LONDON – As the COVID-19 outbreak turns global, stock markets and world populations are waking up to the threat of a global pandemic. That, though, hasn’t been the only disturbing global news this past week. In the Middle East and Asia in particular, military tensions are on the rise — and major countries seem ever less bothered about taking off the gloves.
Most worrying, arguably, were events in Syria. As that civil war enters its final throes, Russia and Turkey have been increasingly at loggerheads. The killing of 33 Turkish soldiers in an apparent Syrian government air strike on Thursday took that confrontation into untested territory, with Ankara now furious at not just Moscow and Damascus but also Western nations it believes have abandoned it.
On Friday, Turkey said it would no longer stop Syrian refugees from making their way to Europe, threatening a return of the mass population moves last seen in 2015-2016. Then, the arrival of hundreds of thousands in Europe fueled considerable popular discontent, powering the rise of right-wing parties. That comes against a backdrop of further confrontation between Syria and Israel, with Israeli helicopters reportedly injuring several Syrian personnel in attacks along the border.
Tensions and violence between Iran and its regional enemies in the Persian Gulf are also arguably at an all-time high, even if the U.S. drone strike that killed Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani does appear to have deterred direct regional escalation. In eastern Ukraine, Russian troops have been on the offensive again around the town of Luhansk. And in the South China Sea, lasdt week saw Chinese forces target a U.S. plane with what was described as a military laser, prompting angry complaints from Washington.
Drawing a direct line between these confrontations and the coronavirus outbreak is almost certainly a step too far, although the Chinese government in particular might welcome a distraction from the outbreak. So might Iran, already home to one of the largest outbreaks outside Asia, and where popular discontent with the government has also been on the rise.
What is more unarguably the case, however, is that the resources governments will need to plow into tackling the disease will likely prove a potent distraction from events elsewhere.
What that will mean will be different in different places — and the long-term legacy may be distinctly different from the short-term consequences. In Hong Kong, worries over the virus seem to have dramatically reduced protests against the government in Beijing. But they have also dramatically intensified anger and frustration with the mainland, which many Hong Kong residents see as mishandling the disease and exporting it to the city.
If, as seems increasingly likely, the virus outbreak dramatically dents global economic growth, perhaps even producing a recession, that will likely raise the political temperature almost everywhere.
Much, of course, will depend on how serious the outbreak proves. Particularly deadly outbreaks of disease have traditionally limited wars, at least their duration, decimating armies and leaving populations too weak to stomach serious conflict. Already, an outbreak in South Korea has prompted the United States to cancel planned military drills.
Whether COVID-19 is truly enough to force nations toward an even temporary peace, however, may well be in doubt. What does look increasingly probable, is that it will affect millions and perhaps kill hundreds of thousands in multiple countries around the world.
Geopolitical confrontation invariably makes tackling such outbreaks harder, and the effect of conflict — and particularly mass population moves — can help their spread. Most notable would be the Spanish flu outbreak that swept the world following World War One. The death toll of that outbreak — believed to have affected up to a quarter of the global population — is estimated at between 40 million to 100 million.
If the coronavirus outbreak does go global, it is still not impossible that will drive countries together rather than apart. At worst, though, it may simply further undermine the already deteriorating trust millions of people around the world have in their leaders and institutions to protect them. That’s a recipe for further global instability, just as the world can afford it least.
Peter Apps writes on international affairs.