Health and Security – Russia and HIV/AIDS

Hey all,

I realized that I never officially uploaded my final blog posts and summary, so with the presentation date soon approaching I present a discussion on the relationship between health and national security, followed by a summary of my research.

Until recent decades, the international relation scholars characterized the global arena via three paradigms: realism, liberalism and constructivism. Chief amongst these, dating back to the works of Thucydides, is realism, which explains international relations as the interaction of sovereign states under conditions of anarchy. Uncertainty pervades this system, and states take necessary steps to increase their relative power and ensure their continued survival. Security, in this sense, is protection against external threat from other sovereign states in hopes of survival.

However, the fall of the Soviet Union and the collapse of the bipolar system has led many scholars, researchers and students of international relations theory to re-imagine the traditional definitions of security in face of transnational security threats; those that cross state borders with impunity. Infectious disease represents this so-called “grey-area” phenomenon.

In The Global Threat of New/Reemerging Diseases, James Woosley captures this sense of change in thinking after the Cold War: “We have slain a great dragon, but are now finding ourselves in a jungle with a bewildering number of poisonous snakes. And in many ways the dragon was easier to keep track of.”

The portrayal of epidemic disease as a security threat provides numerous benefits toward preserving the public health of a state. An issue once resigned to the periphery of important security discussions will receive newfound focus, attention and motivation. States and their institutions will be pressed to bolster initiatives, and the general public awareness of the dangers of the disease increases.

However, securitization of HIV/AIDS is not without risk. It provides government with the opportunity to override civil liberties in the name of national security, prompts debate between those seeking to resolve epidemics in the name of national interests or altruism, and works against efforts at “normalization. For example, the Russian epidemic primarily involves vulnerable portions of the population: intravenous drug users, criminals, and sex workers. Securitization and the accompanying mobilization could lead to stigmatization or repression of these individuals, which does nothing to alleviate the consequences at the epidemic and only violates the tenets of human rights.

Andrew Price Smith’s work on this subject, entitled Contagion and Chaos: Disease, Ecology and National Security in the Era of Globalization, tackled this debate as well as provided substantial, thorough and engaging background information for my research. I highly recommend the book, grim title nonetheless, for the integrative approach Smith took to analyzing the complex relationship between security and health.

Three key hypothesis presented by smith in the novel included:

1) Epidemic disease acts as a stressor, exacerbating existing social, political and economic tension or conflict.
2) Promotes economic or political discord both in and between nations.
3) NOT every infections disease threatens national security. Factors that ought to be used to determine the level of threat include lethality, transmissibility, fear and economic damage (note that HIV/AIDS meets each of these categories).

Smith also theorized that epidemic disease represents a threat to the power of a sovereign state based on the potential to:

1) Erode state prosperity.
2) Destabilize governmental institutions and society.
3) Provide the impetus for intra-state violence.

So far, I’d say this is pretty interesting stuff. Though much of my project deals with the international relations-area effects of the HIV/AID epidemic, it has also sparked my interest in the fields of public health and epidemiology. It’s a fascinating area of work and study, and the overall goal, to improve health, alleviate medical/social inequalities, fight disease, and save lives, is a laudable one indeed.

Till next time.