Like many countries across the world, Sri Lanka extensively used its military and intelligence agencies for pandemic control during the COVID-19 crisis. This involvement allowed them to improve their operational readiness for nontraditional security threats and their societal standing, as well as support society with their expertise. However, as Sri Lanka assesses its pandemic response and prepares for possible future pandemics, taking stock of the strengths and weaknesses of using the military in civilian healthcare crises is important.
The army’s involvement with pandemic control began with establishing a quarantine center at Diyatalawa, where the military had the significant infrastructure needed to accommodate Sri Lankan students who were airlifted from Wuhan, in February 2020. Soon, it was handling the accommodation of all Sri Lankans returning from abroad. They used both private and state-owned facilities; for the most part, the quarantine services provided by the military were free.
According to the Institute of Health Policy (IHP), an independent think tank, in 2020-21, the military ran 233 facilities and handled 80 percent of Sri Lankans who returned to the island.
The military and the state intelligence services were also used to detect, isolate, and trace those with COVID-19 and their close associates. The State Intelligence Service (SIS) was deployed mainly for contact tracing, the army for containment, and the police for controlling public mobility to reduce the spread of the coronavirus.
The military also played a significant role in the National Operation Center for Prevention of COVID-19 Outbreak, which was set up to “coordinate preventive and management measures to ensure that healthcare and other services are well geared to serve the general public,” and in the Presidential Task Force, which was established to “direct, coordinate and monitor delivery of continuous services and for the sustenance of overall community life.” The National Operations Center was headed by then-Army Commander, Shavendra Silva.
Later the military stepped in to take over much of the vaccination process. The military established 24-hour vaccination centers, and took over the process of vaccinating students, overseas travelers, and Sri Lankans leaving for foreign employment. Around 5,200 military personnel gave 2.4 million vaccine doses, according to Dr. Sanjaya Perera, a project investigator for IHP.
The involvement of the military freed a significant amount of the Ministry of Health’s resources, which could then focus on other preventive measures.
“Quarantine fitted [the] comparative advantages of the military, i.e., [the ability to] surge manpower, the routinization, facility security and logistics,” Perera said at a seminar organized by the IHP at Colombo to publicize the findings of the study it did with Gates Ventures/Johns Hopkins University on the Sri Lankan health system’s response to the pandemic.
According to Perera, the use of military and intelligence services had a net positive impact on Sri Lanka’s response to the pandemic.
“The military was used by a large number of countries. Even Western democracies that were the most successful in COVID control like New Zealand used the military,” Perera pointed out, adding that “on the other hand, private sector quarantine facilities frequently failed in many countries, the best example being Australia’s Victoria state.”
However, critics of the use of military and intelligence agencies in COVID-19 control have pointed out that security forces-led health campaigns tend to be viewed with suspicion by minority communities and that this distrust has knock-on effects on civilian health structures. They also claim that security forces use health mandates to suppress civil liberties.
The Sri Lanka Campaign, a human rights organization, has described the military’s involvement in pandemic control as “aggressive, discriminatory, and heavy-handed.” In a submission to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OCHR) and the U.N. Special Rapporteur in the Field of Cultural Rights on the Protection of Human Rights during COVID-19, the People for Equality and Relief in Lanka (PEARL) pointed out that the military has no expertise in pandemic control and that it resorts to high-handed tactics.
During the aforementioned seminar at Colombo, Sakuntala Kadirgamar, executive director of Law & Society Trust, a not-for-profit organization engaged in research, advocacy, and human rights documentation, questioned the use of the military in pandemic control, saying it would undermine the civilian health sector. She criticized the overuse of the military in civilian roles as a glaring example of the militarization of Sri Lankan society.
In response, Dr. Ravi Rannan-Eliya, executive director and fellow at the IHP, said that both the military and the state intelligence services are public assets and that the public must view them as institutions they own. “The military usually carries out their duties based on the orders they receive. They could be instructed to improve their interactions with those exposed to the pandemic. However, these are state assets, i.e., our assets,” he said.
Militaries across the world have long been involved in medical innovation and disease control efforts. In recent decades, military involvement in global health has been linked with the idea of the global health security paradigm and with the increased focus on health as a security threat. This has furthered the involvement of security actors in that realm. Proponents of this viewpoint see the inclusion of the military in wider health sector capability as a more efficient use of state capacity.
However, as the debate on the use of the military in COVID-19 control in Sri Lanka shows, protecting the civilian population against infectious diseases through the military carries significant tensions due to conflicting values. As Loewenson et al (2020) argued, people-centered, human security, or rights-based perspectives caution against the increased involvement of the military in public health, as the authors believe public health goals and humanitarian principles are often hard to reconcile with military mandates and institutional cultures.
Such concerns are emerging amid little data on the outcome of military engagements in public health crises. The Sri Lankan military establishment, like its counterparts in other parts of the world, has failed to gather and publish evidence on whether its work advanced specific health targets during pandemic control.
On the other hand, those who criticize military involvement in public health remain mainly concerned with military motives. Comprehensive program reviews and health-specific inquiries are extremely rare. This lack of data is also an example of the difficulties that are inherent in conducting civil-military research, as they tend to be conducted along antagonistic research goals. Militaries often have a vested interest in keeping data classified.
Therefore, steps should be taken immediately to establish common definitions and frames of reference to evaluate military engagement in public health in preparation for the next health crisis.