COVID-19 exposing national vulnerabilities

By Valarie Findlay

COVID-19. It’s the stuff that gripping, suspense-filled movies are made of:

​A new virus of a mysterious origin emerges in a faraway land. Shifting from an epidemic to a pandemic within weeks, it spreads like wildfire across the globe. Infecting thousands upon thousands, healthcare and social services systems creak under its strain, militaries are on standby and national security is on high alert.

Swiftly, both supply and demand dry up at the same time and cash flows are reduced to mere drips followed by widespread unemployment. Governments respond with varying mitigation strategies – some isolating incidence clusters, closing borders, suspending travel and restricting the public’s movement.

An enormous cost and human rights conundrum in balancing freedoms with precautionary steps, other governments take a conservative ‘wait and see’ stance and impose minimal restrictions. Others do nothing.

The public, sensing an impending shortage of goods, respond by panic-buying cleaning products, food and necessities, taking their frustrations to social media. Soon common items – toilet paper, sanitizers, sanitary products, face masks, even ventilators – that were once abundant become critically scarce, only to pop up on online marketplaces at hugely inflated prices.

Millions of businesses are shuttered as even more people shelter in place for weeks, and the bustling cities of the world fall silent. With no end in sight, worries of poverty, failing sectors, rising costs, food shortages and a mental health crisis remain unanswered. The absence of critical care equipment, tests, treatments and vaccines instill a deeper fear.

As the world collectively strains to see a horizon on the other side of this crisis, all wonder: has the worst materialized, or is it yet to come?

During a recent radio interview, I described COVID-19 as both a threat-event and as a national security concern, noting how it may expose vulnerabilities of a nation, setting the stage for grey zone tactics by adversaries.

Tantamount to ‘kicking them while they are down’, a devastating incident that consumes and exhausts economic, military, healthcare and social support resources, leaves a serious dent – unprecedented unemployment, lowered GDP and increased debt, bankruptcies and social assistance claims (to name a few), all combine to drain coffers.

Is COVID-19 a threat to national security or a nation’s stability? Could it expose opportunities for non-military, coercive tactics in the wake of its devastation? Not really. That could only happen if a nation was unprepared.

The January Crisis: The Security of National Security

The COVID-19 pandemic and the constantly evolving script has morphed the lives of several million into one that is shared worldwide yet unrecognizable in terms of past experiences. Had nations diligently forecasted on a broad schema of possible events and their impacts to public health, safety and services, infrastructures and interconnected systems (all of which contribute to national security) it would have made for a boring movie.

However, it is becoming an excellent crisis management case study. Were Canada and the US adequately prepared? Was the damage effectively mitigated? Were correct measures implemented and at the right time? Is an “unprecedented crisis” a reasonable excuse for shortcomings in the response phase? Spoiler Alert: No, to all.

Only decades ago, national security was defined as the protection of a nation against military attack. In present day, technologies, globalization and the commoditization of free markets have changed that. National security is not a “function”, but is (or should be) a calculated posture that a nation strives to maintain at all times and at any cost (providing it offsets anticipated damages).

Former U.S. Secretary of Defense, Harold Brown, who served under President Carter from 1977-1981, was key in developing America’s post-Cold War national security policy. At that time, the U.S. was becoming a formidable, well-armed super-power in an era imperiled by nuclear war, calmed only by the arms race, strategic planning and the US’ national defense policy.

Brown recognized that a nation’s prosperity and national security were intrinsically tied to regional, federal and transnational levels. He defined this as, “the ability to preserve the nation’s physical integrity and territory; to maintain its economic relations with the rest of the world on reasonable terms; to preserve its nature, institution, and governance from disruption from outside; and to control its borders”.

While decades-old, these policy elements were all-encompassing enough to still be relevant, despite changes in industries, technology and geo-political shifts. Now, we view modern day national security as a duty of government to ensure prosperity – spanning critical non-military domains tied to democracy, fundamental rights, public safety and overall well-being of a nation’s people.

The stability of a nation and its prosperity, as set by its constitutional values, are attained by providing protection from terrorism, crime and violence, and access and availability of basic and essential infrastructures and services such as safe and healthy food, water and environment, a resilient workforce, and a stable economy. Often overlooked, another contributor to a nation’s stability, especially in times of crisis, are the psychosocial needs of its people; lofty and academic, if you think about it, it makes sense.

Whether a terrorist attack, pandemic, tornado or any other disaster, the imperatives of communicating response and assurance are crucial to meeting and managing psychological needs and preserving human behaviours. How, and if, these are met and communicated will dictate whether societal responses are negative (hoarding, civil disorder, rioting, looting) or positive (communal, cooperative, volunteerism).

Contributing needs include, basic needs (access to safe food, water, shelter), security (individual safety, order, predictability), civil rights(equality, democracy, justice) and social needs (the ability to assemble, connect and enjoy freedom and autonomy). The destabilization of any of these has a profound and qualitative effect on a nation, its people, and collective productivity.

Whether it’s an attack by a nation state or violent non-state actors, sector monopolization by a multinational, a natural disaster such as floods, droughts and, yes, epidemics and pandemics – all should be responded to by an effective policy. Easier said than done, implementing policy-down procedures at the operational level is something else altogether.

Retired U.S. Marine General James Mattis once said, “PowerPoint makes us stupid”. Mattis had a point; white papers and PowerPoint decks don’t win wars or protect nations. Best practices are only useful for comparative purposes, all-hazards planning is too general, and emergency preparedness addresses only a fraction of the problem at hand.

What it all comes down to is comprehensive analysis, intelligence, continued environmental scanning and re-assessment.

Methods Amidst the Madness

In a time of crisis, particular systems and services are necessary, some critical, to meet the essential needs of a nation. However, identifying those systems and services is a complex and arduous, but enormously important, exercise that will determine critical information such as who (private or public) has purview over important sectors. Analyzing the operational requirements and impacts of reduced operations for all stakeholders (other systems, organizations, partners, etc.) is also critical and multi-faceted.

The goals are to establish and maintain an acceptable security posture, operations and level of risk, while isolating assets to reduce impacts and losses throughout the lifecycle of a specific crisis. With some losses difficult to quantify, like democracy and reputation, the contingency and continuity exercise must include threat-risk assessment and asset valuation (products, services, suppliers, people, equipment and infrastructure), stakeholder and crisis scenario modelling paired with continuous monitoring and analysis of vulnerability, response and recovery actions.

The threat itself must be characterized with as much relevant data and attribution as possible, well before analysis. Using COVID-19, a new virus, as an example, there are two sides to consider: the known epidemiological factors of coronaviruses and viruses in general (how they behave in the environment) and their pathogenesis (how they behave with and in the target host).

Important as input data is to baselines and models, a number of other factors lay the foundation for the mixed-methods methodology, such as the demographic, density, cultural and social features of the population, which also speak to genetic predispositions. This is why the use of comparative or baseline data from other nations, unless normalized and contextualized, introduces a dangerous uncertainty.

These, along with factors like the basic reproduction number (the RO, that represents post-intervention transmissibility) and the effectivereproduction number (the R, that describes transmissibility or average of secondary cases from one case), provide direct indictors of possible and probable spread.

Simply put, understanding or projecting from the above analyses help forecast patterns of a virus under very specific, often changing, conditions. Overlays of incidence and prevalence, as the virus progresses, supports objective decision-making and triggers contingency and continuity phases dictating precautions, restrictions and risk ratings.

Grey Matters

Nothing ignites a conspiracy like misinformation, the lack of information, or relevant information that is not clear, targeted and timely. Effective communications, especially in a time of crisis, requires audience-targeted messages and detailed explanations, explicit directives and decisive action. In the absence of this, the din of hysteria often accompanying disasters thrives, as unclear, changing or contradictory messages serve the opposite effect.

Why is this important? Adversaries prey on weakened opponents. Grey zone tactics, a new and interesting phenomenon in the geo-political landscape, have become increasingly common with the rise of social media and integrated multimedia. Generally, grey zone tactics, actions or strategies are regarded as advantageous capitalizations on the weaknesses or vulnerabilities of a nation.

Largely ambiguous (outside the traditional understanding of warfare), grey zone actions are targeted, coordinated and objectives-based as they attempt to utilize major events to coerce and destabilize through the use of unconventional or psychological ‘force’. Grey zone actions are especially effective when an adversary wants to escape attribution or avoid crossing the threshold into conventional war, where it may be subject to treaties and conventions.

At the social level, adversaries may either create opportunities, ‘weaponize’ or influence current events where divisiveness or dissent can be garnered, such as elections, campaigns, legislative or political decisions (sanctions, partnerships, relief efforts, etc.) at national or transnational levels. With respect to COVID-19, early intelligence has already noted that domestic and international extremists, including ISIL/ISIS/Daesh, are sharpening their swords on the pandemic’s current state and future fallout.

Rampant on social media, but more elaborate than doctoring photos or deep fake videos, it’s the progressive planting of doubt akin to protracted spin-doctoring. But the objective here is to bring a nation or its sectors to its knees.

Protracted Vulnerability?

There is no question that COVID-19 has had, and will continue to have, an enormous impact on Canada’s economy, partnerships, trade and, presumably, its humanitarian role and ability to provide aid to other nations. At a time when the nation’s economic health has begun to stagnate, the waters ahead will be difficult to navigate – even with hard decisions, intensive sacrifices and an additional debt load.

How vulnerable is Canada in the midst of this crisis? The answer to that monumental question lies in the duration of the pandemic itself, the resulting economic posture, and how fast it can recover.

With a sluggish economic trend in recent years, 2019 was marked by an overall global downturn with almost 90% of countries’ economies experiencing lower growth than in 2018. Canada wasn’t immune; its 2018 economy dipped in 2019 from 1.9% to 1.5%. The 2020 economic growth was forecasted by the Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC) to be about 1.7%, improving on the growing Canadian real estate markets, residential investments, household consumption and consumer confidence. That was then, this is now: those markets are now in dire jeopardy.

COVID-19 will require a massive economic recovery for all nations, as previous targets fall substantially short. Rest assured, there will be a rebound but it will not be automatic, and a number of events, starting with the lower incidence of COVID-19 cases and a detailed assessment of loss and recovery, must play out before a cascade-effect can occur.

Depending on the post-pandemic damages and what sectors can be shored up and how, it will be productivity (re-employment/employment, financial and lending, manufacturing and cross-sector stability and growth) that will be the strongest indicator of overall economic health.

From there, sectors such as transportation, retail, tourism, energy, technology and innovation and then commodities and currencies should follow suit. But this will rely on timing and the outcomes of key political events, like the U.S. election in November, trade tensions and the future of Brexit – and that, fingers crossed, no other major disasters occur.

Looking forward, the COVID-19 pandemic has set the stage for a solid shot across the bow to all nations. The question for us becomes, will Canada and the U.S. be able to maintain the defensive capabilities and resources necessary for national stability?

Whether this vulnerability is exploited or not remains to be seen, but Canada’s Defence Policy, and possibly its funding, will certainly be put to the test.

© 2020 FrontLine Security (Vol 16, No 1)