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Time to transfer funds from weapons to making vaccines

June 1, 2020

By Dr. Arun Mitra

The world is seized with tackling COVID-19, which is being perceived as biggest health threat to the humanity today. True, this virus is more lethal than other Corona viruses. There is an all out effort by the scientists around the world to develop vaccines to boost immunity in the body to enable it to fight back the infection. Research is going on to develop antiviral drugs. The world is hoping that soon we shall develop herd immunity so that the impact of COVID-19 gets reduced. Our scientists have made great achievements in getting rid of plague, which was a highly deadly disease at one time.  Likewise an equally dangerous smallpox has been eliminated through vaccination long time back. We have already achieved substantial success in polio eradication.

Scientists and medical professionals have warned from time to time about various diseases and cautioned about the imminent health emergencies. They have also guided about the steps to be taken to prevent such happenings. IPPNW has warned the global community about a highly grave threat to humanity for which we have no remedy. This is from the nuclear weapons. The use of nuclear weapons would be the final epidemic. Prevention is the only way out as we do not have any remedy to offer in such an eventuality.

We witnessed the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan on 6th and 9th August 1945 respectively. These two incidents led to death of over two lakh people and destituted many more. The present day nuclear weapons are much more powerful and deadly. A study conducted by Ira Helfand, Co-President IPPNW and Alan Robock, Department of Environmental Sciences Rutgers University, USA has revealed that any nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan using 100 nuclear weapons will lead to nuclear winter which in turn will cause serious crop failure. As a result there will be extreme starvation putting more than two billion people at risk globally. The impact will be more on the developing countries and on the poor in the poor countries.

Any nuclear exchange between the two major nuclear powers, Russia and US, could cause extinction of modern civilisation built through thousands of years of human labour. Medical scientists have warned that there is no remedy to such an outbreak.

The nuclear weapons are different from other weapons because they cause multi pronged impact. M. V. Ramana – a physicist who works at the Nuclear Futures Laboratory and the Program on Science and Global Security, at Princeton University, on the future of nuclear power in the context of climate change and nuclear disarmament in his study titled Bombing Bombay has documented the impact of nuclear weapons. A nuclear blast produces an extremely intense flash of heat and light, brighter than a thousand suns which could cause blindness and burn wood, paper, clothes, vegetation, and all other combustible materials in the radius of 1.6-3.2 km around the point of explosion. The shock of blast wave, would reach velocities of more than 110 km/h to a distance of 3 km or more. The shock wave would destroy everything within a circle of 1.1 km. Up to 1.7 km from the point of explosion, all houses not built with concrete would be destroyed.

The firestorm of several hundred degrees centigrade temperature will make it almost certain that there would be no survivors. Furthermore, fire-fighting would be almost impossible due to the combination of hurricane-force winds, thick smoke, the destruction of water mains and tanks by the shock wave, and the presence of debris from the blast blocking roads and access routes. Other factors would lead to a probability of small explosions in the fire region and, therefore, to a greater chance that people would be injured as well as burned. Exposure to neutron and gamma radiation will induce leukaemia, thyroid cancer, breast cancer, and lung cancer, as well as non-fatal diseases such as birth defects, cataract, mental retardation in young children, keloids, and others. A visit to the Peace Museum in Hiroshima shows several pictures of people bleeding profusely, having been burnt instantly and melted away.

There are several hotspots in the world; Syria, Libya, Iraq and Iran in the Middle East; tension between Russia and Ukraine, tensions in South Asia, and between US and North Korea. Low intensity conflicts involving nuclear weapons powers as in South Asia and Northeast Asia can pose a threat of escalation which could lead to the actual use of nuclear weapons.

Under these circumstance when there is need for urgent global peace dialogue, we are witnessing increase in the military expenditure. According to SIPRI Global military expenditure sees largest annual increase in a decade reaching $1917 billion in 2019. The five largest spenders in 2019, which accounted for 62 per cent of expenditure, were the United States, China, India, Russia and Saudi Arabia. This is the first time that two Asian states have featured among the top three military spenders.

Global military spending in 2019 equates to approximately $249 per person. The United States accounted for 38 per cent of global military spending. In 2019 China and India were, respectively, the second- and third-largest military spenders in the world. China’s military expenditure reached $261 billion in 2019, a 5.1 per cent increase compared with 2018, while India’s grew by 6.8 per cent to $71.1 billion.

In its report Enough is Enough: Global Nuclear Weapons Spending 2020, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) estimates that the nine nuclear-armed countries spent $72.9 billion on their 13,000+ nuclear weapons in 2019, equalling $138,699 (1.05 crore rupees) every minute of 2019 on nuclear weapons, and a $7.1 billion increase from 2018.

Taking cognisance of seriousness of the issue, the UN General Assembly passed Treaty Prohibiting Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). It prohibits nations from developing, testing, producing, manufacturing, transferring, possessing, stockpiling, using or threatening to use nuclear weapons, or allowing nuclear weapons to be stationed on their territory. It also prohibits them from assisting, encouraging or inducing anyone to engage in any of these activities. For the entry into force of the treaty there is need for ratifications by the parliaments/assemblies of 50 countries. Already 37 have ratified. This is an important step forward. There is urgent need to complete this number. The nuclear weapons possessing countries have to understand the gravity of the situation. We cannot be taken unaware of such a disaster. We have to take definite steps to prevent it.

COVID 19 has put the whole world into jeopardy. But one day we will overcome this. On the contrary there will never be a victory over the nuclear weapons. Their very presence on earth threatens the economy due to huge amount of wasteful expenditure on their maintenance; danger of their use through accident or non state actors is real and grave. Abolition of these weapons is the only answer and TPNW is an opportunity. The money saved from this wasteful expenditure could help us spend more on providing healthcare facilities to the people. We have no time to lose.

Arun Mitra, an ear, nose, and throat surgeon in Ludhiana, India is Co-president of IPPNW and National General Secretary of Indian Doctors for Peace and Development (IDPD).

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