Since early 2020, countries have experienced an exponential rise in COVID-19 related infections and deaths. In an attempt to respond to this unprecedented spread of a deadly disease, governments around the world have invoked emergency executive powers, and/or adopted exceptional measures. In many cases, these have resulted in an expansion of law enforcement powers, in some cases in parallel with the side-lining of public health authorities. The necessity and effectiveness of such strategies have been heavily criticised, particularly in light of reports of abuse of force, arbitrary arrests and detention, and targeting of already marginalised, vulnerable, or over- policed communities (including ethnic minorities and migrant workers).
In Indonesia, Philippines, and Sri Lanka, national task forces are dominated by military or former military personnel with limited (if any) public health expertise.7 In Indonesia, it is estimated that there were at least 21 retired and active duty military officers directly involved in the decision-making process to control the pandemic.8 In the Philippines, discounting the active officers, President Rodrigo Duterte called in four retired generals to serve in leadership positions in efforts to mitigate COVID-19.9 In Sri Lanka, the Commander of the Army who leads NOCPCO – General Shavendra Silva – has faced accusations of war crimes.10
In these five countries, a mixture of police, military and enforcement personnel plays a prominent role in implementing COVID-19 control measures, including enforcing movement restrictions, social distancing, and mask wearing, checking temperatures, and managing quarantine facilities.
This securitisation of health protocols (as the enforcement of COVID-19 health protocols by police, military and other empowered officials) effectively turned a global public health crisis into a national security issue, with the virus identified as an enemy to be defeated, and the response framed as a war to be won. To ensure enforcement of COVID-19 protocols, new punishments for ‘violators” were introduced while fundamental rights were restricted; raising concerns about the legality, necessity, proportionality, and effectiveness of such measures.
The degree to which police and armed forces became involved in the design and implementation of COVID-19 travel and health protocols differ across the five countries, with three approaches identified: Blended civil response, securitised response, and militarised response.