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Invisible enemies and national security

By Peter Curson - posted Monday, 15 March 2021

Since 1999 the world community has begun to recognise the national security implications of infectious disease.

In that year the UN Security Council declared AIDS a national security threat and the following year called for a more expansive definition of what should be included in National Security. A few weeks later US National Intelligence argued that global infectious disease endangered US life, threatened US Armed Forces and exacerbated social and political stability in most countries.

There is little doubt that population and health are of key importance to security in the 21st century and that public health is one of the basic props on which national security rests. But in many ways the link has been insufficiently appreciated in countries like Australia.


To a large extent this reflects a preoccupation with traditional definitions of security such as the dynamics of international relations and the protection of Australia from external threats. It also reflects an over-riding concern for the physical manifestations of insecurity rather than a full understanding of underlying causative factors.

The Australian National Security Statement released in 2008 makes only passing reference to demographic and health factors as playing an important role in our national security.

It is sad that the recognition of public health and particularly infectious disease as a critical security issue continues to be largely ignored by our government. In many ways this is difficult to understand given the way infectious disease has helped shape human history over the last 1000 or so years claiming billions of lives.

Australian history is replete with major outbreaks of infectious disease including Influenza, plague, smallpox, polio, HIV/AIDS, SARS, bird flu and coronavirus to mention but a few. As well, childhood infections have wreaked havoc particularly in the period prior to 1960 but continuing to this day.

There is also little doubt that Australia will experience a range of epidemics and pandemics over the next decade. Despite the Australian Government perhaps believing otherwise, there is little doubt that public health, demography and infectious disease are critical to our national security and should be viewed as such.

Such things as population growth, fertility decline, ageing, the movement of people, products and pathogens as well as the importance of the biophysical environment, are without doubt critical to our national security. People and health are the wealth of our nation and the critical capital which we need to preserve, protect and bolster.


Our history of infectious disease has been the history of microbes on the march often in our wake, and of microbes that are quick to take advantage of the many opportunities offered by our behaviour.

The historical processes that have given rise to the emergence and spread of infectious diseases in our past continue today with unabated force and are in fact accelerating because of the conditions of modern life, particularly the speed and volume of travel and the way we continue to interfere with, or intrude upon, our natural environment.

Our current security rests on the assumption that infectious diseases simply come and go and that because we have an arsenal of better medicines, better health care systems, education and communication to address such threats, our vulnerability is protected. In many ways nothing could be further from the truth.

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About the Author

Peter Curson is Emeritus Professor of Population and Health in the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences at Macquarie University.

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