Sometimes it is hard not to be surprised by history’s mind games or by the things it coincidentally brings upon us. Today’s major epidemic that will define the rest of the lives of today’s youth is being compared to the plagues of the past. Indeed, the ways to avoid such an epidemic have not changed much since then. People went through dozens of pandemics over the centuries, the most notorious of which was the Black Death in medieval times. It had moved from Central Asia to Crimea, spread across Europe via the black rats that hopped onto Genoese ships along with the lice suck on their fur, thus wiping out a third of the population. Some also propose that the virus originated in Europe. But with the declining population, labor gained value, peasants’ incomes rose, and inequality decreased. And even though it increased again in about a hundred years, a transformation had nonetheless begun in North-Western Europe.
Now, the COVID-19 outbreak spread from Asia, specifically China, to the rest of the world not by sea but by air travel. Those spreading the disease are humans this time but the outbreak did coincide with the Chinese Year of the Rat.
Although China seems to have taken control of the situation now, it will probably have to explain its insolence and irresponsibility at the beginning of this ordeal once the first shock and awe of the disaster have passed. Constantly endorsing the myth that authoritarian regimes are more effective in such situations than democracies, China claims to have brought the number of cases to zero with an incredibly effective quarantine, turning its success into a formidable propaganda tool as well. China is also fueling the conspiracy that this virus, which American leaders who wish to evade responsibility insist on defining as the Wuhan or Chinese virus, was created by Americans in a laboratory. There are two missing pieces in China’s story. Firstly, this authoritarianism, now praised for stopping the spread of the virus, was the reason why it became an epidemic and then a pandemic in the first place. Secondly, democratic countries like South Korea and Taiwan successfully managed the virus crisis too. And in their case, the death statistics they make public are not met with the suspicion, that the Chinese figures induce.
As Samuel Huntington had written over fifty years ago in the first sentence of his classic book Political Order in Changing Societies, “the most important political distinction among countries con¬cerns not their form of government but their degree of government”. That is, whether they have a functioning and effective state.
Roles of the state and the armies
In all of this, our problem stretches far beyond apportioning responsibility among states.Western countries were taken by surprise by this epidemic because of irresponsibility, complacency, and greed. Now, they have taken unusual measures and given the state unusual powers, with the consent of their societies, to deal with this epidemic. There is no guarantee that freedoms will be returned when the epidemic wanes out. However, as the importance of healthcare services and the vital role of their employees is appreciated anew and never to be forgotten again, new priorities in devising budgets and shaping state policies are making themselves felt. It’s unclear for now what the role of the state will be, which will be the new preferred economic policies, how we will ensure the security-freedom balance and how far we will go in restricting the latter for the sake of the former. It’s also unclear how societies will react to the new order once the initial shock passes, or how and where they will seek accountability.
However, certain trends are already beginning to emerge.
The first is that the armies will assume other duties and responsibilities in the upcoming period, rather than just fighting or ensuring security. As the Economist magazine pointed out in a recent article, the armed forces can carry out large logistics operations in a very short time.
That’s why NATO has declared, following last week’s meeting with foreign ministers, that the organization will be at the forefront of the fight against the coronavirus. Once described as the most successful security organization in the world, it was having difficulties defining its mission ever since the Soviet Union dissolved. After all, that was the reason NATO was founded.
The Russian army in Italy
Of course, the fact that the armies assume such comprehensive responsibilities due to their superiority in organizing raises several questions. How will army members protect themselves from the epidemic? According to the same report in the Economist, Chiefs of Staff in Italy and Poland tested positive for COVID-19. On March 23 alone, 133 American soldiers contracted the virus. In view of these facts one inevitably worries deeply about the health of the soldiers of the Turkish Armed Forces who are positioned besides the refugees in Idlib who live in the worst possible conditions where no health services can be provided. Can they be protected? And why, amid this force majeure, are they not being withdrawn from the south of M4?
In many countries including Mexico where the President isn’t fond of the army, as well as France, China, and Israel, armies have been mobilized against the virus. In this context, one wonders what might have been said to the Italian minister at the recent NATO meeting by those members’ ministers that are also EU member-states. Italy’s requests for help, after all, were not met but its EU partners and according to credible reports the anti-EU sentiment among Italians has reached new heights; what might he have said to his colleagues onscreen? What we know is that on Mach 22, the Russian army sent disinfectant vehicles, 8 brigades of health personnel, and 100 virologists and epidemiologists aboard nine transport aircrafts that had the inscription “From Russia, with love” in Russian and Italian, to Italy.
And in this context, Turkey sending medical equipment to Spain with an A-400 military transport aircraft on April 1 was showcased on the NATO website as an exemplary development.
Russia, NATO’s declared enemy in the mission it’s taken up, sent troops to help a NATO member-state, providing the help that allies refused to provide. This can be considered an indicator that many things will no longer be the same.
Serious changes in NATO
As a token of the strangeness of our times, this summit did not, of course, take place in the usual way in which the ministers of the member-states all gathered round in a “family portrait”. It was a virtual meeting — a type of meeting which will be increasingly widespread in the coming period. NATO Commander-in-Chief has been empowered to coordinate the provision of necessary military support to tackle the epidemic crisis. From now on, it will be the responsibility of NATO, under the supervision of its Commander-in-Chief, to determine the required air bridge capacity and to coordinate the stocks and excess capacity at hand to successfully distribute the necessary medical supplies to the places that require it. According to the statement issued at the end of the meeting, the transportation of medical equipment across the globe by an air bridge, the travels of military and civilian medical teams and the deliveries of essential and vital instruments have already been ensured.
In the coming days, defense ministers will also have a virtual meeting where they will review how the member-states are being assisted.
Indeed, there couldn’t have been a more striking indication that the epidemics, which may become more common in the future, have officially become a global security issue.