Sat, 05 Apr 2003

Yeo Lay Hwee Senior Research Fellow Singapore Institute of International Affairs The Straits Times Asia News Network Singapore

The way that the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) has spread far and wide through travelers shows, on the one hand, how interconnected the world has become, and on the other, how international cooperation and consciousness are lacking in many areas.

Globalization, the phenomenon which generated so much controversy until the war in Iraq, is again in the limelight -- this time because of "viral globalization", which is inevitable in this highly interconnected world unless more can be done to stop the spread once the source is identified.

The speed and distance that the SARS virus has traveled is indeed phenomenal. The fact that so many cases in different places -- Hongkong, Singapore, Vietnam, the U.S. and Canada -- can be traced to one single Chinese tourist in Hongkong is amazing. Viruses know no boundary and respect no sovereignty.

This brings us to the issue of international cooperation and human security. Environmental degradation, pollution and infectious diseases may not seem like direct and identifiable threats to the state. But their impact on human security, and ultimately the cost to the social fabric and economic resources of a state are considerable.

The concept of human security is not new. While the traditional paradigm concerns national security, achieved primarily through military capabilities, human security relates to overall human life and dignity.

Based on the United Nations Development Program's perspective, human security is the protection from the threat of disease, environmental hazards, hunger, unemployment and crime as well as social conflict and political repression.

While human security is often disregarded by those who take a more traditional, state-centric approach to security, a more globalist approach asserts that an international society has emerged that integrates communications, cultures and economics in new ways and in a manner that transcends state-centric relations.

The threat of infectious diseases to human security in terms of impact on human life and the quality of life is clear.

But more importantly, the spread of such diseases can undermine public confidence in the national government, and affect adversely the socioeconomic foundation of the state.

A more serious and longer-term implication is the potential that any new virus and disease can have as weapons in biowarfare and bioterrorism.

Already, we can see that within less than a month of the SARS outbreak in Singapore, it has had a negative impact on certain retail businesses, the tourism industry and its related services, and the transportation industry. The impact and cost of SARS worldwide has yet to be accounted for fully.

Where terrorism has failed, SARS has almost succeeded. People are cutting down travel, including business travel. With many quarantined, the economies of countries, both with and without SARS outbreaks, are affected in many different ways.

Globalization has made us interdependent. The movement of people has increased qualitatively and quantitatively. Current estimates put the number of people crossing international frontiers aboard commercial flights at more than 500 million every year.

However, unlike the challenge posed by traditional concerns such as overt aggression, the threats emanating from such issues as the spread of diseases, environmental degradation, organized crimes and terrorism are far more ambiguous as they are transnational in character, and beyond the power of any single nation to address on its own.

Progress in controlling and confronting these problems will have to come not only through national integrity and measures but also unprecedented cooperation at regional and international levels.

While it is no use pointing fingers with regard to the outbreak of SARS, an important lesson can be learnt. If information on the disease had been disseminated quickly, and help from regional and international experts sought early, a collective and collaborative effort might have slowed down the spread, and a diagnostic kit discovered earlier.

In dealing with issues of human security and problems that have cross-border implications, openness is crucial. Traditional spatial notions of security and national stability defined purely within borders are outdated.

The spread of infectious diseases has serious implications for the international system. National governments need to develop ways to deal with such issues in a larger global context systematically, openly and constructively.