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Coronavirus: how to avoid military responses becoming double-edged swords

The Cambodian army unload medical supplies donated by China. Mak Remissa/EPA

Militaries are playing a central role in national responses to the coronavirus pandemic around the world. In China, the People’s Liberation Army was praised for speedily building hospitals and running health supply chains. In Italy, Spain and South Africa soldiers are patrolling the streets to enforce lockdowns. Military personnel are operating makeshift hospitals in France, while German and Russian militaries are building large treatment centres.

To various degrees, from the UK to Iran, troops are being deployed as defence ministers mobilise infrastructure, medical resources, supply chains and call in reservists.

In many ways, this is the defence sector at its very best. Yet if this pandemic calls for extraordinary deployments, it also calls for extraordinary precautions.

Research on how the military has been deployed during previous epidemics, and the way civil and military actors work together in emergencies, should help inform the way they are used now. The most recent and relevant example to draw from remains the 2014-15 Ebola epidemic which led to large-scale local and foreign military involvement in West Africa.

A delicate balancing act

In times of crisis, military engagement tends to act as a double-edged sword. Military resources and capabilities in infrastructure, treatment, logistical and communications systems can make vital contributions to the pandemic response. They can help with disease surveillance and the distribution of food and supplies. But military-led population control measures can also undermine public health efforts.

At the community level, boots on the ground can easily alter public confidence and impair crucial health communication campaigns by creating a climate of fear and criminalising people living in outbreak hotspots.

Liberian soldiers stand guard during a burial for Ebola victims in 2014. Ahmed Jallanzo/EPA

Mitigating these adverse effects will be crucial in low-income and crisis-affected populations, where the response to the coronavirus pandemic will have to rely on locally informed behavioural science until vaccine or effective drug treatments are made available. In these communities, military involvement will need to be navigated very carefully and give way to local initiatives. In wealthier countries, such as the UK, the current health crisis is exacerbating underlying social inequalities and runs the risk of becoming a humanitarian crisis.

Read more: Coronavirus vaccine: here are the steps it will need to go through during development

Around the world, community empowerment and global solidarity efforts will be key to finding and sharing potential cures and best practices. The real emergency will soon be around the need for solidarity across social divides to ensure effective health communications and the protection of vulnerable groups. We need to make sure that the current display of national military involvement doesn’t undermine the collective solidarity and sharing of scientific evidence that is so crucial to pandemic response.

When state leaders hammer war-metaphors referring to their national responses, they both galvanise public attention and legitimise military engagement. The UK National Health Service’s (NHS) coronavirus volunteer-army is one example of how positive the “war against an invisible enemy” rhetoric can be. The NHS’s civilian conscription marketing worked brilliantly. Almost half a million volunteers signed-up to help at community-level. That is absolutely, unequivocally, brilliant.

But equating frontline health workers to heroic soldiers and sacrificial martyrs, when governments should really be prioritising these workers’ security and wellbeing with sufficient personal protective equipment is worrying. Conflating civil and military roles in emergencies is largely thought of as detrimental to health workers’ safety. In crisis settings, health workers often need to partner with the military to access affected people and deliver supplies. But they also strive to maintain the neutrality and independence so indispensable to community trust and effective health delivery.

Read more: Coronavirus: If we are in a war against COVID-19 then we need to know where the enemy is

Public health expertise first

There will be no one-size-fit all strategy for military engagements in this pandemic. Countries are likely to follow their own traditions depending on available resources.

In underfunded and fragmented health systems, militaries often already support public health structures – pandemic or no pandemic. In some countries, such as Sri Lanka, the military is likely to be leading the entire coronavirus response, for better or for worse.

But with no exit strategies for these worldwide military engagements, the fear is that these militarised responses could slip into heavy-handed interventions against citizens or neighbouring countries. The hope is that military support for responses to the pandemic will remain guided by – and subordinate to – public health expertise.

A coronavirus patient is unloaded from a military transport plane in Dresden, Germany in late March. Filip Singer/EPA

Researchers and experts in global health security have been sounding the alarm on the lack of resources and political mobilisation for a possible pandemic for years. The fact that the charity Médecins Sans Frontières called upon UN members to dispatch their military capabilities to West Africa during the Ebola epidemic highlighted the lack of international capacity to respond to acute public health crises.

Yet this call for preparedness in global health systems has increasingly been met with funding towards the defence sector’s emergency capacity. Current national military deployments should also be a wake-up call to the continuous and reckless disengagement from national and international public health systems.

This pandemic is an opportunity to leverage military know-how for better and more robust responses to future pandemics. And when we finally come out of this one, we better get ready for the next.

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