Can COVID-19 provide us with a blueprint for economic conversion?

Featured, News

In the fight against COVID-19, many manufacturers, in Canada and abroad, have already retooled or changed product lines to supply life-saving items such as personal protective equipment (PPE), hand sanitizer, and ventilators. Many more are eager to join the fray.

The products of some of these manufacturers can be found on literal battlefields. Examples include firearms, munitions, and light armoured vehicles. Now these companies stand as models of rapid and effective economic conversion, as they move from the production of socially destructive goods to socially beneficial ones.

Economic conversion defined

Economic conversion is the process of shifting production from military goods to nonmilitary goods. It is based on two broad principles. The first is that weapons and, by extension, the conflicts they facilitate are antithetical to the enjoyment of human rights and human security. The second is that productive capacity can be redirected to better benefit society. Instead of tanks, manufacturers produce ambulances. Steel destined for munitions is used to make medical-grade scalpels.

Arms manufacturing can spur economic activity. But proponents of economic conversion argue that these benefits are outweighed by the human, societal, and economic costs these products inflict. Moreover, though these economic gains are made through the production and sale of weapons, it is an assumption those same gains couldn’t be won while producing socially beneficial goods and services.

Economic conversion in the 20th century

In support of the Allied war effort in World War II, major Canadian manufacturers retooled to produce weapons and military goods. When the war ended, almost all quickly returned to producing nonmilitary goods, temporarily softening the production of weapons.

Decades later, the Berlin Wall fell, and the idea of economic conversion went mainstream. With the (temporary) cooling of Cold War-era tensions, fewer weapons were seen to be necessary. Societies anticipated that money from bloated military budgets could be used to patch holes in the social security net. Accordingly, defence expenditures saw year-on-year decreases, until the end of the millennium, where the downward trend began to reverse. In 2001, following the 9/11 attacks and rise of the war on terrorism, global military budgets once again began ballooning.

A paradigm shift

Economic conversion hasn’t gotten a lot of play in recent years. We seem to have entered a new era of wars, in which conflicts begin but never end. There is no longer a space or a time in which to change from producing swords to producing ploughshares.

The international market for weapons has experienced unprecedented growth. But at what cost? It appears that many of our national economies have developed a great capacity to produce arms, but have lost the capacity to adequately produce the goods and provide the spaces and services that would keep communities safe and healthy. The accelerating COVID-19 crisis is revealing the weaknesses in our choices only too clearly.

Now, in the frenetic wake of COVID-19, these very same arms producers are demonstrating that economic conversion is not only feasible, but achievable.

COVID-19 is changing the world. The old normal is gone. If there is a gift to be gleaned from this horrifying virus, it could be this: it allows us to reimagine what our communities can and should value.

In the United Kingdom, a consortium of arms producers, including BAE, Airbus, Thales, and Ultra Electronics, is assisting the National Health Service by producing and delivering a planned 10,000 ventilators. America’s oldest gun manufacturer, Remington Arms, has offered more than a million square feet of warehouse space and access to manufacturing lines to produce and store a slew of medical items, including hospital beds. And in Canada, General Dynamics Land Systems, the supplier of light armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia, has begun shifting some operations to help Western University produce face shields.

This level of retooling is neither simple nor cheap. But, obviously, radical change is possible when society deems it essential. Such provisional examples of conversion provide critical insights into what could be achieved in a post-COVID era. Sufficient public pressure could end the production of weapons that not only rely upon but make armed conflict possible. This would enable the increased production and availability of goods that contribute to collective human security.

COVID-19 is changing the world. The old normal is gone. If there is a gift to be gleaned from this horrifying virus, it could be this: it allows us to reimagine what our communities can and should value.

Today, resources normally devoted to arms production are serving the needs of public health. Let us build and organize on such examples. The Canadian weapons industry, which purports to bring in $10-billion a year, has the manufacturing capacity to produce PPE. Their research and development staff have the skills to produce world-class testing kits, and the logistical strength to deliver them. These resources should not be squandered in facilitating armed conflict. All skills and abilities are critical in the collective fight against COVID-19—and any future health crises that arise.

Photo: The statue by the Soviet sculptor Evgeny Vuchetich, titled “Let Us Beat Swords into Ploughshares”, is located in the North Garden of the UN headquarters in New York City. UN Photo/Mark Garten

Spread the Word