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If you think COVID has been rough, even rockier times may lie ahead

Two recent reports – one with a global focus and the other looking at regional security issues – examine some of the global forces and trends likely to shape planetary health in the years ahead.

They also highlight healthy equity and climate action as important for security, at national and global levels.


Melissa Sweet writes:

Global security analysts who warned some years ago of the potential for devastating pandemics of new diseases say they were not prepared for the extent of global disruption caused by COVID-19.

“COVID-19 has shaken long-held assumptions about resilience and adaptation and created new uncertainties about the economy, governance, geopolitics, and technology,” write the authors of a new report from the National Intelligence Council in the United States.

The report, ‘Global Trends 2040: A more contested world’, says the COVID-19 pandemic “marks the most significant, singular global disruption since World War II, with health, economic, political, and security implications that will ripple for years to come”.

The pandemic has also reminded the world of its fragility and demonstrated the inherent risks of high levels of interdependence:

In coming years and decades, the world will face more intense and cascading global challenges ranging from disease to climate change to the disruptions from new technologies and financial crises.

These challenges will repeatedly test the resilience and adaptability of communities, states, and the international system, often exceeding the capacity of existing systems and models.

This looming disequilibrium between existing and future challenges and the ability of institutions and systems to respond is likely to grow and produce greater contestation at every level.”

Far-reaching impacts

The report identifies some general impacts of COVID, as summarised below.

Lockdowns, quarantines, and the closing of international borders have catalysed some preexisting economic trends, including diversification in global supply chains, increased national debt, and greater government intervention in economies. Moving forward, the character of globalisation may retain some of the changes from this crisis period, and debt, particularly for developing economies, will strain national capacities for many years.

Reinforcing nationalism and polarisation. These trends have been on the rise in many countries, especially exclusionary nationalism. Efforts to contain and manage the virus have reinforced nationalist trends globally as some states turned inward to protect their citizens and sometimes cast blame on marginalised groups. The response to the pandemic has fueled partisanship and polarisation in many countries as groups argue over the best way to respond and seek scapegoats to blame for spreading the virus and for slow responses.

Deepening inequality. The disproportionate economic impact of COVID-19 on low-income earners has caused them to fall further behind. When COVID-19 is finally controlled, many families are likely to have experienced further setbacks, especially those working in the service or informal sectors or who left the workforce to provide dependent care – predominantly women. The pandemic has exposed the digital divide within and between countries while spurring efforts to improve Internet access.

Straining governance. The pandemic is straining government capacity for services and contributing to already low levels of trust in institutions in countries that have not effectively handled the response. The pandemic is exacerbating the confusing and polarised information environment that is undermining public confidence in health authorities, particularly in open societies. Illiberal regimes in some countries are using the pandemic as a pretext to more severely crack down on dissent and restrict civic freedoms, conditions that may outlive the disease.

Failed international cooperation. The COVID-19 pandemic exposed the weaknesses and political cleavages in international institutions, such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and United Nations, and called into question countries’ ability and willingness to cooperate multilaterally to address common challenges beyond infectious disease, particularly climate change. The WHO, which has faced significant funding difficulties and resistance to mandatory surveillance regimes, is facing its gravest shock in nearly two decades. The crisis, however, may ultimately lead actors to make deeper reforms, standardise data collection and sharing, and forge new public-private partnerships.

Elevating the role of nonstate actors. Nonstate actors, ranging from the Gates Foundation to private companies, have been crucial to vaccine research or retrofitting equipment to mass produce medical supplies and personal protective equipment. Nonstate networks will complement national and intergovernmental action in future health crises, including early warning, treatment, facilitation of data-sharing, and vaccine development.

Slowing and possibly reversing some longstanding trends in human development, especially the reduction of poverty and disease and closing gender inequality gaps. The longest lasting reversals may be in poverty reduction across Africa, Latin America, and South Asia, followed by losses in gender equality. The resources devoted to fighting COVID-19 and social restrictions could reverse years of progress against malaria, measles, polio, and other infectious diseases by consuming key financial, material, and personnel resources.

The COVID-19 emergency may bring regions together in ways that previous crises have not. Although European countries early in the crisis imposed restrictions on border traffic and exports of critical medical supplies, the European Union has rallied around an economic rescue package and other emergency measures that could bolster the European integration project going forward. COVID-19 could also lead to redirection of national budgets toward pandemic response and economic recovery, diverting funds from defense expenditures, foreign aid, and infrastructure programs in some countries, at least in the near term.

The Global Trends report, which has been published every four years since 1997 and is delivered to the incoming US President, says that the unanticipated wider effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have reminded us how uncertain the future is – both in the long and short term.

“As researchers and analysts, we must be ever vigilant, asking better questions, frequently challenging our assumptions, checking our biases, and looking for weak signals of change. We need to expect the unexpected and apply the lessons of this pandemic to our craft in the future,” they wrote.

Other trends highlighted

Shared global challenges – including climate change, disease, financial crises, and technology disruptions – are likely to manifest more frequently and intensely in almost every region and country. These challenges will produce widespread strains on states and societies as well as shocks that could be catastrophic.

The effects of climate change and environmental degradation are likely to exacerbate food and water insecurity for poor countries, increase migration, precipitate new health challenges, and contribute to biodiversity losses. Novel technologies will appear and diffuse faster and faster, disrupting jobs, industries, communities, the nature of power, and what it means to be human.

Continued pressure for global migration – as of 2020 more than 270 million persons were living in a country to which they have migrated, 100 million more than in 2000 – will strain both origin and destination countries to manage the flow and effects. These challenges will intersect and cascade, including in ways that are difficult to anticipate.

National security will require not only defending against armies and arsenals but also withstanding and adapting to these shared global challenges.

Increasing fragmentation within communities, states, and the international system is compounding the difficulty of addressing these transnational challenges.

Paradoxically, as the world has grown more connected through communications technology, trade, and the movement of people, that very connectivity has divided and fragmented people and countries, the report says.

Meanwhile, globalisation is likely to endure but transform as economic and production networks shift and diversify. All together, these forces portend a world that is both inextricably bound by connectivity and fragmenting in different directions.

Disequilibrium as the scale of transnational challenges and the emerging implications of fragmentation exceed the capacity of existing systems and structures. The international system – including the organisations, alliances, rules, and norms – is poorly set up to address the compounding global challenges facing populations.

The COVID-19 pandemic has provided a stark example of the weaknesses in international coordination on health crises and the mismatch between existing institutions, funding levels, and future health challenges.

“Within states and societies, there is likely to be a persistent and growing gap between what people demand and what governments and corporations can deliver,” the report says.

“From Beirut to Bogota to Brussels, people are increasingly taking to the streets to express their dissatisfaction with governments’ ability to meet a wide range of needs, agendas, and expectations”

As a result of these disequilibriums, old orders – from institutions to norms to types of governance – are strained and in some cases, eroding. And actors at every level are struggling to agree on new models for how to structure civilization.

Greater contestation within communities, states, and the international community is a key consequence of greater imbalance. This encompasses rising tensions, division, and competition in societies, states, and at the international level. Many societies are increasingly divided among identity affiliations and at risk of greater fracturing.

Relationships between societies and governments will be under persistent strain as states struggle to meet rising demands from populations. As a result, politics within states are likely to grow more volatile and contentious, and no region, ideology, or governance system seems immune or to have the answers.

At the international level, the geopolitical environment will be more competitive – shaped by China’s challenge to the US and Western-led international system. Major powers are jockeying to establish and exploit new rules of the road. This contestation is playing out across domains from information and the media to trade and technological innovations.

Adaptation will be both an imperative and a key source of advantage for all actors in this world. Climate change, for example, will force almost all states and societies to adapt to a warmer planet. Some measures are as inexpensive and simple as restoring mangrove forests or increasing rainwater storage; others are as complex as building massive sea walls and planning for the relocation of large populations.

Demographic shifts will also require widespread adaption. Countries with highly aged populations like China, Japan, and South Korea, as well as Europe, will face constraints on economic growth in the absence of adaptive strategies, such as automation and increased immigration.

Technology will be a key avenue for gaining advantages through adaptation. For example, countries that are able to harness productivity boosts from artificial intelligence (AI) will have expanded economic opportunities that could allow governments to deliver more services, reduce national debt, finance some of the costs of an aging population, and help some emerging countries avoid the middle-income trap.

The benefits from technology like AI will be unevenly distributed within and between states, and more broadly, adaptation is likely to reveal and exacerbate inequalities. The most effective states are likely to be those that can build societal consensus and trust toward collective action on adaptation and harness the relative expertise, capabilities, and relationships of nonstate actors to complement state capacity.

Climate change and regional security

Meanwhile, Australia has been urged to do much more to assist regional neighbours in addressing the climate crisis, in a new report from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, ‘The rapidly emerging crisis on our doorstep’.

Australia urgently needs to begin thinking about political, economic and security tipping points generated by climate change, writes the report’s author, Dr Robert Glasser, who was previously the United Nations Secretary General’s Special Representative for Disaster Risk Reduction.

“We can’t wait for the severity of the situation on our northern doorstep to become obvious before we act, as the pace of climate change impacts is rapidly accelerating and many of our responses to those threats require long lead times to identify, plan and implement, particularly as they will require multilateral as well as national responses,” he writes.

The report says some government agencies are already moving in the right direction. The Bureau of Meteorology, for example, has now begun supporting key national security agencies to identify the potential impacts of adverse weather and climate on food security, refugee migration and conflict.

But the report says this must become part of a much wider, whole-of-government process involving Defence, Home Affairs, Foreign Affairs and Trade, CSIRO, Health, Agriculture, and other departments and agencies.

The objective should be to greatly expand Australia’s capacity to understand and identify the most likely paths through which disruptive climate events (individually, concurrently or consecutively) can cause cascading, security-relevant, regional impacts, such as disruptions of critical supply chains, food insecurity, separatist movements, humanitarian disasters, population displacement, opportunistic intervention by outside powers, political instability and conflict.

The report says US President Biden’s recently announced whole-of-government approach to climate change demonstrates what can be done when the issue is put at the centre of national security planning.

The report says it’s becoming increasingly clear that the Australian aid program will need to scale up its efforts to strengthen regional resilience to climate change, particularly in Maritime Southeast Asia:

Recent compelling analysis suggests that helping less developed countries to adapt to climate change can reduce the likelihood of conflict and forced migration.

It will be critical, for both humanitarian and national security reasons, to strengthen climate resilience in pivotal states to our north as well as to increase support for our Pacific island neighbours, for whom climate change is an existential threat.”


See our Croakey archive of stories on global health and climate change.

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