Military repression scarcely affected by COVID-19

By Mike Phipps

All aspects of life are being impacted by the COVID-19 crisis and now that old habits have been abandoned, many people are wondering just which ones were actually necessary in the first place – the daily commute, greenhouse gas emissions, leaving people to sleep rough on the streets, to name a few. But one thing that isn’t changing is the world’s major imperial powers’ readiness to increase military spending.

In 2019, governments around the world spent a combined $1.917 trillion on weapons, maintaining their militaries and fighting wars. The US accounted for 38% of this figure. This can be contrasted with the World Health Organization’s revenue for 2018-9, a paltry $5.6 billion. National health services have been similarly starved of cash.

Take Britain. While hospitals struggle to find vital equipment to save lives and protect frontline staff, our defence budget for the coming year is £53bn, the sixth largest in the world. This is an increase of £2.2bn, bringing it to a total of 2.6% of GDP. That’s a higher figure than the target set by NATO and makes Britain is “by far the largest NATO defence spender in Europe in absolute terms,” as the Ministry of Defence boasts.  That contrasts with Spain, for example, which spends less than 1% on its military. What’s more, these sums were protected, unlike domestic spending, throughout the decade of austerity.

Over the next ten years, Britain aims to spend £183.6bn on military equipment alone. £900m a year is spent on overseas operations. The UK spends £141 million a year on foreign military bases, money which could alternatively purchase over 15,000 hospital ventilators. In fact, Britain has one of the largest networks of offshore garrisons of any major power, more than half of which are in countries run by repressive regimes.

British forces operate in at least 30 countries around the world. There are still more than 1,000 troops in Afghanistan and more than 1,300 in the Middle East, including in Iraq and Syria, countries that have been wrecked by external intervention. The UK is still dropping bombs on Iraq, even as our Foreign Secretary offered Britain’s support for a global ceasefire during the COVID-19 crisis. Elsewhere, special forces are involved in the Saudi-led war on Yemen which continues during the pandemic despite public calls for a ceasefire.

UN officials are warning that coronavirus could “crush” what’s left of Yemen’s healthcare system. Aerial bombardment has killed more than 100,000 people over the last five years. Medical staff and hospitals have repeatedly been targeted, making Yemen the world’s worst humanitarian crisis and its health system utterly unprepared for the cases of COVID-19 now occurring. Still the Saudi-led coalition regularly launch over 100 air strikes a week against Yemen, attacks the Centre for the Responsibility to Protect describes as “indiscriminate bombing of civilians”.

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres recently proposed a ceasefire in the various armed conflicts going on around the world, in order to focus on the fight against coronavirus. This met with a positive response in a number of countries, particularly from insurgent groups, for example in the Philippines and Libya. But it’s business as usual for the imperial powers. In the first four months of 2020, the US conducted more airstrikes in Somalia than it did during all of Barack Obama’s eight years in office. Elsewhere, the US has stopped publishing the number of troops it has operating in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.

Meanwhile, throughout the pandemic, the US continues to impose sanctions on around one-third of the world’s population in 39 countries. In some cases, such as Iran, these have been so comprehensive as to be life-threatening.

The continued waging of war around the world is all the more deadly, given that the vast majority of countries – home to over nine-tenths of the world’s population – have now imposed partial or complete border closures as a result of the pandemic. Consequently, people fleeing war have literally nowhere to go and the right to asylum has been effectively abandoned.

The plight of the Palestinian people especially needs highlighting in this context. The prevalence of diabetes among Palestinian refugees in the West Bank –officially 18% – is one of the highest in the world. Diabetic patients with COVID-19 in China were three times more likely to die than the general population. Add to that the overcrowding in refugee camps, sky-high population densities, an underfunded health system, with fewer than 120 ventilators in public hospitals for 3.2 million people in the West Bank, and only 65 ICU beds for two million in Gaza.

Crowning everything is Israel’s military occupation. Despite promises to cooperate with the Palestinian authorities in response to the pandemic, reports on the ground tell of an emergency coronavirus centre in a Palestinian village being destroyed, materials for a Palestinian field clinic confiscated and a testing facility in East Jerusalem forcibly shut down.

With the international community largely silent in the face of these outrages, Palestinians have resorted to community-based responses to protect themselves, rapidly training community health workers to educate people and detect and trace the virus. As Bram Wispelwey and Amaya Al-Orzza observe in a recent study, the pandemic underlines that “the health of Palestinians is intrinsically linked to their liberation.”

In Turkey too, ruthless oppression continues despite the pandemic. A recent government law to release 90,000 inmates from Turkey’s overcrowded prisons will not apply to political prisoners, including former presidential candidate Selahattin Demirtas of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), and scores of other HDP lawmakers, mayors and activists.

Despite Turkey having overtaken China in the number of coronavirus infections, President Erdogan is more focused on cracking down on dissent, arresting over 400 individuals for their social media posts, interrogating reporters for their coverage and further targeting the Kurdish community. In late March, five elected HDP mayors were detained and replaced with hand-picked trustees. Erdogan’s newly appointed placeman in the Kurdish-majority city of Batman immediately removed all Kurdish-language content from the municipality’s website, a disastrous policy given the pressing need to make information about containing the virus available to the public.

Myanmar ‘s overcrowded displacement camps, housing 350,000 people, have been described as “tinderboxes”. A doctor in Kashmir, under Indian army occupation and lockdown for many months, says that when the pandemic hits, “We will die like cattle.” Around the world, it’s a similar picture: communities in long-term lockdown in overcrowded conditions are the least medically equipped to deal with the emergency. At the same time, the regimes controlling them are more intent on maintaining harsh repression than tackling the pandemic.