health. Since 9/11, academics and practitioners have affirmed the need to refine methods of intelligence-gathering. To track covert, international networks – including terrorist, drug, and cyber-related groups – intelligence communities have to, in the words of Charles Cogan (2010), take a ‘hunter-gatherer’ approach. This involves actively going out to monitor those suspected of posing any sort of legitimate security threat, and enacting sufficient preventative measures. But how does one ‘hunt down’ a virus? Its intangible, diffuse nature, coupled with the ease at which globalisation facilitates its spread, presents novel challenges to intelligence communities (Bruntland, 2003).
The main tactic used by states to contain Covid-19 has been to enforce lockdown measures on entire populations and economies. Short of proven vaccines, this strategy is essential; but it does not address the root issue: that of preventing contaminated animals, particularly bats, from spreading the disease (The Guardian, 2020). The challenges associated with tracking viruses, at the very least, underscores its importance in international security. Even more so, it presents new lessons and opportunities.
A key lesson provided by Covid-19 is that without medical expertise or predictions; policy-makers will be left in the dark. Unlike other security issues which rely namely on intelligence communities and policy-makers to contain them; assailants like Covid-19 require the inclusion of scientists and medical experts, to not only appreciate but act upon the severity of the threat. This requires a shift in the understanding of intelligence in an epidemiological context, both within intelligence communities, and external to them (RUSI, 2020).
Another lesson has been the benefit of digital surveillance. In authoritarian regimes such as South Korea, Israel, and China, their governments have utilised technology and data to track the spread of the virus and monitor citizens in lockdown. Yet, while China and South Korea have maximised this digital surveillance opportunity; Western democracies remain indebted to the value of transparency. A UK NHS app used to monitor people’s activities has been considered; however, controversy remains over the potential exposure of personal data. Ulrich Kelber (Germany’s Federal Commissioner for Data Protection and Freedom of Information) has condoned stringent surveillance measures as ‘encroaching’ and ‘totally inappropriate’ (Foreign Policy, 2020). Ultimately, although transparency remains critical, states may have to overcome this initial unease to make the most of technology opportunities – so long as they are used appropriately, in line with democratic values.
Lastly, the insight provided by intelligence is critical to ensure states are prepared. Historically, intelligence has been used to alert leaders of the appropriate level of investment into national security. Yet, it seems in spite of intelligence warnings, many of those on the front line have been left without the equipment to fight. This idea was referenced by Bill Gates during a 2015 TED Talk, when he affirmed that states had to be prepared to tackle a pandemic just as they would a military emergency. Gates stressed the need for investment in research and development, health infrastructure, and medical reserves, all well in advance of a global outbreak.
Nonetheless, while Gates’ predictions ring eerily true – changing the way states prepare for global pandemics requires not only a shift in intelligence-gathering methods, but in understandings of international security as we know it. Re-defining the priorities of the intelligence community, and conceptions of international security, is essential to combat this pandemic, and the inevitable future ones as well.
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Upon graduating from the University of St Andrews in International Relations and Management in 2019, Gemma MacIntyre is now studying an MA in Conflict, Security and Development at King’s College London. Through her academic studies and voluntary experience with VSO UK in Nigeria, she has developed a strong interest in the impact of governance on development. Throughout her MA, Gemma has had the opportunity to explore a variety of security and development areas: including peace-building; humanitarian diplomacy; intelligence in war and peace; and the impact of conflict on global health. Gemma hopes to pursue a career in humanitarian or security policy-making.