It is perhaps the first time in history that the entire human race, without any exception, is combatting a common enemy, the COVID-19 virus
In the prevailing period of uncertainty, unpredictability and ambiguity of every aspect of human life, in fact, of life itself, is it a war that we are fighting and what kind of a war is this? The traditional understanding of conflict is violent activity between two or more nations or groups over a period of time, bringing death and destruction in its wake. The world has, however, seen other types of battles. For instance, the war on poverty, class wars, trade wars and so on. So, is our ongoing fight for existence against COVID-19 to be termed a war? The significance is not merely of the word but the principles which should govern this fight.
In the spectrum of conflict, at the lower end is low-intensity engagement and at the highest level there is nuclear warfare. Chemical and biological warfare can also be grouped with nuclear conflict. While chemical weapons have repeatedly been used in some conflicts in the 20th century, the use of biological weapons is relatively less and mostly unproven. But biological weapons are the easiest and cheapest to manufacture and can adversely affect the entire enemy population. (A biological weapon can be as simple as dropping a body in the village well or a town’s water supply.) However, possibly due to morality aspects and more importantly, the inability to control the fallout of a biological weapon, its use on a large scale has been precluded, though many countries are reported to have had biological weapons programmes in the past.
The present crisis would definitely fall under the category of biological warfare. The commencement of this war could be both, natural or man-made. At this point of time, due to inadequate credible information, it would be inappropriate to pronounce a decision as to who is responsible for the commencement of this war. However, it is of extreme importance to analyse inputs when available and reach a conclusion on its genesis because, many aspects of the post-COVID world, including possibly the world order, would depend on it. If this be a biological war, we need to see the scale of it. It is perhaps the first time in history that the entire human race, without any exception, is combatting a common enemy, the COVID-19 virus. Though there have been pandemics in the past, like the Spanish Flu in 1918 and the Asian Flu in 1957, a global catastrophe of this scale is unprecedented. It is not only the sickness and death which the virus-affected world suffers, seemingly at an exorbitantly large scale, but also the economic devastation that is likely to ensue in its wake in the globalised world, which makes this crisis a truly unparalleled one. Additionally, in all previous battles whether conventional or otherwise (war on terror, price wars and so on), there have always been “sides.” In this unprecedented situation, the entire mankind is on one side and the virus is on the other. It is therefore, a true Global War On a Biological Threat (GWOBT).
Considering this to be a war, the “Principles of War” need to be applied to defeat it. While these fundamentals have been enunciated by different military theorists from Sun Tzu to Clausewitz and different countries have adopted their own dictums based on their national and strategic requirements, it is intended to elucidate these principles which are generally acceptable. Let’s deliberate upon them in the context of the GWOBT.
Selection and maintenance of aim: This is the single-most important maxim as all actions will depend upon the aim selected. My experience in the Siachen Glacier and other battle situations is that, it is necessary first to survive to defeat the enemy. A dead man is good to nobody. In the existing situation wherein no treatment is available, the aim must remain focussed on survival.
Concentration of force: Since the entire human race has one deadly enemy, all national boundaries, religions, beliefs, ethnicities, caste, creed and gender are irrelevant in this war. All efforts of the human race must, therefore, be concentrated on defeating the virus. Solidarity and synergy of all resources of the world would be necessary to defeat this enemy, which has humbled mankind.
Administration/sustainability: To be able to fight the war successfully, the human race, especially the economically deprived, has to be able to sustain itself through the entire period that the battle is fought. The administration has to be perfected to take care of essential needs, especially food and medical assistance. Though this is already partly visible but it has to be ensured over a long period till it is business as usual.
Security: In military terms, it means that an appropriate environment must be created and maintained, which will enable necessary freedom of action to achieve objectives. In the GWOBT, it would entail creating an overall international environment wherein those scientists, doctors and researchers, who are involved in finding a solution, feel fully energised and motivated to find a vaccine/solution/drug/protocol, to end this crisis. One of the perils identified by the UN Secretary General on April 9 was of extremist threats, including bio-terrorist attacks. Such dangers need to be dealt with through an effective international response and nipped in the bud. Otherwise these will seriously hamper our efforts at finding a solution.
Economy of effort: With limited resources, especially in the less developed nations and the end not clearly in sight, all efforts must be economised. This would be applicable to both, employment of manpower as also utilising resources, including foodgrain. The inability to implement this dictum will result in serious social disturbances, which will adversely affect preventive measures to contain the virus.
Offensive action: The key to military victories lies in relentless offensive action. In the current situation, too, bold decisions by the leadership, which are in tune with the selected aims and based on available data, would be the drivers of victory. Complacency or delay in decision-making can prove catastrophic.
Flexibility: The world is mostly groping in a relatively unknown domain. The outcome, results and impacts that emerge in the changing situation, must be factored in by the leadership in finding the road ahead. One example is how the ubiquitous anti-malaria drug Hydroxychloroquine has changed the way the world is looking at possible future prevention.
Cooperation: Partnership among all, cutting across boundaries, political ideologies and religion, will hold the key to a solution. It is also very important that, post-COVID financial benefits accruing to a nation or company, must not be the key criterion. A competition at this stage has the potential to ruin or delay success whereas, collaboration will speed up the process, which in turn can benefit all nations.
Morale: These are times which most of the present generation would not have ever faced earlier. A positive state of mind in this situation needs to be created. A sense of well-being, group cohesion and the feeling that the nation is firmly behind every individual, need to be reiterated. An inspired leadership — at the international, national, State and local level — is the need of the hour.
India has a lot to contribute to the world in the current situation. The way the second-most populous country on the planet is controlling the pandemic, will definitely be watched globally. The lockdown decision, albeit delayed, is being appreciated by many the world over. The sense of discipline in most areas and a high state of morale, despite the extended shut down which the country can ill-afford right now due to its precarious economic situation, are examples for the world to follow.
India has also set the example of international cooperation by releasing the Hydroxychloroquine tablets to many nations. In the field of research and finding a vaccine/treatment as also finding a solution through traditional methods, India can be a world leader.
Despite all the challenges that the nation is facing today, especially the economically deprived citizens, India could be at the forefront in this GWOBT and thereby be an important contributor in the post-COVID world.
As in war, leadership in all spheres and at all levels — political, judicial, executive, legislative, military and at the national, State and local levels, will be judged by the manner in which they handle the crisis.
History has also shown us that from the ashes of war, great economic giants have risen. Remember Germany, Japan and more recently Vietnam?
(Writer: Aniruddha Chakravarty; Courtesy: The Pioneer)