How Can Lessons Learned From Countering Terrorism Assist In The Fight Against COVID-19?
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Like the adverse effects of a terrorist attack, COVID-19 – the pandemic crippling the global community – is impacting the way we live our lives.
Changes to our daily routines have illustrated similarities in government approaches to health and security crises. It starts with language: Health Secretary Matt Hancock recently addressed NHS staff on being on the front line of “what we’ve rightly called a war”.
To respond to COVID-19, the British government has followed a similar course of action to its counter-terrorism strategy, CONTEST. CONTEST relies on 4 ‘p’s’: Protect, Prevent, Pursue, and Prepare. Examining each of these in turn allows us to reflect on the cause and effect on the national population.
The first pillar is Protect. Prior to, during, and immediately following a terrorist attack, it is the government’s priority to protect the public from further disruption and harm. After the terrorist attacks on Westminster Bridge and London Bridge in 2017, the Metropolitan Police Service installed temporary physical security barriers on eight central London bridges. These were intended to disrupt cars from speeding into large pedestrian areas. Similarly, following the nerve agent attack in Salisbury, a £48 million chemical weapons defense centre was established in the UK in 2018. To protect against the event that a weapon of mass destruction is used in the country, the UK relies on its Reserve National Stock, a chain of warehouses housing antidotes and drugs to address this risk.
In addressing COVID-19, the British government – similar to other governments across the globe – has taken extraordinary measures to contain the threat. This has included closing schools, stopping unnecessary travel, advising people to limit contact, and running public interest campaigns to increase knowledge. Posters and leaflets advising people to wash their hands for 20 seconds or more are similar to the ‘See it, Say it, Sorted’ counter-terrorism messaging on public transport networks. This leads into the second ‘P’, Prevent – it is easier to prevent a disease or a terrorist attack, then it is to contain one that has already happened. Public interest campaigns are crucial in achieving this.
It is clear that like terrorism, pandemics and public health issues will constantly adapt and evolve, and more research should be done to understand their effects. The third pillar and fourth pillars, Pursue and Prepare, are areas where knowledge can be built. In the realm of terrorism, Pursue involves actively monitoring and seeking out an individual who may be ready to commit an attack, as well as tracking their network of affiliates. Prepare consists of ensuring that both the country’s infrastructure and its population are ready, if an attack does occur.
Several gaps in our systems have been revealed with the release of COVID-19. Internationally, there appears to be a lack of transparency between different governments (most importantly China, which buried initial warnings of the attack and falsely reported that it was contained), disinformation efforts from various countries (including Russia) to aggravate the crisis, a lack of accurate data, a lack of tests, and large-scale inaction. Lessons can be learned from collaborative intelligence sharing approaches between governments to increase international security and prevent terrorist threats – particularly at borders. In the future, better transparency will be needed on an international scale.
The evolution of government responses to terrorism can help inform strategies on countering pandemics, managing the effects of their disruption on society, and improving public health initiatives in the future. For better progress ahead, we could benefit from looking back at some of our successes in parallel areas of action, and applying ‘lessons learned’ to counter threats that risk destabilizing our way of life.
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