Armies are mobilizing against the coronavirus

Armies are mobilizing against the coronavirus
Soldiers are patrolling streets, running hospitals—and canceling drills.
Two weeks ago Xi Jinping, China’s president, made a triumphal visit to Wuhan, capital of Hubei province, ravaged by covid-19, to declare that the virus had been “basically curbed”. His first stop was a hospital built at breakneck speed and run by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Now armies across the world are temporarily putting down their guns and playing a frontline role in the war against the virus. That will ease the burden on overwhelmed civilians, but it may have far-reaching implications for the forces’ military proficiency.

In Italy and Spain, where death rates have spiraled upwards in recent weeks, thousands of soldiers have been deployed to quarantined cities to patrol the streets and enforce lockdowns. Turin “seems to have conformed to the rules and camouflages”, noted La Stampa, an Italian newspaper. In Bergamo rows of army trucks carried away bodies to ease the load on overflowing crematoriums. Hungary, Lebanon, Malaysia, and Peru have all sent their armies to cajole recalcitrant citizens back into the safety of their homes.
Many countries are uncomfortable with state-mandated lockdowns, enforced by gun-toting soldiers. But they have found other uses for their soldiers. Armed forces are good at mounting big logistical operations at short notice. They have lots of pliant manpower and heavy vehicles, and expertise in moving large amounts of stuff from one place to another. In an average week, the Pentagon’s Transportation Command conducts more than 1,900 air missions and 10,000 ground shipments. “The military can plan while it is implementing in a way that most of the civil service does not,” says Jack Watling of the Royal United Services Institute, a think-tank in London.

On March 19th Britain, which had thus far taken a laxer approach to the enforcement of social distancing than Italy or France, announced a new “COVID support force”, which will comprise over 20,000 personnel, bolstered with reservists. Military planners will be deployed to Regional Resilience Councils to identify and resolve bottlenecks in the provision of medical care for the most vulnerable, says Mr. Watling. Other military personnel is being trained to drive oxygen tankers for the National Health Service. Other countries are doing much the same. On March 22nd National Guard (ie, reservist) units in three states—California, New York, and Washington—were deployed to perform similar duties.