Thinking Beyond Politics

On May 16, 2018, President Rodrigo Roa Duterte signed the Philippines’ first National Security Strategy (NSS) since it became an independent republic in 1946. The NSS provides a state’s overarching plan in addressing the country’s security in the form of guidelines for implementing the National Security Policy (NSP). It is a vital input for the integration and coordination of decisions and activities by the various government agencies involved in managing the country’s national security.

The 2018 NSS paints a pessimistic/realist picture of the country’s external environment. It notes that the Philippines has not been confronted by any direct threat of foreign aggression since the end of the Second World War. However, it warns that the current regional security environment has become increasingly uncertain and dangerous for the country. It observes that Pax America is about to end because of the geostrategic competition among the great powers in the South China Sea and the Pacific Ocean, and the transformation of international order from a unipolar to a multipolar one. It focuses on the perils of traditional geostrategic threats — competing interests of great powers and other countries converge, that require the Philippines to chart its role in an increasingly multi-polar system.

The 2018 NSS, however, overlooked a lurking security challenge — emerging infectious diseases (EIDs). The COVID-19 pandemic is the first major and unexpected biological upheaval that has rocked the 21st century global society. Prior to the 20th century, low population densities, infectious diseases, outbreaks of epidemics and pandemics were generally rare and were primarily driven by natural disasters, inter-state wars, revolutions, and other social upheavals. However, since the end of the 20th century, as the human population has increased exponentially, the global spread of EIDS has accelerated because of economic globalization, massive urbanization, revolution in transportation and communication, decline in biodiversity, and climate change.

As discussed during the recent Pilipinas Conference Session on responding to the emerging regional political and security environment, organized by the Stratbase ADRI Institute, health security emphasizes the need to take preventive measures to protect people from infectious diseases, distress of insufficient healthcare, and poor public infrastructure. Since the end of the Cold War, it became one of the most important areas of foreign, development and security policy in the past three decades as human security became an overarching contextual framework in several countries’ political health and foreign policy documents. This, in turn, led to the securitization of pandemics as a key feature of the global public health system. The global public health system’s goal in the late 20th and early 21st century is geared toward pandemic preparedness through health surveillance, along with emergence intervention to control epidemic outbreaks.

The World Health Organization (WHO) lies at the heart of the global system for preparedness, as a security paradigm, in securing the global community against potentially catastrophic pandemics. The WHO has been particularly influential in setting priorities for countries and regions that oriented toward preparedness. Preparedness emphasizes institutional readiness and emergency management, treating a variety of potential catastrophic threats — terrorist attacks, hurricanes, and pandemics — under the same category and rubric.

China, however, prevented the WHO from performing its role in managing the global spread of COVID-19. The Chinese government ordered a media blackout of the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan City as it gave false information to the WHO about the nature of the COVID-19. It also falsely claimed that there was no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission. Beijing’s denial about the outbreak of the epidemic in Wuhan City, and the WHO’s failure to investigate the nature of the infection led to decisions that allowed hundreds of thousands of Chinese to travel abroad during the Lunar New Year. This prevented any meaningful measures to contain the virus inside China and allowed COVID-19 to ravage the global society.

That the Philippines is geographically close to a country that has been the source of two 21st century EIDS — China. This is further complicated by the fact that the Philippines possesses one of the most fragile public healthcare systems in East Asia. The current pandemic is a wake-up call for Filipinos to prepare themselves against future EIDs that will hit and ravage the nation in the 21st century. This will require the Philippines to develop its public health infrastructure and systems as critical strategic and security assets that require public attention, legislation, funding, and a whole-government approach. The Philippines must also ensure that the WHO should uphold its autonomy from influential and rich countries to make it better equipped in leading the global public health system against the future pandemics of the 21st century.

Hence, the next administration should incorporate public health security in the NSP, NSS, the National Defense and Military Strategies, and in the National Economic and Development Authority’s (NEDA) Five-Year Development Plan. Public health security focuses on taking preventive measures to protect the nation from current and more importantly future infectious disease, insufficient healthcare, and inadequate public health infrastructure. Operationalization of public health security in terms of policy will require the securitization of EIDS, and examining how the management of infectious diseases could converge with the broader configuration of national security and economic development.


Dr. Renato De Castro is a trustee and convenor of the National Security and East Asian Affairs Program, Stratbase ADR Institute.