What is more intimidating? A country with the highest stockpiles of nukes or a world inundated with a virus which changes its shape and target every few months? What is more disturbing? The decision to keep the tap of money running so that one’s reserves to buy more nuke never dries, or the decision to tighten resources for the health sector? Though the coronavirus has laid bare the fragility of global healthcare, it has also questioned the amount countries spend on sustainable development goals. A study done to analyse the impact of military spending on economic growth showed that a 1% increase in military spending decreases economic growth by 9%. This impact was more pronounced in countries in the Global North i.e. the OCED states.
Somebody made a very apt observation on social media about the misplaced priorities of the two nuclear states. The post states: “One nuclear power does not have oxygen while the other cannot buy vaccines for its people.” The sarcasm, as we all know, was directed towards India and Pakistan. Let us talk about India first, which ran out of oxygen amidst the rising number of reported cases and deaths from coronavirus.
Not that India had beaten corona at any stage since the pandemic hit the world in March last year, but the upsurge was brought under control to some extent. However, the irresponsibility the Indian government exhibited in the last two months reversed all the good it had gathered so far. Starting from the election in Bengal to allowing the Kumbh Mela that features close to one million people on average, the government, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has been praising people for showing the courage to attend electoral rallies under challenging circumstances. Such was the extent of complacency that despite being one of the producers of the Covid-19 vaccine, India preferred to export vaccines rather than providing them to its people.
Nature becomes vile when taken for granted. The virus slammed India on an unprecedented scale. According to the reports pouring in from Delhi, cremation centres/grounds and graveyards had become insufficient to absorb the literal flood of corpses. Most people died for lack of breath which could have been artificially transported to their lungs from oxygen cylinders had they been filled and been adequately available.
India’s managerial skills in dealing with the coronavirus have been exceedingly poor. The first policy failure was when Modi’s government locked down India without any prior announcement or roadmap on managing the impending unemployment and homelessness of the migrants living in millions in the urban cities. With the result that despite being in lockdown, the streets of Mumbai and other cities were swamped with dislocated people returning to their villages barefoot in dry weather. Hunger and destitution turned out to be more significant threats and far more contagious than the coronavirus.
Poor health policies and inadequate allocation of resources to health services from a country counted among the top five spenders on military and warfare commodities looked weird and abnormal to many.
As for Pakistan, it has been equally criticised for relying on a favour from friendly countries to get cost-free vaccines. Not that the situation in Pakistan was ideal, but it certainly was not as bad as what we saw in India. Pakistan was even praised for managing the lockdown wisely, without exacerbating inequalities — one of the worst outcomes of coronavirus-induced poverty. Similarly, Pakistan’s smart lockdown strategy has been replicated the world over. However, the question that kept raising its head was the whereabouts of funds allocated for the management and procurement of resources that include Covid-19 vaccines. Some of this money was taken directly from the federal kitty while a considerable amount was received from the International Monetary Fund and other aid organisations. Initially, we had heard about a certain amount reserved to buy vaccines. Since we have started receiving free vaccines from China, there is complete silence on the fund stashed for the purpose. It is utterly unacceptable for many of us to see a country that can spend billions every year on developing missiles behave like a pauper when handling the health sector. So far, there has been almost no reporting from the rural areas. God knows how many may have died of coronavirus because of quackery and dilapidated hospitals there.
Given the ravages of the pandemic, it was expected that over the year, the overall military spending would have reduced, and spending on the health sector would have become more critical. That was not to be.
According to the latest Stockholm International Peace Research Institution (SIPRI) report, the total global military spending in 2020 has risen to $1,981 billion, increasing 2.6% from 2019. The biggest spenders in 2020, accounting for 62% of global military spending, were the United States, China, India, Russia, and the United Kingdom.
The civil society campaigners have attributed high military spending as a waste of resources that could be otherwise used on development projects to fulfil human needs. Ever since the coronavirus pandemic, there is mounting pressure to reframe the debate on the merits of military spending around economics rather than addressing security concerns. According to the latest report released by SIPRI on global military spending, it does not seem that the virus and its debilitating effects on the global healthcare system had given policymakers and world leaders any new impetus to redefine their developmental spending priorities.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 29th, 2021.