The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated the considerable fallout that a public health emergency can have on wide-ranging areas from nation-state conflict to migration to conspiracy theories that can potentially escalate to extremist violence, intelligence agencies said.
At last week’s House Intelligence Committee hearing to hear from intel leaders on the 2021 Annual Threat Assessment, CIA Director Bill Burns said of the virus’ origin that “it is clear that the Chinese government was not fully forthcoming in their transparency, especially very early on in the pandemic, when transparency and being forthcoming might have made a much bigger difference to the rest of the world.”
A World Health Organization report last month concluded that “direct zoonotic spillover is considered to be a possible-to-likely pathway” for the introduction of the coronavirus to humans while “introduction through a laboratory incident was considered to be an extremely unlikely pathway.” Burns told lawmakers “that is not an assessment that we’re prepared to make at this point.”
“Across the intelligence community, we’re working very, very hard with our own independent resources to try to get to the bottom of this,” Burns said.
What the intelligence agencies are able to say at this point is that the COVID-19 pandemic “will continue to strain governments and societies, fueling humanitarian and economic crises, political unrest, and geopolitical competition,” and “even when a vaccine is widely distributed globally, the economic and political aftershocks will be felt for years,” according to the threat assessment. “Countries with high debts or that depend on oil exports, tourism, or remittances face particularly challenging recoveries, while others will turn inward or be distracted by other challenges.”
“During the past year, the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated the inherent risks of high levels of interdependence,” Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines told the Senate Intelligence Committee last week.
The IC assessment predicted increasing migration surges from Central American, “reeling from the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic and extreme weather,” while other countries attempt to use the crisis to get a leg up on their geopolitical foes and gain “advantage and influence.”
“China will try to increase its influence using ‘vaccine diplomacy,’ giving countries favored access to the COVID-19 vaccines it is developing,” the report said, while on the cybersecurity front “Beijing is also using its assistance to global efforts to combat COVID-19 to export its surveillance tools and technologies.”
As far as health security, the intelligence agencies expect COVID-19 “to remain a threat to populations worldwide until vaccines and therapeutics are widely distributed.”
“States are struggling to cooperate—and in some cases are undermining cooperation—to respond to the pandemic and its economic fallout, particularly as some governments turn inward and question the merits of globalization and interdependence,” the IC said. “Some governments, such as China and Russia, are using offers of medical supplies and vaccines to try to boost their geopolitical standing. The economic fallout from the pandemic is likely to create or worsen instability in at least a few—and perhaps many—countries, as people grow more desperate in the face of interlocking pressures that include sustained economic downturns, job losses, and disrupted supply chains.”
Although global trade “shows signs of bouncing back from the COVID-19-induced slump,” with the International Monetary Fund estimating that the global economy would grow 6 percent this year and 4.4 percent in 2022, “the resurgence in COVID-19 infections early this year may have an even greater economic impact as struggling businesses in hard-hit sectors such as tourism and restaurants fold and governments face increasing budget strains,” the assessment said. “The effects on developing countries—especially those that rely heavily on remittances, tourism, or oil exports—may be severe and longer lasting; many developing countries already have sought debt relief.”
That economic fallout, along with other factors such as conflict and devastating extreme weather, has “driven food insecurity worldwide to its highest point in more than a decade, which increases the risk of instability,” with the number of people experiencing high levels of acute food insecurity doubling from 135 million in 2019 to about 270 million last year, numbers “projected to rise to 330 million by yearend.”
“The COVID-19 pandemic is prompting shifts in security priorities for countries around the world,” the IC continued. “As militaries face growing calls to cut budgets, gaps are emerging in UN peacekeeping operations; military training and preparedness; counterterrorism operations; and arms control monitoring, verification, and compliance. These gaps are likely to grow without a quick end to the pandemic and a rapid recovery, making managing conflict more difficult—particularly because the pandemic has not caused any diminution in the number or intensity of conflicts.”
Disruptions in people receiving essential health services because of COVID-19 such as measles and polio vaccinations, HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention programs, aid delivery, and maternal and child health programs “will increase the likelihood of additional health emergencies, especially among vulnerable populations in low-income countries.”
“World populations, including Americans, will remain vulnerable to new outbreaks of infectious diseases as risk factors persist, such as rapid and unplanned urbanization, protracted conflict and humanitarian crises, human incursions into previously unsettled land, expansion of international travel and trade, and public mistrust of government and health care workers,” the assessment said.
FBI Director Chris Wray told the Senate Intelligence Committee last week that COVID-19 was also helping fuel conspiracy theories like QAnon, “which has sort of morphed into more of a movement.”
“Like a lot of other conspiracy theories, the effects of COVID — anxiety, social insulation, social isolation, financial hardship, etc. — all exacerbate people’s vulnerability to those theories,” Wray said. “And we are concerned about the potential that those things can lead to violence.”