Covid-19 and Security Issues at the NESA and Global Levels

Mourad Belhassen, NESA Alumnus and Director of Cultural Diplomacy and Strategic Planning, Tunisian MFA; former Ambassador of Tunisia to Indonesia

Themes at the heart of the global security community debate:

From the outset, it should be emphasized that the outbreak of the Coronavirus took many nations around the world by surprise, including those thought best equipped to live up to the challenges posed by this pandemic.  For the NESA region, this public health crisis highlighted the shortfalls of some countries, which despite their sizeable capacities, were unable to limit the rising death toll. Compared with many regions of the world, the crisis in the NESA region has been somewhat more manageable despite varied government responses and differing levels of success from country to country.

In Tunisia, we have so far succeeded in limiting the number of deaths to around 50, while the confirmed number of cases is nearing 1,500.  This positive result was achieved by a series of drastic measures taken by the Tunisian government in the early days of the outbreak of the pandemic. These measures included the closing of international borders; strict confinement and national lockdown, including public administration offices; and closure of leisure and sporting facilities. Also covered was selective and massive virus testing and compulsory quarantine for repatriated members of the Tunisian community abroad.

Regardless of the global public heath impact of the pandemic, the devastating effects of this crisis on security should not be overlooked.  Indeed, this virus threatens to exacerbate the region’s deep-seated shortcomings, chief among them — poor governance, uneven economic growth, social disparities, civil conflicts, and human displacement.  According to some studies, this pandemic will have far-reaching repercussions in terms of economic downturn, public debt, unemployment, and human well-being for the next decade. Debt has reached historic highs in many countries and the global economy is expected to recede by 3% in 2020.  Many of the region’s existing ills will be further aggravated, and the resulting instability could trigger new waves of terrorist attacks and cycles of violence at unpredictable levels.  Such themes deserve the immediate attention of NESA regional leaders.

As has been emphasized by a number of observers, the Middle East is among the most vulnerable regions. This pandemic has already wreaked havoc in conflict-ridden countries like Syria and Yemen. Iraq, with its long borders with Iran (considered the epicentre of the pandemic in the Middle East), saw itself vulnerable despite the relative early success based on aggressive measures undertaken by the Iraqi government.

The NESA security community should be more mindful of the distinct possibility that the pre-existing crises and grievances in the region will be exacerbated and intensified by the pandemic.  We could expect to see a deepening of popular grievances and increased social demands aimed at the government only aggravated by the economic slowdown and worsening humanitarian and displacement crises.

In Lebanon, which has a current debt-to-GDP ratio of 176%, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) predicts that this pandemic will lead to a further 12% contraction in the Lebanese economy in 2020, considered the most severe in the Middle East.  For Iraq, the IMF has predicted a 5% contraction in the economy, already negatively impacted by the decline in oil prices.

Most MENA region economies were badly impacted by the Covid crisis; not only oil-producing countries like Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Algeria, but other nations whose economies heavily rely on tourism such as Egypt, Tunisia, and Morocco.  The increased unemployment rate and the absence of job opportunities for the youth could deepen social rifts, disenfranchise larger segments of the population, and spark new social upheavals.

The NESA security community should also be aware that this pandemic seems to have created new opportunities for ISIS to resurface in the region. According to many reliable reports, ISIS activity has increased in Iraq and many experts predict that this pandemic will only spread this worrisome trend across the MENA region.  In Syria, the pandemic is bound to aggravate the already thorny humanitarian crisis of displaced persons brought about by the decade-long conflict. For example, before the advent of this health crisis, the offensive to take the Idlib stronghold ended up in the displacement of millions of civilians, making access to humanitarian assistance exceptionally problematic. No doubt this already dire situation will intensify and result in even more insecurity and outbreaks of troubles, all of which will be difficult to contain.

It is clear that the Covid-19 crisis is negatively impacting regional security due to a number of factors, including the loss of jobs, scarcity of foodstuffs and commodities, and the closing down of some industrial and commercial activities. Hence, the urgency to address this crisis in a holistic and proactive fashion is critical.

How to address the outbreak of the Covid-19 crisis in the NESA region and beyond: 

The NESA/MENA regional community should build a collaborative and regional strategy to mitigate the economic and social effects of this pandemic. The solutions to this crisis rest on common interests and the political will to show solidarity through multilateral and regional action. However, a solution based solely on security will be short sighted and incapable of dealing with the resulting insecurity fallout of the pandemic nor will it bring long-term peace and stability throughout the world.

Therefore, strong economic nations must develop a strategy to shore up and assist weaker countries whose social and economic fabric is going to be deeply and negatively impacted by the pandemic. This strategy should be based on two main pillars: first, diplomacy with the objective to put an end to ongoing wars and conflicts, and second, the imperative to put into place a multilateral system for international economic assistance and sustainable development.

Eager to contribute to international efforts to alleviate the disastrous impacts of this health crisis, Tunisia (one of the 10 non-permanent members of the UN Security Council), through President Kais Said, has introduced a draft UN resolution, also supported by the French government. The resolution has the following points: 1) It is recognized that conditions of violence and instability in conflict situations can exacerbate the pandemic with increased movement of people caused by the uncertainty over access to medical care; and 2) it equally underscores that combating the pandemic requires greater national, regional, and international cooperation and solidarity and a coordinated, inclusive, comprehensive and international response with the assistance of the UN.

Tunisia proposes with this resolution a general and immediate cessation of all hostilities. It calls upon all parties to armed conflicts around the world to engage immediately in a durable humanitarian pause for at least 90 consecutive days in order to deliver humanitarian assistance.  By the same token, the resolution acknowledges the seminal role played by women in the Covid-19 response efforts and recognizes the disproportional negative impact of the pandemic on women, girls, refugees, and internally displaced persons.

According to many international strategists, other urgent measures should be worked out and implemented through international institutions, to include the following steps:

  • Encourage the global market towards more equitable and fairer outcomes. To achieve such an objective, coordination between governments should improve in matters of tax, regulatory, and fiscal policies.
  • Improve trade arrangements and shift from bilateral to multilateral agreements, while setting up the conditions for what economic analysts call a “stakeholder economy”. This is particularly important in a time of skyrocketing public debt and ownership taxes in many countries of the world.
  • Introduce long overdue reforms that would promote more equitable income. Depending on the country, these may include changes in wealth taxes, and easing or withdrawal of fossil-fuel subsidies.
  • Encourage innovations of what is known as “the fourth revolution” in the health and social sectors. For many analysts, such an undertaking has proven feasible by the concerted efforts of universities and companies to produce a Covid-19 vaccine. These efforts should also be enhanced and encouraged in other sectors.
  • Call upon the G20 and G7 to set out a comprehensive plan to respond and recover from crises such as the pandemic. It is also a call for debt relief and cash injection for lower income countries, as determined by both the World Bank and the IMF. It is clear, even for the UN and the World Bank, that violent conflicts are driven by failing government institutions and the feeling of frustration experienced by disenfranchised segments of the population. These frustrations are being exacerbated by the ongoing pandemic.
  • Deescalate tensions between members of the Security Council and reemphasize the importance of the inclusion of regional organizations such as the African Union or the BRICS in reducing geopolitical tensions. It is worth noting the UN Secretary General‘s call for a global ceasefire, which in essence reiterates Tunisia’s draft resolution.
  • Set up a global security surveillance system to pinpoint grievances and sources of social unrest. For some analysts, international financial institutions could contribute to creating such a platform. Other security experts suggest the establishment of a world fund devoted to social protests to back up the poorest countries and reduce social disparities.

It is clear that the root causes of poverty and depravity, when overlooked or denied by governments, can easily foster feelings of frustration and lead to violence and flare-ups that spread insecurity and endanger the already precarious stability in the NESA region. As a result, tackling upfront the causes of anger, and averting violent conflicts and the gloomy prospects they generate is a key priority for any government’s survival.

The fact remains, after all, that the coronavirus pandemic demonstrated, against all odds, that large segments of the global population and governments were capable of changing their lifestyles and adjusting to the requirements and constraints imposed by today’s special and unique circumstances. There is no doubt, then, that they can also abide by new modes of governance and ways of conduct that will be dictated by a post Covid-19 world.

The views presented in this article are those of the speaker or author and do not necessarily represent the views of DoD or its components.