Takeaways from the global pandemic

By THO Team Member, Tyvin Whittaker

For many people, the swift emergence and wrath of COVID 19 have seemed like a “Once in a century” type of event. Global pandemics, economic collapses, security threats, these concerns remained relegated to genre-specific disaster movies and the very background of the national conversation. While many in the health sciences divisions and national defense industry were wary of such an event occurring, few people in the mainstream media gave these experts much attention. 

Then, with the swift emergence of COVID -19, the fragility of the world system was tested in a way that had not been done in decades. Governments were suddenly faced with challenges of vast magnitudes. Economies would collapse, and nations would become stressed beyond belief in their struggle to maintain order. 

Had the characteristics of the disease been much deadlier, the outcome would have been much worse. There are lessons to be learned from COVID 19. In the future, we may not have the privilege to be in such a position to critique and analyze the mistakes in government responses and the weaknesses that the pandemic exposed. 

This paper is going to highlight three such risks, and how the United States, NATO, and Turkey can work to prevent these risks from becoming bigger problems in the future.

Turkey is home to the largest refugee population in the entire world. According to the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), there are over four million refugees currently in Turkey. If you are having trouble visualizing just how large this number is, imagine the population of Montana, Rhode Island, Main, and Alaska combined. A global pandemic is potentially the worst thing to occur to a large refugee population. Refugees do not typically live in rural areas or distanced from their fellow compatriots. They often reside in low-cost housing in heavily populated urban centers that are overpacked and in questionable conditions at best. According to a report from the Turkish National Police Academy; “The refugees in poor economic conditions live in groups or are forced to live in low-cost and unhealthy houses to decrease their housing costs… Their living spaces are mostly small, dark, humid, and unhealthy apartments on the ground or basement levels. The unhealthy conditions of these flats directly affect refugees' state of health and cause various health problems.” 

These conditions are far from ideal. How does Turkey go about fixing this?

Well, you can’t solve a housing need for four million refugees overnight, it’s just not realistic. There however recommendations that have been made that could help. In a report from Relief International titled: Impact of the COVID-19 Outbreak on Syrian Refugees in Turkey, The recommendation read: “Considering the high number of members per household and the need for early self-isolation to halt the spread of the disease, it would be important to invest in strengthening availability of isolation spaces at the community level to ensure that symptomatic people can isolate from the family reducing risks of transmission”. 

Obviously, Turkey can’t build permanent housing for every refugee, but giving these communities the tools they need to maintain social distancing will greatly help prevent the infection from running rampant through these communities. In hindsight, this could have been much deadlier. Younger demographics were not hit as hard.

The odds of this characteristic repeating itself in the future is unlikely. 

Now onto the second takeaway. Refugee populations are not the only thing that COVID 19 exposed as a security risk. COVID 19 not only highlighted cybersecurity threats we had previously overlooked, it also created entirely new threats.  As reported by Healthcare IT News, within weeks of the WHO declaring a pandemic on March 11th, the organization saw a fivefold increase in cyber attacks on its own systems. Medical systems and personal patient data were often the targets of these attacks. The thought of hospitals being susceptible to an organized attack during a pandemic is a chilling prospect. An attack on healthcare systems could result in the breakdown of medical care for people who desperately need it. This actually occurred to a NATO member back on March 12th. As reported by the Center of Health Innovation: “Brno University Hospital, which is one of the Czech Republic’s largest coronavirus testing centers. was forced to redirect patients to other hospitals”. This type of cyber attack is distinct from most cyberattacks, it was not the typical attempt at interrupting economic supply chains or monetary theft. This attack directly affected human life and should serve as a cautionary tale of what can go wrong if we are not prepared. The actual physical care of patents was disrupted, if we do not take more precautions I fear the consequences will be much more severe in the future. 

Public health and cybersecurity have until now remained separated. This disease caused millions of people to become unexpectedly reliant on the internet, and remote information systems. COVID 19 exposed the line that exists separating cybersecurity and public health - how the world will adapt to this realization is yet to be fully understood.

The overarching theme is increased cooperation. NATO and modern-day alliances are more about cooperation than traditional power struggles. COVID has illustrated that the most effective way to overcome immense challenges is with coordinated responses and cooperation. If you were to do a quick google search you’d see numerous stories of NATO members delivering ventilators to allies in need. Members of NATO have proven once again they are willing to rise to the challenge. Alliances will be tested greatly in a time of chaos such as now, but as long we hold true to those founding principles, we can and we will overcome any obstacle of the next decade. I am hopeful, and I remain hopeful of an even brighter future for the next ten years. 

UNHCR Turkey - Fact Sheet October 2019 - Turkey. (n.d.). Retrieved November 03, 2020, from https://reliefweb.int/report/turkey/unhcr-turkey-fact-sheet-october-2019

Housing. (n.d.). Retrieved November 03, 2020, from https://www.asylumineurope.org/reports/country/turkey/housing-1

Impact of the COVID-19 Outbreak on Syrian Refugees in Turkey: Results from Rapid Needs Assessment conducted in Istanbul, Izmir, Manisa, Gaziantep, Kilis and Reyhanli, April 2020 - Turkey. (n.d.). Retrieved November 03, 2020, from https://reliefweb.int/report/turkey/impact-covid-19-outbreak-syrian-refugees-turkey-results-rapid-needs-assessment

Ransomware Attacks on Hospitals Have Changed: Cybersecurity: Center: AHA. (n.d.). Retrieved November 03, 2020, from https://www.aha.org/center/cybersecurity-and-risk-advisory-services/ransomware-attacks-hospitals-have-changed