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Mobilising against the pandemic threat

By Miranda Darling - posted Thursday, 3 November 2005

Talk of plagues in these gleaming modern days drags the mind back in time to the pustules, exorcisms and corpse pits of the Dark Ages. Unfortunately, the issue of global pandemics is very much one of the future: it could even turn out to be the issue of our times.

The attempt here is to look at the role of securitisation in dealing with the looming likelihood of a biological apocalypse that could leave 30-70 million people dead (according the World Health Organisation).

Discussions of the dangers the globe faces from emerging infectious diseases (EID) most often take place on a backdrop of human security. This widening of the security agenda from the traditional boundaries of national security to include the welfare of every human being tends to blur the pragmatic questions governments must ask: when does an emerging infectious disease become a threat to the survival of the state? What security issues are particular to biological threats? How do governments respond to a situation of this kind?


Disease generally belongs to the sphere of public health. However, there are immediate points of intersection with traditional security concerns. Under what circumstances then, can a naturally occurring epidemic in the civilian population become a threat to the survival of the state?

This depends firstly on the nature of the pathogen - its virulence and speed, who is infected and where it occurs. The mere existence of a disease will not be an issue of national security, but the abnormal behaviour of the disease - an epidemic - could become one.

The dangers posed by an EID epidemic could, then, be divided into primary and secondary threats. Primary threats would be immediate challenges to national security: attack by a biological weapon; an army decimated by disease. Secondary threats would be the longer-term consequences that, if not managed correctly, would have the potential to challenge the survival of a sovereign state. These could include a large civilian death toll affecting the workforce and productivity, social upheaval and trauma leading to conflict, a crisis of legitimacy for the government.

While the threat is global, it may not be uniform. In some cases, the prosperous nations may even be more vulnerable to the effects of disease epidemics than developing or declining states.

In the recent Australian Strategic Policy Institute paper on infectious disease, Peter Curson points out that in the last 30 years, about 40 new infections have been recorded, most as a result of zoonoses. These include Ebola, Legionnaires disease and mad cow disease.

The main EIDs to date, however, are HIV-AIDS, SARS, and H5N1 or “bird flu”. These are diseases for which no human has proven immunity, and for which there is limited knowledge about treatment. These three are not climate-sensitive and so have the potential to affect any country in the world: they also share a high mortality rate.


The virulence of the “big three” is undisputed, but it is important to note the characteristics that are particular to each: mode of transmission and speed of death.

HIV-AIDS is not airborne, nor can it be transmitted by droplets or skin contact. It is a slow killer and symptoms do not show for some time. This makes it easier to avoid - as contagion is linked to behaviour - and yet extremely effective in spreading, as hosts may be unaware they are affected.

The SARS virus is transmitted at close range, most effectively through coughing and sneezing. However these symptoms set in at the later stages of infection and this makes it possible to identify infected people before they are at their most contagious.

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Article edited by Allan Sharp.
If you'd like to be a volunteer editor too, click here.

This is an abridged version of the article published in Quadrant in October 2005 and also on the Centre for Independent Studies website.

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About the Author

Miranda Darling is a research associate with the Centre for Independent Studies.

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