Authors: Sayfiddin Juraev and Gregory Gleason*
As the features of the virus which causes the corona pandemic are emerging with greater clarity, we are beginning to understand the dangers more fully. One of the things we are beginning to appreciate is that the SARS virus is a very unusual foe. The virus is directly endangering the lives of people directly through the severe acute respiratory effects that it produces, but it also has endangered the way societies function around the world. The disruption of international trade and traffic has an immediate effect which we all have observed. Only now are we beginning to see the emergence of the long-term effects on how countries interact with one another and how they protect their own national interests. The SARS virus is a danger to human security and national security alike.
The form of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome known as SARS-CoV-2 operates according to its own rules. This SARS is universal and non-discriminatory. It affects everyone. It does not discriminate between good and bad, rich and poor, north and south or east and west. This dangerous and highly contagious SARS virus, spreading the disease known as COVID-19,isa common threat to all.
It is important that we find ways to prevent this form of the SARS corona virus from magnifying the effects of economic disruption and social upheaval and from further dividing people and setting us against one another. One step in overcoming this challenge is to recognize that this virus is an unusual enemy. Successfully combating this unusual enemy requires that we understand the ways it functions and the ways it can be stopped.
Drawing upon the experience of countries that have done well in the first stages of this pandemic is valuable. The experience of the states of Central Asia offers useful insights into strategies to combat this pandemic.
The damage caused by the spread of COVID-19 in the Central Asian states—Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan—is currently at the low end of the scale in comparison with more economically advanced countries. For example, UK, Italy, Spain, and France currently record the numbers of fatalities attributed to COVID-19 in the tens of thousands. In contrast, the reported fatality figures in the Central Asian countries are much lower. As of June 1, 2020, the World Health Organization reported deaths attributed to COVID-19 as: Kazakhstan—38; Kyrgyzstan—16; Tajikistan—47; Uzbekistan—14. Turkmenistan reported no deaths.
These figures represent the “reported” data. No international organization has the authority to independently collect primary health data in all the world’s countries, nor could it without violating basic principles of national sovereignty. But if these reported WHO data are even approximately accurate, the governments of all the Central Asian states deserve high marks for their ability to stem the “brushfire” spread of the SARS virus and gain time to more effectively address the fundamental questions raised by the pandemic both home and abroad.
What Accounts for Successful Containment in Central Asia?
As the initial cases of COVID-19 appeared in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and later in Tajikistan, the governments swiftly responded, instituting emergency measures, empowering law enforcement and medical authorities to implement a broad range of counter-infection mitigation measures to protect public health. Cross-border travel restrictions were imposed. Lockdowns and sheltering-in-place restrictions were imposed in most major cities and curfews were enforced. Routine commercial air flights were cancelled or significantly reduced in international airports and many domestic airports. New levels of visa restrictions were implemented in all the Central Asian countries. The initial infection containment measures were highly successful in curtailing the early spread of Covid-19duet to the will and capacity of the governments of these states in implementing and enforcing the containment measures urged by medical authorities.
The problems faced by the Central Asian states were much the same as those faced by countries around the world. As in all cases, the success of the governments in responding to the pandemic depends upon addressing five key stages: 1) identification and assessment; 2) containment; 3) mitigation; 4) management of immediate consequences; 5) long-term economic and social consequences. The first stage of response to the pandemic—the immediate medical response stage—involves recognizing and acknowledging the scope of the hazard to public health and empowering medical authorities and law enforcement and public security services to take the steps necessary to get infected individuals under medical care as quickly as possible. Containment means identifying and then isolating those people or those processes which can potentially transmit the infection.
Full information about the transmissibility of SARS-CoV-2 was not available at the beginning of the pandemic. Consequently, many decisions were made solely based on assumptions using the experience from other cases of virus-based influenza. A full picture of transmissibility of the SARS-CoV-2 has not emerged even at this point, but the evidence suggests two primary routes of transmission. One route involves airborne transmission in minor droplets of water transferred in expiration of breath of infected persons. The second route appears to involve fomite transmission on surfaces of objects where the virus has been deposited.
A government policy of containment involves identifying those people who have come into contact with those transmitting COVID-19 and isolating them to ensure that they do not transmit the virus to others. Identification and isolation involve “contact tracing”, a form of investigation conducted with local authorities to propose, or even impose isolation measures on those who have been affected. Contact tracing and the imposition of isolation is a highly labor-intensive and highly intrusive government process that must be conducted on objective bases but can only be successful if it is conducted quickly and effectively. Government authorities in the Central Asian states were quick to undertake these steps and, accordingly, were successful in containing the spread of COVID-19 in the initial stages of the pandemic.
Despite initial success, the nature of COVID-19 disease also suggests significant challenges ahead for the Central Asian states as well as for others. If the transmission of the disease is basically enabled by proximity, then distancing and containment will work in individual cases. But the ideas of containment and mitigation which underlie the professional guidance of medical authorities are based on the experience of highly localized cases of successful treatment procedures. Physicians know that to stem the spread of an infectious disease they need to isolate an infected patient. If individual isolation fails, then it is assumed the perimeter should be extended and the room should be isolated. If that fails, then the entire ward should be isolated. If that fails, then the wing of the building, or the building itself or the entire region of the city should be isolated. The idea of a “widening perimeter” is the principle that has now been applied to entire countries. Can such a principle work effectively on a global basis?
The principle of infection isolation is not something that was devised to apply at once to the entire globe. In any collective effort the weak link always endangers the protection of the whole.Ifspecific, geographically defined territorial areas can be isolated the infection can be contained within that area. But as the perimeter grows larger and larger, the task of containment grows increasingly more challenging. As the perimeter widens to a certain quantitative point, the challenge becomes qualitatively different.
SARS—A Different Kind of Foe
The scope of the “widening perimeter” challenge encourages us to look more closely at the dynamics of the disease and the way the disease interacts in international affairs. We do not currently have a complete picture of how the virus operates and therefore we do not have exhaustive knowledge about how to stop it. Medical specialists acknowledge that the urgency of the pandemic forced them in the early part of 2020 to make judgments in circumstances where they had only insufficient data. Based on the advice of medical authorities at that time, policy-makers wanted to know how the virus could be defeated and when it would be expected to retreat. These were obviously the policy-makers’ primary concerns at the outbreak of the pandemic. But asking the questions in this way may have sent many policy-makers in a direction that led them to standard combat tactics. This may have complicated or even interfered with the achievement of their goals.
Combat tactics are designed to overcome a foe who is a purposive enemy. SARS is a different kind of foe. Some microbiologists argue that the corona virus is not alive, at least in the traditional sense of that term. The corona virus does not reproduce itself; it simply replicates itself by relying upon other living cells from which it derives an advantage. From the perspective of some microbiologists, the virus is not a “living thing” but only an “acting thing” which by its nature is not attempting to achieve a purpose but is merely programmed to exploit an advantage. If this view is accurate, the corona virus is not “plotting” against human beings. It is not a “devious” opponent; it is indeed deadly, but not devious. If the corona virus is driven by the pre-programmed goal of continuation through replication, then the strategy to defeat it should be focused specifically on the behavior of the opponent, not on presumptions. Deprive the virus of the conditions for its opportunities for replication, and it has been defeated. The rule is simple: focus not on the virus but on the conditions which enable it.
If the corona virus statistically takes advantage of circumstances which allow it to replicate and multiply, then it is merely existing in a niche of opportunity. As long as that opportunity exists, the deleterious effects of the virus will remain. The tactics to “combat” this virus, therefore, are not those usually used in combat situations. If it is not alive, the idea of “killing” the virus is a metaphor at best, because this virus does not exhibit the conventional attributes of living organisms. If that is true, the goal should not be to combat the virus through killing it but rather to disrupt or “destabilize” and thereby neutralize the virus to defeat it. Tactics should be focused specifically on a narrow goal—deprive this preprogrammed protein of the conditions of which it takes advantage.
Tactics used by the governments of the Central Asian countries in the initial stages of this pandemic were effective because they focused on physical distancing. This was crucial for flattening the epidemic curve. Central Asian governments responded to the challenge by imposing strict lockdowns and even surveillance measures on citizens. For democracies, the implementation of such strict measures, even if only temporarily, places pressures on democratic institutions which, in turn, risk undermining public trust. Some analysts view the corona pandemic as a global crisis that presents particularly unique challenges for democracies. In contrast, the outcome of the response of the Central Asian government deserves high marks. A “brushfire” spread of panic and disorder was prevented.
SARS, the “Widening Perimeter” and International Cooperation
The current form of the SARS virus may attenuate entirely or may in the future end up in returning in waves and only gradually recede in importance. The unprecedented costs SARS has already exacted in terms of those who have suffered and those who have died are compounded by the costs of those whose lives have been severely disrupted socially or economically. In the time ahead these human, economic and social costs are likely to be multiplied by the national security costs in terms of the increased international tensions and the diminished capacity to conduct international affairs in traditional ways.
The corona virus pandemic requires us to think of solutions that may be outside of the more traditional ways of thinking. To begin with, defeating this unusual foe will require two things which on the surface may seem to be opposed to one another—first, only capable and effective national governments will be able to succeed in addressing the immediate challenges of counter-pandemic containment and, second, only international cooperation will succeed in addressing the global aspects of the spread of disease.
Globalization itself bears much of the responsibility for this infectious disease. If it were not for the high-tech linkages of air, rail, and shipping connections linking the entire globe, there could not be such rapid transmission of this new and dangerous virus. But if globalization is the cause, global cooperation may also be the only viable solution to the problems it has created. Many of the problems produced by this corona virus pandemic will be achieved through the close connections of science, information, communication, and international cooperation. Only a new form ofglobalization—what we might call “improved globalization”—can make this possible.
* Gregory Gleason is professor of security studies at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies. The Marshall Center is a partnership between the German Ministry of Defense and the U.S. Department of Defense. This article does not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Department of Defense.