Countries as varied as China, Jordan, El Salvador and Italy have sent service members into the streets. Guatemala has detained more than 1,000 people. In Peru, those who flout government restrictions can be jailed for up to three years. In Saudi Arabia, it’s five.
At no time since World War II have so many nations wrestled with what it means to be in a state of emergency and how to impose fundamental and sudden changes in human behavior.
In Lebanon, Chile and Hong Kong, beset for months by protests, fear of the coronavirus has allowed the state to ban public gatherings without overtly violating civil liberties. In several countries, leaders have used the public health crisis to suppress freedom of speech and other constitutional protections.
“It’s really easy to ratchet up these kinds of powers and really hard to ratchet them back down,” said Juliette Kayyem, an assistant secretary of homeland security in the Obama administration. “Once the military is seen as a solution to a public health problem, it’s hard to get the military out of the way.”
The United States, where troops have been limited to missions such as disinfecting public spaces, is increasingly an exception in its refusal to use them to back up new public health restrictions.
“No prime minister wants to enact measures like this,” said Britain’s Boris Johnson. He said Monday that people who violated a nationwide lockdown would be fined.
“We are at war,” said France’s Emmanuel Macron, who deployed 100,000 police officers.
Senegalese President Macky Sall ordered “the defense and security forces to be ready for the immediate and strict execution of the measures decreed throughout the national territory.”
Those leaders were tapping into a complicated history of security forces responding to pandemics. As 17th-century Britain struggled against the bubonic plague, it imposed selective quarantines on some of its most vulnerable people, perpetuating deep class divisions.
The 1918 influenza pandemic began largely in U.S. Army camps. Instead of containing the virus, deployed troops helped spread it. That was the last time the federal government imposed a large-scale quarantine.
During the 2014 Ebola outbreak, the Liberian military set up a cordon around Monrovia’s West Point slum, considered to be the epicenter of the outbreak. Several residents were shot in clashes with soldiers. Many others slipped through checkpoints undetected. The strategy was eventually abandoned.
Now, as some countries threaten detention and jail time for those who violate lockdowns, public health experts have raised concern about the inherent risk in forcing yet more people into enclosed spaces — an ironic and potentially deadly punishment. In El Salvador and Guatemala this week, photos circulated of police loading people accused of breaking the rules into pickup trucks. The officers and detainees were clustered together with almost zero social distance.
Public health experts are advising reducing prison populations during the pandemic, not increasing them.
“In cases where people weren’t taking the public health guidance seriously, the military adds this level of gravity,” said Sarah Parkinson, an assistant professor of international relations and political science at Johns Hopkins University. “But if you’re going to arrest hundreds of people and put them in prison, there’s a huge public health risk to that, too.”