Pandemics like COVID-19, alarming and destructive as they are, can serve a useful purpose if they remind everyone of the critical importance of public health. When a contagious disease strikes, even a society’s most protected elites must worry about the health of neglected populations. Those who have advocated privatisation and cost-cutting measures that deny healthcare to the most vulnerable now know that they did so at their own peril. A society’s overall health depends on the health of its poorest people.
Last week Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, “We are at war with an invisible enemy: the coronavirus,” and declared “Israel is going to use counter-terrorism technologies to track coronavirus carriers”. On Monday, President Donald Trump tweeted, “The world is at war with a hidden enemy. We Will Win.”
Years of experience in counter terrorism shows that the fundamentals of fighting are not very different. Across the world, a commonly understood principle in counterinsurgency and counter-terrorism is that ‘population is the centre of gravity’. Put simply, the primary focus must be on protecting populations. The same applies for the campaign against coronavirus.
First, typical of such conflict-ridden areas, in the initial days when the threat is high, there is uncertainty. People tolerate and accept measures imposed by the State, which may hinder their personal freedom and movement. But as soon as the control measures start hurting personal interests, people get restless and rebel. Unfortunately, in India, the more educated and entitled show lesser understanding and accommodation than others. We have experienced this in every crisis, man-made or natural.
For the short term it is essential to ensure fool-proofing of control measures. Going into the future, we must be prepared for more surveillance to check potential risks.
Second, in conflict zones it is quite common for people to deny existence of the terrorists, even if they are hiding in their own house. It could be because of fear or ideological support. Similar reaction is noticeable in this pandemic where the coronavirus has been branded as the enemy.
Whether at an individual level or at the national level, irrespective of developed or developing nations, democratic or authoritarian states, the initial reactions start with denial and then to limited acceptance of reality. It is this attitude that creates monsters in conflict zones! This is a good opportunity to emphasise on the importance of acknowledging the existence of the enemy for the larger good of humankind.
Third, popular opinion gets swayed easily – all forms of media, insatiable appetite for stories and fancy opinion over news are mutually catalytic and exploiting this human tendency no end. In all conflict situations there are those that have vested interests or simply see opportunities in threats. In 2015, a little-known terrorist who hadn’t fired a single shot, put his picture clicked in an apple orchard in South Kashmir, with seven others, on social media. The picture was picked up by a local news reporter and printed on his daily. A national daily blew it up to cover their centre page along with bio-data of all the eight terrorists. Not to be left behind, a national weekly took it further and made a full story, out of it. The media so succeeded in turning a non entity into such a hero, that eventually when he was eliminated two years later, Kashmir had to suffer from a virtual lockdown for over a month, not to forget the losses suffered on account of protests, stone pelting etc.
The story is no different with the corona virus. Random pictures from social media are being woven together to create prime time news, fuelling panic and rumour mongering, and potentially promoting vested interests. At one level it is essential to invoke relevant sections of IPC, Disaster Management Act, and the IT Act, to check this trend. At another level, the agencies in charge, i.e. WHO, and National Public Health agencies must be much more active in media – strategic communications to push the right message with substance, scale and speed. In doing so we must be mindful of managing inter-agency competition through better coordination.
Fourth, in counter terrorist operations, there is a certain comfort in employing the armed forces early to contain the risk. It works well because of the training, organisation and coordination ingrained in them.
The same qualities will help in dealing with the corona virus pandemic, and it calls for the same qualities of the civilian agencies waging war against corona and will be the key to success. Besides, like counter insurgency operations, local community partnerships, and self-defence practices can make citizens feel empowered, engaged and safe. Providing a sense of security amongst citizens, involving local community bodies, is as important in trying to destroy the enemy.
Fifth, because insurgents rely on neighbouring countries for sanctuary and support, good government to government relations with neighbouring countries help. India has benefitted in its counter insurgency campaign with help from Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal and Myanmar. For dealing with corona virus too, Prime Minister Modi has mooted an integrated regional approach.
It could help in containing, isolating and possibly finding the right cure. We must be pragmatic though, as in-depth cooperation is certain to be hindered by the trappings of geopolitics. For example, President Trump has called COVID 19 as “China virus”; and China, is not far behind in calling the crisis as the handiwork of American conspiracy.
Sixth, India’s experience from the Northeast, Punjab and J & K, tells us that counter insurgency campaigns are invariably more protracted, more difficult, and more costly, both, in blood and money, than first anticipated. It would be prudent to approach the war against corona virus and its future mutations, keeping this experience in mind. Building institutional memory and regularly updating protocols to counter future threats is a must. Finally, even though these are early days in India’s fight against the pandemic, the measures put in place thus far, are being acknowledged worldwide. We must continue to remain on top.
- The author is Member, National Security Advisory Board, and former Deputy Chief of Army Staff and Kashmir Corps Commander