Rethinking National Security in an Age of Pandemics
PK Khup Hangzo, Associate Fellow, VIF

National security has traditionally been defined and understood in military terms. This notion of national security focuses on threats such as external armed aggression, Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD), terrorism, insurgencies etc. Military dangers, real or imagined, have come to dominate national security thinking to the detriment of other dangers. In reality, non-military threats to national security have grown and are more pervasive. These arise from non-traditional sources such as the environment, climate change, pandemics, transnational crime etc. However, these non-military and non-traditional threats to national security have not been accorded the same level of urgency and seriousness as compared to military ones.

The ongoing, and rapidly evolving, COVID-19 pandemic is a case in point. Despite previous instances of infectious diseases outbreak worldwide, and despite repeated warnings from experts of their recurrence, countries the world over have sleepwalked into the COVID-19 crisis. The COVID-19 outbreak therefore has raised pertinent questions about whether pandemics should be accorded a more central role in the drafting of national security plans given their potential to seriously threaten national security by taking lives, destabilizing the global economy, and weakening the governance structures of countries worldwide.

COVID-19 Pandemic and National Security

National security has two dimensions, external and internal. The external dimension of national security or simply “national security” is defined as “the safekeeping of the nation as a whole…..from attack and other external dangers”.1 The internal dimension, or “internal security”, on the other hand focuses on threats that arise from within a country’s borders. Threats to both dimensions of national security include external military aggression, proliferation of WMDs, terrorism, insurgency, political and religious violence etc. Key response strategies traditionally include the ramping up of military capabilities for offensive and defensive war fighting and posturing, counterterrorism, counterinsurgency, enhanced intelligence and surveillance capabilities etc. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic however has upended the traditional notion of national security prompting a rethink in the way it is conceptualized and understood.

The COVID-19 outbreak has its origin in the Chinese city of Wuhan. The earliest case was detected on 17 November 2019.2 It quickly morphed into a global health crisis with the World Health Organization (WHO) surprisingly taking months before declaring it a pandemic on 12 March 2020. The pandemic has now caused large scale public health and socio-economic crises worldwide. On the public health front, COVID-19 sickens people and causes their death. As of 5 April 2020, there were 1,208,860 confirmed cases in more than 175 countries.3 Of these, 65,415 have unfortunately lost their battle for survival while 247,147 have recovered. Public health systems worldwide have struggled to cope with the enormity of the challenges due to various issues pertaining to face mask shortages and other vital medical equipment among others.

On the economic front, the global economy has begun to unravel rapidly. According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), almost 25 million jobs could be lost worldwide by the end of 2020 with a corresponding income loss for workers estimated at between USD860 million to USD3.4 trillion. 4 A decline in the global consumption of goods and services could soon affect the prospects for businesses and economies. This could trigger a financial crisis of unprecedented proportions with dire consequences for the global economy. In light of this, the United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres declared that the COVID-19 pandemic was the most challenging global crisis the world have had to face since the Second World War and warned of “enhanced instability, enhanced unrest, and enhanced conflict” as a result of it.5 Thus the COVID-19 pandemic could set off a chain reaction of crises ranging from public health crisis to socio-economic crisis to crisis in governance thereby posing grave danger to national security. Not surprisingly, political leaders around the world have now considered COVID-19 response as their top national security priority and have begun to increasingly employ the language of war to describe their efforts. For example, US President Donald Trump characterized COVID-19 as an “invisible enemy”. He described himself as a “wartime president” and vowed to achieve “total victory” over the disease.6 In explaining the growing usage of the language of war, it has been argued that “…..nothing rouses and galvanises a society like war-speak, with its notions of crisis - and the overcoming of it - as well as the sense of togetherness and a shared fate”.7

COVID-19 Pandemic and India’s National Security

India’s national security has also been primarily understood in military terms owing to military threats posed by Pakistan and China. This has its roots in the long running territorial and border disputes between India and these countries. And they have fought several wars over it too. But the wars and the numerous diplomatic efforts have failed to permanently resolve their disputes. As such, the potential for future outbreaks of wars over territories and borders remain to this day. India’s national security discourse therefore continues to be shaped primarily by the prospect of an armed conflict between India and Pakistan on the one hand and between India and China on the other. The prospect of a “two-front” war between India and the combined forces of Pakistan and China also remains a possibility.

On the internal security front, India’s primary focus, according to the Ministry of Home Affairs, have been on a) Terrorism in the hinterland of the country; b) Left Wing Extremism in certain areas; c) Security situation in Jammu and Kashmir; and c) Insurgency in the North Eastern States.8 As such, India’s approach to internal security weighs largely in favour of counterterrorism and counterinsurgency aimed at containing and eventually defeating terrorism and insurgency on its soil. It can thus be argued that India’s approach to national security has been a “highly militarised” one and it continued to be so. Given this, non-traditional security threats such as pandemics have yet to find a place in India’s national security discourse and planning. However, given the enormity of threats posed by the COVID-19 outbreak to the health and socio-economic well-being of Indians, it warrants greater attention and a rethink of India’s national security approach as a whole.

The first confirmed case of COVID-19 in India was reported on 30 January 2020. 9 Since then, the number of confirmed cases has grown albeit at a slower pace than those witnessed in other countries like the US, Spain and Italy. As of 5 April 2020, there were 3030 confirmed cases out of which 77 have died and 266 have recovered.10 In response, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a nationwide 21-day lockdown on 24 March 2020 to forestall the spread of COVID-19. Although the future trajectory of the COVID-19 pandemic cannot be determined for certain at this point in time, there is lingering fear of a major surge in confirmed cases. A US-based interdisciplinary group of scholars and data scientists called Crisis of Virus in India - 19 (COV-IND-19) Study Group predicted that India could potentially witness 1,00,000-13,00,000 confirmed cases by the middle of May unless drastic actions are taken.11

If such a surge were to happen, it will have serious implications for India owing to its “overstretched” and “creaky” public health systems. One major reason for the poor state of India’s public health systems is underinvestment. Public expenditure on healthcare in India, for example, amounted to only 1.28 per cent of GDP, which is deemed to be very low.12 As a result, India has only 0.7 hospital beds per 1000 people. In comparison, South Korea has 11.5 hospital beds per 1000 people, China has 4.2, Italy has 3.4, the UK has 2.9, the United States has 2.8, and Iran has 1.5. India also has only 0.8 doctors and 2.1 nurses per 1000 people respectively. India’s public health systems are already overwhelmed and overstretched even during “normal” times. Any major surge in confirmed COVID-19 cases will further exert tremendous pressure on its public health systems.

The prospects for India’s economy do not look good either. The Indian economy had started experiencing a slow down well before the pandemic struck. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) had estimated the Indian economy to grow by 5.8 per cent in 2020.13 This estimate was arrived at before measures to contain the spread of COVID-19 such as the 21-day nationwide lockdown was imposed. That estimate now seems to be rather optimistic in the light of the potential adverse economic consequences of the lockdown. The sudden displacement of migrant labour as a result of the lockdown in particular would have far-reaching consequences for the Indian economy. According to the Economic Survey 2016-17, an estimated nine million people migrate annually within the country primarily in search of work. This cheap labour pool has long been a major factor in India’s economic growth. The lockdown has prompted these workers to return to their villages in droves and they may not move back to cities and industrial centers anytime soon. This would deprive industrial centers of labour for a long period of time and could potentially raise the wage burden especially on small- and medium-sized industrial units. An analysis of the full magnitude of the potential economic impacts of the lockdown is beyond the scope of this article. But it suffices to say that the Indian economy will take a major hit as a result of the pandemic in general and the lockdown of the country in particular.

Way Forward - Towards a Comprehensive National Security Strategy

It is therefore pertinent that India adopts a comprehensive National Security Strategy (NSS) that addresses threats emanating from both traditional (or military) and non-traditional (or non-military) sources. India currently does not have an NSS, let alone a comprehensive one. As such, it relies on “ad hoc responses of questionable utility”14 to address its national security challenges. It is important to note that there has been no dearth of attempt to formulate an NSS. For example, it has been reported that the National Security Advisory Board (NSAB) has submitted draft NSS on four different occasions to successive Indian governments who failed to officially endorse them. On why that was the case, one scholar opined that politicians are worried about “a potential commitment trap if a national security strategy were to be put on paper”.15 However, as can now be seen, the cost of not having a comprehensive NSS with clear guidelines on how to address threats to India’s national security from non-military sources like the COVID-19 pandemic is very high. And it remains doubtful that pandemics would even feature as a national security threat in the NSAB’s draft NSS.

The most recent non-official draft NSS was prepared in 2019 by Lt. Gen. (Retd.) DS Hooda, former Commanding-in-Chief of the Indian Army’s Northern Command, at the behest of the opposition Congress party. Titled “India's National Security Strategy”, it was released to the public in March 2019. Although this so called “strategy document” aimed to present a comprehensive NSS by also including potential sources of non-traditional security threats to India like the environment, climate change, demographic pressures, energy insecurity etc., there have been one glaring omission - pandemics. 16 This omission is striking because the document was prepared well after a series of infectious disease outbreaks had occurred in many parts of the world in the recent past. These included the 2002-2003 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic, the 2009-2010 H1N1 Swine Flu pandemic, the 2012-2013 Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) epidemic and the 2014–2016 Ebola virus epidemic etc.

There is an urgent need for India to institute and operationalize a comprehensive NSS that addresses threats that originated from both military and non-military sources. Most importantly, threats from pandemics ought to be taken seriously. This is because COVID-19 is unlikely to be the last of global pandemics to occur. As already discussed, there have already been a series of deadly infectious disease outbreaks in the recent past. There could be more such outbreaks waiting to happen in the future. Besides, there is a potential outbreak of “manufactured” pandemics through the use of biological weapons by both state and malicious non-state actors alike. The deliberate use of anthrax to attack targets in the United States in 2001 is a case in point. As such, it is imperative that any future Indian NSS takes into account threats from both naturally occurring as well as manufactured pandemics.

  1. Holmes, Kim R. “What is National Security?” The Heritage Foundation. October 7, 2014.
  2. Ma, Josephine. “Coronavirus: China’s first confirmed Covid-19 case traced back to November 17”. South China Morning Post. March 13, 2020.

  4. Salvá, Ana. “Spain’s health workers overburdened and undersupplied in coronavirus fight”. South China Morning Post. April 5, 2020.
  5. International Labour Organization (ILO). “COVID-19 and the world of work: Impact and policy responses”. International Labour Organization (ILO) Note. March 18, 2020.
  6. “UN chief calls coronavirus pandemic worst crisis since World War II”. South China Morning Post. April 1, 2020.
  7. “Coronavirus: Trump puts US on war footing to combat outbreak”. BBC. March 19, 2020.
  8. Kuah, Adrian W.J. and Bernard F.W. Loo. “Covid-19 and the language of war”. Today. March 25, 2020.
  9. Ministry of Home Affairs. Annual Report 2018-19. Government of India.
  10. Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MHFW). “Update on Novel Coronavirus: one positive case reported in Kerala”. Public Information Bureau (PIB). January 30, 2020.
  11. Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MHFW). “COVID-19 India”. April 5, 2020.
  12. “India may see up to 13 lakh cases of COVID-19 by mid-May, warn scientists”. The Hindu Business Line. March 25, 2020.
  13. Ray, Debashree et al. “Predictions and role of interventions for COVID-19 outbreak in India”. The COV-IND-19 Study Group, March 2020.
  14. Beniwal, Vrishti Beniwal, Rahul Satija, Dhwani Pandya and Anirban Nag. “The Crisis That Shattered India's Economic Dreams”. Bloomberg. January 30, 2020.
  15. Saran, Shyam. “Need for a Comprehensive National Security Strategy”. Centre for Policy Research (CPR). June 4, 2019.
  16. Jacob, Happymon.“A blueprint for a national security strategy”. The Hindu. May 23, 2019.
  17. Hooda, D.S. “India's National Security Strategy”. March 2019.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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