There is a deep relationship between national health policy and defence and security policy. In traditionalist terms, health and security would not be in the same category, but our understanding of what compromises a security threat has changed; phenomena not based on security can also be a security threat (Walt, 1994, 221). Health security concerns infectious diseases or viruses, the potential abuse of power, and technology transfer to terrorist organizations and rogue states (McInnes, Lee, 2006). Generally, health insecurity is an issue faced by developing nations with high disease burdens and tends to include an inability to secure appropriate health care. Health security can minimize the impact and danger of acute health concerns that can potentially harm the population’s collective health across geographical regions. Health security began to make its way into defence policy agendas after the Cold War, as diseases or pathogens such as anthrax’s potential ability to be weaponized and “cross national borders, threaten the well-being of domestic populations and undermine the economy and military capabilities of states” (McInnes, Lee, 2006, 10; Yester, 2009). The global community began to consider health in terms of bioweapons and the spread of acute infectious diseases (McInnes, Lee, 2006; WHO, World Health Organization, 2003). Canada is a massive territory with “9.985 million square kilometres” and has a “coastline of 243,042 kilometres” (Nossal, 2020); its borders are permeable with a lot of air and ground traffic, increasing its citizens’ potential exposure to biochemical attacks and infectious diseases.

Historically, only wealthy states would have the means or capability to develop bioweapons. A current area of concern is the selling or exporting of these weapons to fragile, rogue states and terrorist organizations (Atlas, 1999; McLeish, Nightingale, 2007). Unfortunately, the nature of bioweapons makes them appealing to rogue states and terrorist groups. These types of weapons are cheap to make, and with the fall of the communist Soviet bloc, many intelligence reports suggested a proliferation of biological weapons was occurring (McInnes, Lee, 2006). These fears centralize around a few specific states such as Iraq, Iran, Libya, Syria, Cuba, and North Korea (McInnes, Lee, 2006). In 2013 and 2018, it was suspected that President Bashar al-Assad used biological warfare in the current civil war raging across Syria (Reed, 2013; Sparrow, 2018). Assad’s war has encouraged vectors of infectious disease to spread by purposefully destroying hospitals, water and power plants, waste disposal, and sanitation plants (Sparrow, 2018).

However, there has been a heightened effort to increase domestic capacity to respond to public health concerns such as bioterrorism in Canada (CBC, 2001; CBC 2008; Government of Canada, 2017). The domestic focus has been to improve public health, develop robust response methodologies, and increase current vaccine stockpiles (McInnes, Lee, 2006). Since biological weapons are cheap to manufacture, the federal government has involved itself in stopping these weapons’ export through multilateral accords and treaties. To prevent biological weapons and technology from entering the hands of belligerents, several nation-states signed and ratified the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention. However, this has not stopped the proliferation. There is an increased belief in the threat that bioterrorists pose (Interpol, n.d.; Cameron, 1999), and middle power nations such as Canada need to begin to take a more focused role in developing biosecurity measures to ensure the safety of its borders and people.

Canada needs to diversify its security policy and include health in its considerations.

In 2001, the World Health Assembly urged its members to improve global epidemic alert and response measures to stabilize global health security (World Health Assembly, 2001). The attention paid to health security centralized around the potential effects that infectious diseases would have if they moved to the industrialized world, demonstrating preferential treatment towards the global north. Whether a disease is communicable (COVID-19, or SARS) or not (HIV/AIDS), nations such as Canada need to take these threats to national security more seriously. As we have seen with COVID-19, diseases and viruses pose a direct threat to the domestic populations, and “pandemics can cause sudden, widespread morbidity and mortality as well as social, political, and economic disruption,” (Madhav et al., 2017). Diseases or viruses do not discriminate against any one person or country, and traditional methods of containment, such as lockdowns, isolation and quarantine, will not suffice. Despite the lockdown and quarantine restrictions, Canada is suffering from disease burden as evidenced by hospital overcrowding (CBC, 2021), and an immense amount of stress on infrastructure. Moreover, conflicting or contrary provincial pandemic containment plans confuses the population. Over the course of the pandemic, certain groups have protested against lockdown and containment measures (Milgure, 2020; Laucius, 2021; Montreal Gazette, 2021; Montreal Gazette 2021b).

It is essential to ensure that the domestic Canadian population is healthy. Health allows people to live, work and thrive. When that health is put in jeopardy, the collective population is put at risk. The list of diseases and viruses that have touched the Canadian population is long, which is one reason why the Canadian government founded the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) in 2000. The CIHR is Canada’s response to global health crises and pandemics in the health research realm, it translates knowledge so that health care systems and health services can be improved for Canadians (Government of Canada, Canadian Institutes of Health Research, 2013). However, the CIHR does not address the other vulnerabilities of infectious diseases, such as the economy, bioterrorism, the government’s ability to protect Canadians, and the delivery of regular services such as mail. Measures to reduce the transmission of COVID-19 have required all parts of the government to act. In Montreal, the Canadian Armed Forces were called upon to assist in relief efforts (Government of Canada, 2020), the Canadian Revenue Agency has been working to provide financial aid, and of course, health care professionals around the country have been on the frontlines. As health security has only just begun to impact our lives and influence government action, infectious diseases cannot be siloed to just the health authorities. 

Canada needs to diversify its security policy and include health in its considerations. As demonstrated by COVID-19, one virus can cripple an economy, destabilize a nation, and put the government in a position that raises concerns on individual rights through implementing mandatory lockdowns, quarantines, isolations, travel restrictions, and in some cases curfews (Macfarlane, 2020). With how connected the world is geographically and digitally, ensuring that we have a national security plan in collaboration with the provinces to manage future pandemics or bioterrorist attacks will decrease risks to the Canadian population. Out of all of the security threats that Canada currently faces, health security is arguably the largest, as illustrated by the sheer visible impact that the pandemic has had on our economy and culture. Canada’s response requires more robust conversations on what constitutes security in our country. Canada’s current defence policy review, Strong, Secure, Engaged (SSE), was published on June 7th, 2017, and does not thoroughly address the concerns outlined in this article. SSE focuses on “personnel policy and procurement as strategic questions” while addressing international relations at the end (Rodman, 2020). SSE also does not address “Canada’s threat picture or prioritization of efforts” (Rodman, 2020). By positioning health security as an essential vector in achieving national security domestically and abroad, Canada can recover from the current pandemic, develop economically, socially, and culturally, and support its international commitment to the anti-proliferation of bioweapons and bioterrorism. 

Natasha Castela Lopes is a second-year master’s student at uOttawa’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs (GSPIA). She works as a student intern at Employment and Social Development Canada and is the current co-editor-in-chief of the Centre for International Policy Studies (CIPS) graduate journal, Potentia. Natasha’s current research interests are international relations, security, utilities services, feminism, labour politics and human rights. 

Banner image by Jeffrey Grospe, courtesy of Unsplash.


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