Militarising the pandemic: how states around the world chose militarised responses
“Shoot them dead.”
These were the orders of Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte, on how the countries soldiers and government should use a “martial law-like” approach to enforcing the strict lockdown imposed to limit the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. Stories of abuse and police killings for infringements of the quarantine lockdown soon followed, including the shooting of a drunk man, young people being locked in a dog cage, and alleged violators of the curfew being held without food and water. Over 1000 people in the Philippines have been arrested for breaking lockdown conditions, and Human Rights Watch has criticised the govnerment for using tactics similar to those in its “war on drugs”, in which the police have killed thousands of people, including house-to-house searches and encouraging neighbours to report others in their community they suspect of having symptoms of Covid-19.
These approaches are not limited to the Philippines’ - a number of governments have been criticised by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelete, who said that "Emergency powers should not be a weapon governments can wield to quash dissent, control the population, and even perpetuate their time in power.” Understanding the militarised nature of these lockdowns helps us to understand the nature of militarised policing and the threat it poses to the wellbeing and freedom of our communities, and why it needs to be resisted and challenged. Outside actual war zones, encounters with police forces might be many people’s most direct experience of militarisation, and they are impacting a huge number of people’s lives. Before the pandemic hit it was clear militarism was becoming increasingly normalised; now, considering the huge threats of the pandemic, the risks of extreme violence at the hands of militarised police forces around the world become even more extreme.
When we talk about “militarisation”, we are referring to states using practises, systems, strategies and mindsets that are akin to those used by armies engaging in warfare. The “warrior mentality” has been a theme pushed by trainers delivering workshops for police forces in the USA, describing an approach to policing that sees members of communities are a threat to be countered and controlled, prioritises violent – even lethal – methods of managing conflict, and creates an “us versus them” mentality. This approach, coupled with military-grade weapons and often poor accountability – is a toxic mix in any situation, and many governments around the world have responded to the coronavirus pandemic with lockdowns enforced by militarised police forces.
Militarisation goes beyond individual acts of violence; it relies on a complex and intersecting web of systems and structures. Militarised violence is organised, deliberate, and depersonalised, driven by patriarchal and racist values, and more often than not targets the poorest and most disenfranchised sections of our societies.
Beyond the violent imposition of curfews and lockdowns, militarisation is also occurring when militaries dominate the role of managing the states response to the pandemic. Examples of countries where this is occurring include Indoensia, where a number of retired generals are in key decision-making positions, including the health minister and the head of the taskforce coordinating the government’s response. It is therefore unsurprising that the government is using hundreds of thousands of troops to enforce rules on social distancing and wearing masks.
The militarisation we see taking place through the pandemic hasn’t come from nowhere, it is a symptom of deeply rooted militarised mentalities. We can see this in the language employed in states’ response to the virus; “war-footing”, “rally the troops”, “mounting an assault”. The values of militarism drive the rhetoric in the response, which in turn supports militarised responses and ultimately enables violence and oppression.
There are a variety of ways that governments militarised their response to the pandemic. Understanding these helps us to build a picture of how militarism operates, and identify opportunities to challenge it.
Human Rights Watch has reported that El Salvador’s police forces have “arbitrarily arrested hundreds of people in the name of enforcing restrictions” and that the country’s president, Nayib Bukele, has used Twitter and nationwide broadcasted speeches to encourage “excessive use of force and the draconian enforcement of measures”. Members of the public were arrested and arbitrarily detained for not wearing face masks even though this was not mandated by the government, or for going out to buy food or medicine.
In March, police forces in South Africa fired rubber bullets at shoppers queuing outside a supermarket in Johannesburg as the lockdown there came into effect, and videos showed heavily armed police and soldiers patrolling very poor neighbourhoods where residents have limited capacity to self isolate, beating members of the public with whips. In April the security services were accused of killing as many people enforcing the lockdown as the virus itself had killed. Collins Khosa was killed by security forces in his own home on April 10th after soldiers spotted what they believed to be a cup of alcohol in his yard (South Africa banned sales of alcohol during the lockdown).
Thato Masiangoako, a researcher for the Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa told Reuters that “This brutality and violence is not at all new. What is new is that during this lockdown, a harsher spotlight has been shone on these abuses… Security forces were deployed mainly to poor black areas like high density townships. More affluent areas have been shielded from the violence.”
By mid-May over 60,000 people in Sri Lanka had been arrested for breaking the country’s lockdown conditions. The country’s inspector general has curtailed citizen’s rights to free expression, ordering police to arrest those who criticise the governments coronavirus response, including “scolding” officials and pointing out “minor issues”. The government’s taskforce responsible for managing the response to the pandemic is being run by General Shavendra Silva, a military commander who, according to Human Rights Watch, “faces credible allegations of war crimes during the final months of Sri Lanka’s long civil war.”
As well as using the army and militarised police forces to violently impose lockdowns, states have used similar violence to respond to protests against their handling of the crisis. In Serbia, the “strongman” Aleksandar Vucic was criticised for holding elections on 21st June – in which his Serbian Progressive Party won a landslide victory but were boycotted by opposition parties – and escalating the crisis by relaxing the rules on large gatherings, before imposing a strict curfew after winning the election. Protesters demanding his resignation attempted to storm the parliament building were beaten and teargassed by riot police, who targetted journalists and indiscriminately attacking individuals who posed no threat and were a long way from the protest. Police fired flares at close range from vehicles and beat people sat on park benches.
If not militarism, then what?
States choose militarised responses for a wide number of reasons: because other systems and structures are deprived of resources; many see the military as resourceful, decisive and effective in ways that civilian/non-military systems can never be; violence and the threat of violence is an effective way of creating fear maintaining control; because of a belief that, in an emergency, states only option is to use coercive and authoritative means to enforce measures that will ultimately benefit their citizens…
As movements around the world push for a green recovery to the huge economic impact, we should also be using the opportunity to consider how and why many states turned to such militarised responses to the pandemic, and what our alternatives would be. Militaries squander huge amounts of resources that could have been used, over many years, to build stronger health and social care systems. Global Spending on the military in 2019 is estimated to have been $1917 billion by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the highest level since 1988 and a 3.6% increase on 2018 levels. When such huge amounts of resources are pumped into militaries it is unsurprising that militarised approaches and narratives dominate, but we need to be clear: militarism isn’t the only option, militarised approaches aren’t neutral alternatives to systems that should be run and managed by civilians, and we need to continue to push for approaches to managing emergencies that are equitable and just.