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COVID-19 brings the role of the military into sharp focus
3 Aug 2020
Think Piece
By: Wandile Langa
The presence of the military in internal and public state affairs has ushered in a new era that presents many unforeseen challenges. A rethink of civil-military relations must be prioritised.

The global community currently finds itself facing an invisible enemy that does not provoke hatred or parade propaganda, yet which has, and will continue to have, immense and far-reaching impact on public health and safety.

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, many states have deployed their military to support other overwhelmed agencies in navigating what has rapidly become the new norm for health, law-enforcement and crisis management. This calls for crucial re-thinking of civil-military relations.

For most states, COVID-19 has created a huge dilemma, critically posing questions for how existing capabilities are used in states’ response to the pandemic. Given constraints in other capabilities, states have had to opt for the internal deployment of their militaries, particularly to help the police enforce COVID-19 related restrictions.

The deployment of the military in this way is intended to support that of the primary responsibility of the police in helping to enforce lockdown regulations. The military has also provided functional support to medical professionals in the testing and treatment of the novel coronavirus at public and private healthcare centres.

In South Africa, for instance, the South African National Defence Force was deployed to support the South African Police Service, which had become overstretched, in law-enforcement, patrols and oversight of lockdown regulations. In Italy, the military was also deployed to help enforce the lockdown regulations, but as the death toll kept increasing and the public-health system was unable to cope, the military also began to assist with funeral services. It is clear that the presence of the military in internal and public state affairs has ushered in a new era that presents many unforeseen challenges, particularly in relationships between the citizenry and its armed forces.

Most militaries have rarely needed to create awareness and educate citizens on its role and responsibilities. Never before has there been such a need for coordination between the military, the police, and public and private healthcare professionals as witnessed under COVID-19. This has created new tensions and unforeseen challenges.

In the wake of military deployments, examples of human-rights abuses have been reported from across the continent. In South Africa, Collins Khosa was brutally beaten by South African soldiers in the informal settlement of Alexandra in Johannesburg. This incident, which led to Khosa’s death, was captured on video. In Uganda, six civilians were allegedly killed at the hands of soldiers.

Cases like these have put a spotlight on the way that soldiers engage with communities. In order to build public confidence, it is critical that awareness campaigns and relationship rehabilitation are undertaken in tandem.

This also calls for close scrutiny of the constitutional provisions that states have invoked to deploy their militaries. The brutal acts that have resulted in civilian fatalities need to be publicly condemned, as they divert attention away from the state’s objective of protecting societies against the pandemic.

It is for this reason that a rethink of civil-military relations during COVID-19 must be prioritised. Due to the rapid spread of COVID-19 and the need to respond with immediacy, most national defence forces have not had the luxury to train and prepare their militaries to offer their services domestically and to engage optimally with their own civilian population. It is for this reason that relations between the military and its citizens have faced countless challenges since the pandemic.

For national defence forces to holistically respond to COVID-19, they have to consider the need to build or gain public trust and cooperation. It should also be acknowledged that the presence of the military in communities is a norm that may not be appreciated or understood by all, and that there is a need to educate the public through awareness campaigns and increased interaction. This is critical, for unless a vaccine is found for COVID-19, state efforts in responding to the disease are likely to necessitate the ongoing presence of the national militaries.

Wandile Langa, Programme Officer, ACCORD


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