US President Donald Trump holds up a document showing “countries best and worst prepared for an epidemic” during a news conference on the COVID-19 outbreak at the White House on Wednesday. AFP
A country spends billions of dollars on defence to avert an imminent enemy invasion or keep the enemy at bay. Then suddenly, the country is threatened with the novel coronavirus outbreak. Should it drastically slash its defence expenditure and spend more on healthcare to save the people or should it continue to fortify its defences?
Most nations face this security dilemma at varying degrees. Take for instance, Sri Lanka. During the 30-year civil war, the country spent billions of rupees on defence to preserve its territorial integrity, but the victory came at a huge socio-economic cost which includes lost decades in economic development and communal harmony.
Then take North Korea which is on a non-stop mission to produce and better nuclear weapons and cruise missiles to ward off a perceived US invasion. It does so while half of North Korea’s 24 million people live in abject poverty and one third of its children are
stunted from malnutrition.
In our neighbourhood, nuclear-armed archrivals India and Pakistan spend billions of dollars, beefing up their defences. They do so, while millions of their people live under the World Bank defined poverty line. In India 68.8 percent of the people live on less than US$ 2 a day. More than 30 percent of the population – 390 million people -- are extremely poor as they earn less than $1.25 a day. Some 15.5 per cent of India’s government expenditure or 2 percent of the GDP goes to defence – in monetary terms, Rs 4.31 trillion or more than US$ 60 billion.
In Pakistan, nearly 30 percent of the people live under the poverty line, while its defence budget averages at 3.1 percent of the GDP, a high percentage when compared with other Asian and European nations. In monetary terms, it is Pakistan rupees 1.1 trillion or more than US$ 7 billion.
A 0.5 percentage cut in the defence expenditure is enough to make millions of people healthy, the end result being a healthy, educated and productive society. In poverty-stricken South Asia, this can be done through nuclear disarmament. In India, some US$ 5 billion a year – almost the same amount New Delhi spends on healthcare – goes to maintain the country’s nuclear weapons programme. Pakistan spends US$ 2.5 billion on its nuclear weapons programme a year while its healthcare budget is around US$ 1 billion.
But political leaders show little interest in turning their nuclear weapons into poverty-eradicating ploughshares. Spending more money on defence, while denying the poor basic healthcare, amounts to stealing from the poor. Often, with over expenditure on defence comes corruption which is as harmful to society as nuclear weapons are.
At a time when country after country is affected by the fast-spreading Covid-19 coronavirus that has killed more than 2,800 people and made more than 82,000 people worldwide sick, most of them in China, what is expected of nations is urgent action to cut down on defence expenditure and divert the funds to aggressively combat the spread of the virus and find a cure for it.
Early this month, the World Health Organisation appealed for an additional USD 675 million in urgent donations for a three-month plan to help poor nations buy face masks and upgrade
their health systems to face any eventuality. “Our message to the international community is invest today or pay more later,” WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said, adding that the funding appeal was “much less than the bill we will have to pay if we do not invest in preparedness now”.
Every time a virus spreads uncontrollably, the WHO issues a clarion call to rich nations to contribute more towards global healthcare measures, as happened during Ebola and Zika outbreaks.
Often the money comes too little too late – after the worst happens.
But the response of some big powers is appalling, if not inhuman, as they continue to spend more on defence and wars, rather than spending that money to make access to quality healthcare universal.
The US war expenditure since 2001 has been a mind-boggling more than five trillion dollars.
But the US President Donald Trump wants more money for war. He keeps pressurising NATO members to increase their defence budgets to 2 percent. No government can increase its defence budget without making cuts on social welfare allocations. A recent report by the London-based International Institute of Strategic Studies points out that the global arms expenditure last year reached the highest in ten years, with the US and China increasing their defence budget by 6 percent. On the one hand, such high spending is sheer insensitivity to social welfare needs; on the other, it is a preposterous case of mixing up priorities, as seen in China’s struggle to cope with the coronavirus emergency situation, with hospital beds, ventilators, face masks and disinfectants in short supply.
In the case of the US, it was only on Wednesday that Trump said he would be asking Congress to make at least US$ 2.5billion to put the US in a state of preparedness to face the worst case scenario. But given Trump’s record on health issues, it is doubtful he fully understood the issue at hand or is fit to give leadership in times of emergency. This is because:
- In 2018, he shut down the National Security Council’s unit for coordinating responses to pandemics and cut funds to the Disease Control Centre that monitors and prepares for epidemics.
- In budget proposals sent to Congress for review, Trump has upped the defence allocation by US$ 50 billion, and reduced the US contribution to global health funds by more than US$ 3 billion. The fund cuts will include half of Washington’s annual funding to the WHO.
- Then, hours before Wednesday’s coronavirus speech, in a tweet he blamed the media for trying to stoke fear. His tweet said: “Low Ratings Fake News MSDNC (Comcast) & @CNN are doing everything possible to make the Caronavirus look as bad as possible, including panicking markets, if possible”. Note: Trump misspelled the name of the virus.
- When it comes to health, much of Trump’s attention was on criticising President Barack Obama’s health care scheme.
We cannot expect world leaders to ditch their ultranationalist ideas and subscribe to a one-humanity concept with one government based on justice, equality and fair distribution of the world’s resources. But people can force their leaders to cut down on defence and spend more towards the global fight against diseases.
Some may say we need to find the perfect balance between a state’s security needs and social welfare. But security does not mean the security of the state alone. It also means ensuring the citizens’ socio-economic security to free them from fear and hunger. The middle path, however, starts with the ethical conduct of big powers. They should stop making wars and stoking tension between states to sell weapons and make money at the expense of other people’s misery. Where peace reigns, health blossoms.