How the military will be used in the COVID-19 response
Politicians: Let's use the military to fight the coronavirus!
Military: uhhhh ok.
Many of us who served have participated in humanitarian missions around the world and at home. Whether it was big disasters at home like Hurricane Katrina, unrest like the Los Angeles riots of 1992 or the massive tsunami in 2004 to volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and famines in vast corners of the world, the United States military is usually there to provide assistance or security.
With the COVID-19 outbreak paralyzing most of the country and reports that it could possibly get really ugly, politicians have been throwing out many plans to help Americans, prevent the spread of the virus, and how to act if the worst-case scenario happens.
This past Sunday, during the Democratic primary debate, former Vice President Joe Biden threw out his plan to utilize the military to fight the outbreak.
"I would call out the military now," Biden said. "They have the ability to provide this surge that hospitals need. They have the capacity to build 500 hospital beds and tents that are completely safe and secure. It's a national emergency, and I would call out the military. We're at war with the virus."
His lone debate opponent (fellow veteran Tulsi Gabbard, anyone?) Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders echoed Biden's call and said he would mobilize and deploy National Guard Units to combat the outbreak. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has started a plan to use the New York National Guard to create or build upon facilities so up to 9,000 more hospital beds could be ready if needed.
This talk brings up the images we have seen in the movies. When a monster attacks, a terrorist plot happens or a cataclysmic disaster happens, the military comes in, sets up shop and gets to kicking ass.
We have even seen in movies like Outbreak and Contagion where the military is either on the forefront or very involved in epidemic operations.
For all that talk and imagery we have, the Pentagon is a bit more restrained on how exactly the military will be involved.
"The Department of Defense is ready, willing and able to support civilian authorities to the greatest extent possible at the direction of the president," Pentagon spokesperson Jonathan Hoffman said, "We just want to make sure that the conversation that we have is informed by the facts of what is possible and what is not and what those trade-offs are."
The big issue is beds and field hospitals. The military can set up big tents to accommodate many potential patients. These tents can go anywhere from a couple of dozen to housing hundreds. The issue though, is if the military is prepared to handle coronavirus patients. The military trains and is prepared to handle trauma and casualties from war and natural disasters. Outbreaks, on the other hand, might not be the military's strong suit. Do they have the medical personnel and support staff to handle the potential of thousands of infected patients?
The Navy has two hospital ships, but are limited in size, geography (they can only be close to the seaboards obviously) and are configured to deal with mass trauma and not infectious diseases. Being in an open sickbay might not be the best place for a large group of people that need to be treated in isolation.
National Guard units would be the units that would be used to help with any outbreak containment and treatment efforts. Active duty would be prohibited (as many of us know) by the Posse Comitatus Act. Right now, there are less than 1,000 Guardsmen mobilized (mostly in New York). If the virus spreads, there will be more mobilized, but the trade-off will have to be weighed. Many Guardsmen also work as police, firefighters and first responders, and that would be a huge loss to the town they are leaving.
While there are no plans yet to use the National Guard for law enforcement purposes, we keep hearing about curfews, lockdowns, shelter in place and Marshall Law (sorry Rubio) means that the military might have to consider they will be utilized as an auxiliary police force.
With all that's been said, we do have to factor in two things. The first is that the military might not even be needed. This might all blow over or civilians might be able to take care of the outbreak without the need for much or any military assistance.
The second factor is that our military is really good at being adaptable. Time and time again, the United States military gets served a sh*t sandwich, and they adapt and overcome those situations. If the coronavirus spread does require a massive response from the military to help civilians, I think the men and women in uniform will do everything they can to make sure they can help as many of us as possible.
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