Azfar Shafi examines how the conflation of security and public health, as the COVID-19 pandemic unfolds, has the potential to hollow out our public services to an extent not seen before.
The language of militarism has woven itself firmly into Britain’s discourse around the Coronavirus pandemic. We’re at war, we are told.
Shortly after the virus was formally declared a pandemic by the World Health Organisation, Boris Johnson announced that his Government was on a war-time footing, while talk of ‘Blitz spirit’ was regularly invoked as we marched into lockdown. The weekly applause for carers on the frontline has transformed itself from an organic gesture of goodwill into one with the air of a military ritual.
Even more concerning than the militaristic rhetoric, however, are moves by certain vested interests to make this militarised response a practical reality. Key actors in the field of security have found, in this crisis, an opportunity to pitch a security-inspired approach to public health.
Their actions span calls to reorient the work of national security services and intelligence agencies towards ‘Global Health Security’, to proposals floated by right-wing think tanks such as the Henry Jackson Society and Policy Exchange that draw explicitly from experiences in the work of counter-terrorism and security to shape future public health responses.
These appear to be gaining traction within Government, as Tom Hurd – the Director-General of the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism – has been being picked to head a new ‘Joint Biosecurity Centre’, described as running “along the same lines as Britain’s Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre”.
In its briefing paper, Exploiting a Pandemic: The Security Industry’s Race to Infiltrate Public Health, CAGE has traced the development and arguments in favour of an even more militarised public infrastructure post-pandemic from advocates in the field of security and counter-extremism.
Instinctively, and in a fear-based climate, the case may initially seem reasonable, even compelling. The idea that the vast architecture of military and security – especially the apparatus underpinning the so-called ‘War on Terror’ – can now be used to fill the gaps in public safety that the Coronavirus has exposed, may appear to some to be a welcome step-change in Government priorities.
But this would be to miss two key dangers: that the systematic privileging of security is the problem, not part of the solution; and that the fundamental antagonism between public health and state security cannot, and must not, be reconciled.
As ordinary people experience a deepening social and public crisis, the vultures of the private sector and the hawks of the security industry circle overhead to exploit the pandemic for their own ends.
Merging arms of the security state with the healthcare sector is an open invitation to the private actors from the shadiest corners of the security apparatus – including artificial intelligence (AI), surveillance and data analysis – to entrench and enrich themselves off the healthcare sector.
The controversy over the UK’s contact tracing app, being headed by the NHS’ digital innovation wing NHSX, is only a sign of things to come. The centralised contact tracing model being adopted by NHSX risks granting a vast, high-tech population monitoring apparatus to the Government. Already, private companies have been lined up to cash-in on the project and ingratiate themselves into the work of public health.
A closer look at these companies are should raise alarm bells. They include the data-mining company Palantir, which has previously been solicited by the US Government in its policing and raiding of migrants, while companies such as G4S and Serco – which run migrant detention centres, prisons and policing and have presided over countless abuses at home and abroad – are having contact tracing work outsourced to them.
Expanding on a security-led approach to public health would only open the floodgates and invite pitches and political lobbying from companies across the military-industrial complex. They may, in turn, find themselves courted by other arms of the state, given that both the new MI5 Director-General Ken McCallum and the Met Police Commissioner Cressida Dick have identified technological innovation as core priorities for their respective agencies.
Moreover, the call from organisations such as Policy Exchange and the Henry Jackson Society to bridge experience from the world of security and counter-terrorism to public health is arguably a business case – to assert their own expertise in the former and expand their portfolio to the latter.
Such moves have the potential to deepen existing divides. It should give cause for concern if – to quote a founding director and former associate director of the Henry Jackson Society, Matthew Jamison – “racist” “far-right” and “deeply anti-Muslim” enterprises are now entrusted with the work of maintaining society’s health.
The counter-terror/security and military industry is driven by the imperatives of force, suspicion and ruthless efficiency – dynamics which are entirely at odds with the solidarity and social ethos needed to make public services such as the NHS tick.
Prior efforts to fold the work of security into frontline public services have had a deleterious effect. Initiatives such as the Prevent duty for ‘countering terrorism’ and the implanting of immigration monitoring policies of the Hostile Environment into the public sector have undermined the ethos of public services, sown suspicion and compounded the vulnerability of marginalised communities.
Ultimately, this comes down to a question of political priorities – and to very different visions of society.
As the symbolism of the NHS is invoked with ritual fervour and Government rhetoric around it is injected with nationalist vigour, it is simultaneously being emptied of its most valued assets and alienated from its fundamental task – keeping society healthy, in every sense of the word.
What is at stake now is both the existence and the soul of the NHS and the public sector at large. The forces at play in this public health debate offer very different visions of a post-pandemic UK. We must fight for the restoration of an uncompromising, people-centred approach to public services and push back against the hawks and the vultures eager to cash in on the crisis.
Azfar Shafi is a researcher at CAGE
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