The problem with army enforced lockdowns in the time of COVID-19

How do communities who feel targeted by state security believe that soldiers are now coming out to protect them?

Karsten Noko opinion
Soldiers and police patrol in Khayelitsha, South Africa, as authorities attempt to enforce a 21-day nationwide lockdown aimed at limiting the spread of the new coronavirus [Reuters/Mike Hutchings]

There is a sketch doing the rounds on Twitter: Two people standing in the centre of a hallway, back towards one another, each struggling to push a different door closed. On the right, a health worker in a hazmat suit closes the door on the coronavirus, while on the left a police officer in a medical mask pushes back a horde of people.

The romanticised implication is that in the space between COVID-19 and its potential victims, it is medics and security services who push back together to save lives.

A similar theory is at the root of the growing trend where the military and police enforce government lockdowns to contain the spread of coronavirus. But the reality in many countries – especially where security forces traditionally have a less than friendly reputation – is not as picture-perfect.

As the epicentre of the COVID-19 pandemic continues to shift fast, and continues to overwhelm health systems in the global north, it is clear for many countries in the global south that their best bet to limit the impact is prevention. It is no surprise that they try to be creative and use whatever means available to them to try and control the pandemic.

For most, the solutions have been isolation, quarantine and lockdown. And everywhere from India to South Africa to the Philippines, states have deployed police forces and even the army to enforce them.

Military enforced lockdowns

Last week, South Africa began a 21-day lockdown with the army out in the streets to enforce it. For many communities, especially in townships and high-density suburbs, the deployment of security forces means trouble. Memories of the military-enforced State of Emergency during apartheid are still fresh for many people. More recently, memories of 2012’s Marikana massacre bring up more anxiety when officers with guns appear in an already heightened atmosphere.

So far, hundreds have been arrested by police for flouting isolation regulations; many more, including the homeless, have been assaulted and harassed by security forces for failure to observe the order. Police went as far as firing rubber bullets at people who were going to the supermarkets – something deemed permissible as per the government’s regulations. Although, to its credit, the government is also communicating with citizens regularly, the use of force has not helped build trust. It has reportedly turned deadly in at least three cases.

Similar stories have been reported across the continent. In Kenya, a 13-year-old boy was shot and killed by police while standing on his balcony in Nairobi during curfew. Riot police previously fired tear gas at civilians heading for a ferry in Mombasa as they attempted to enforce a curfew.

In Uganda, motorbike drivers were hospitalised after being shot by police for violating movement restrictions.

In Zimbabwe, a 21-day army-enforced lockdown began this week. Last January, when the government raised the price of fuel by 150 percent, protests quickly turned violent as civilians and security forces clashed. Today, the same military is expected to come in defence of the population against the pandemic. The fact that the government-created COVID-19 Taskforce is led by the retired general responsible for the military coup in 2017 is enough to send chills up the spines of many.

Historic trust deficit

As with institutions, the security forces are not a problem per se. They have done phenomenal work in many parts of the world as peacekeepers in protection of civilian sites and in response to natural disasters.

We cannot, however, pretend that the military – not only in the countries mentioned above – has a good reputation if they have clamped down on communities numerous times in the past.

In India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a lockdown of the whole country, an estimated 1.3 billion people, and authorities have said civilians risk being shot at if they do not comply with the lockdown order.

For Indian-administered Kashmir, which has been under lockdown for political reasons since August 2019, what does this mean? Is it possible to explain to people, and to expect them to understand, that suddenly the lockdown is meant to protect them and the rest of the country from a pandemic?

In many countries, there is an historic trust deficit between the military and communities.

In Nigeria in 2017 for instance, a reported vaccination drive that was to be conducted by the army led to pandemonium as students fled and boycotted classes, fearing the military was using the campaign as a ploy to infect schoolchildren with monkeypox. Attempts by the army to dispel the rumours fell on deaf ears.

The situation could be even worse if today’s coronavirus lockdowns are enforced in countries experiencing active or protracted conflicts, like the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), the Central African Republic and South Sudan – where security forces have often been accused of committing atrocities.

What have we learned from previous epidemics? 

While it is true that we are dealing with an unprecedented pandemic in COVID-19, this is also not the first time the world has had to deal with a disease outbreak. And we must not forget the lessons from past pandemics.

In the DRC, an Ebola outbreak has been going on for almost 20 months, and what has been particularly notable is how militarised the response was.

On multiple occasions, medical staff had to be evacuated as their colleagues were killed in mob or civilian attacks against Ebola responders. As an observer noted, the deployment of security forces has an adverse effect by raising the levels of mistrust between the responders and the community. As the levels of mistrust increase, the need to deploy more forces increases.

In both the West Africa and the DRC Ebola outbreaks, we learned that gaining public trust and acceptance of measures is key to controlling the spread of diseases. When we put communities at the centre of the response, the need to enforce the lockdowns through military means also decreases.

At times like these – with speed of the essence – deployment of troops, where done, should be bolstered by, and probably play second fiddle to community engagement and health promotion aimed at turning communities into allies.

Only when communities understand what is at stake and what they need to do to protect themselves will they cooperate with responders. It is true that this approach takes time – but if this is not done, we risk getting rejected by communities and losing even more time in the end. The length of time it took to control the two latest Ebola outbreaks is telling in this regard.

Communities are not enemies

Building the confidence and trust of those affected and those at risk is inextricably intertwined with a public health approach. If we expect people to voluntarily come out when they have symptoms of COVID-19, and to expose their travel history for contact tracing – this can only work where the community is an ally in the control of the pandemic, and not a source of a problem whose solution is a lockdown.

As the WHO chief, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, explained, lockdowns and movement restrictions only buy us time by slowing the pandemic, but they are only useful if accompanied by rigorous testing, contact tracing and isolation of those infected.

At this stage, the security forces can be repurposed as a useful asset for many states who find themselves having to throw the kitchen sink at the pandemic. But this repurposing cannot be separated from a public health approach that puts communities at the centre of the response.

We must act fast. Or the window of opportunity may soon evade us.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.