27 March 2020

The coronavirus crisis. A threat: military and security rumours

Laurenţiu Sfinteş

The current crisis shows how fragile our informational baseline system is, how little we truly know when it comes to a major issue and how easily we can be manipulated. The framework created by the lack of public and authorized communication or by the incomplete official communication is way too prolific. If one does not get the information directly from the source, from officials, s/he gets instead a “source” information. Unverified, hiding interests, unauthorized, anonymous, make-believe information, full of hypothesis and scenarios, full of miraculous solutions and allegations. This is where the defence and security field gets placed. Because, indeed, weapons and the intelligence services are perceived, by many, both as solutions for states’ issues and as the nucleus where the operation and combat plans and scenarios are created.

Image source: Mediafax

Kaki scenarios and perceptions

In a tabloid world, where the daily sensational sells permanently, because “that’s what the audience wants”, what’s rational, simple and handy becomes suspicious. Just like everybody can become a communication expert in a social media post, in harsh comments against anything and anyone, this is also what is happening in crisis’s case. There are many scenarios, circumstantial prophets know what is going to happen, the so-called epidemiologists offer us cures and solutions, many of them are pointing fingers to those who should come up with solutions.

Let’s summarize some of these scenarios and solutions:

1. Some people say the virus was created in laboratories and military institutes and then the military men transported it to the “target”. The main protagonists are the US and China military structures, countries that are already developing a mutual-allegations war, sometimes even officially, although, most of the times, the allegations are just blooming in the online space.  Immediately after the countries were affected by the crisis, they have entered, along with their armed forces, in the rumours’ carrousel. Images from military exercises and operations are reused, pretending to be dislocations during the crisis, data and information revealing apparent and “strange” coincidences are spread all over the internet, strengthening the conspiratorial background.  Also belonging to this area there are the rumours that are retaking the biological weapons discussions (prohibited by international conventions), about tests that produce them or about the protection against their effects. Even the coronavirus is considered to be the result of such studies, which was accidentally spread (or, maybe not) in the public space;

2. The army creates bases and devices around the big cities to isolate them when needed. Such a rumour was spread through whatsapp, in Scotland, related to Glasgow. There is also a high local nationalism, and the army is considered to be foreign, eventually an “occupational” one, therefore the rumour can easily be seen as a certainty. Destroying this rumour was British army’s responsibility.  But what if they would not have done it? Concurrently, there is the rumour that the army goes to unknown destinations, for unknown missions but, indeed, aiming at public liberties’ limitation.

3. There is also the idea that the army will be used for the fight against speculation, break-ins and anarchy (which is plausible), as a first stage, but the next one, however, is the execution of a coup, once the situation escalates. It is not always very clear who the beneficiaries are, basically, all those to have the power, presidents or prime-ministers who are regularly accused of dictatorial tendencies. Also, there are scenarios according to which the army becomes the only institution that can restore order and then it becomes legitimate to take over the institutions;

4. People say the governments are planning the general mobilization, and a proof to that end is the information regarding the possible use of certain forces categories, such as the National Guard. The fact that some military personnel categories, most often military doctors, but also engineers, logistics, air forces already participate in combating the epidemic, is regarded only as plans for the military structures’ use to establish a total mobilization. The displacements performed by some categories of technique, military buses, military trucks, sometimes in longer convoys, are presented as massive dislocations, troop concentrations, special transports of special materials. The online environment is full of photos from other activities, from different years, with comments as if it were in the morning of the same day. At a certain point, the military convoys no longer have to be impressive, as the picture of a military man and a single vehicle in a public market is enough to be presented as evidence of military's involvement in crisis management;

5. In countries that do not yet have a significant number of cases and which, most likely, could not get to very serious situations, such images create the idea, for online information consumers, that the situation will look like China or Italy’s. Although the number of police and gendarmerie structures - where they exist - is sometimes several times higher than that of the military itself, the impact of military uniform and technique is different, meaning hyperbolizing;

6. People ignore saying that the military mainly perform complementary missions, to support the authorities and for institutions’ functioning, even economic ones, that they do not manage social turbulence, do not control public events. The Army provides, when needed, the specialists it has in areas such as health, transport, systems and infrastructure’s operation, they know how the structures that deal with the state reserves act, they know how to manage also  the temporary camps. They do not say that appealing to the army during such a crisis is imposed not by the social behavior that, generally, did not exceed the level of local disorders, but that the important parts of the medical personnel, social services, transport have been blocked due to the contact with the virus and they must be replaced. In Romania, such examples are the military hospital set up to test those suspected of being infected with coronavirus, as well as the transport of repatriated people with military aircraft, as the civil aviation companies temporarily stopped performing these services.

7. Using the military facilities for crisis management, such as separate pavilions from military units, for quarantine, military or even naval hospitals, creates the idea that they are entering a militarized crisis stage, when, in fact, these activities are a small percentage of all national efforts and similar actions were held in previous years, during different exercises or even real situations.

The armed forces, between constraint and participation

Maybe it is not a coincidence that Chinese President’s visit, Xi Jinping, to Wuhan, was in a hospital built by the Chinese army, particularly for people infected with coronavirus. Leaders, and also the civil society, need to feel that there is a structure that can provide common protection. The problem is that the army, not just ours, does not have miraculous cures for such crises, regardless of how prepared it would be. Also, its members can also get infected. In the US, in February and the first half of March, when the epidemic seemed only an Asian and West-European story, American military men dislocated in South Korea or Europe were already infected with this virus.

On the other hand, the armed forces can be involved in internal missions only in certain types of interventions, otherwise they would break the constitutional provisions.

The armed forces can also become a political debate topic, as oppositions are generally more firm when demanding the things from the army than from the policymakers, this way showing they are calling on quicker solutions. An example to that end is the US nominalization electoral campaign, where democrats are asking president Trump to make the American army more active. The opposition always thinks there are multiple and better solutions than the ones taken by the people responsible with management of crisis.

The armed forces may also have weaknesses when it comes to such crisis management. The commanders know this and are, therefore, circumspect in being involved in operations that have no previous training, or have little equipment. It is part of the institutional mindset. They also know that revealing such details when the population has other expectations can lead to mistrust in the military’s ability to intervene effectively. And even if this crisis cannot be solved by this institution, the panic epidemic is only a few steps away.

Theoretically, the military can be involved in four areas:

● providing medical help through the profile and specialists’ facilities. Here one must consider that military doctors are trained for specific types of conditions, and existing military or campaign hospitals are designed for such scenarios. Adaptation to pandemic management will take time and will not provide miraculous results immediately;

● logistical support in all areas: from material transport to the equipment supply. Yes, the army has means of transport, it has warehouses and it has trained people. The army has communication technologies, it also has equipments that ensure the functioning of the electrical systems during the energy’s fall, during blockages. It has many such facilities, but they are also used for other actions and operations, their own reserves have other structures and utilities, they can be used only under certain conditions. Their premature invocation is not always indicated;

● scientific research to identify the responses /vaccines to treat the infected ones. Currently, the Cantacuzino Institute is entering the procedures for tests’ production. A recent interview with the commander of the institute shows, however, the intermediate phase wherein this institution is located, which has not drawn the attention of the authorities lately;

● physical control of the communities during the current crisis management or when entering the social disorders phase. The military can be involved in patrol activities during the crisis period and in the restricted areas, they can even ensure the safety of the medical treatment and testing facilities, they can take over the critical infrastructure protection missions from other national defence system components, such as the Gendarmerie, to allow their use in problematic urban areas. Their presence is discouraging criminality and social calming. The army is a respected institution and its mere involvement in the crisis should create trust. But this is the first step, the easiest. Reality can become turbulent, and the military responds to these challenges is a particular one, not always with the flexibility such incidents are handled with. The policymakers, especially in democratic societies, need to be very careful about the responsibilities entrusted to the military, in order to avoid creating collateral problems in its management.

Hope instead of a conclusion

We have departed from perceptions and rumours. But also from changed realities. One is the existence of this crisis, which can overturn the social existence if not managed accordingly, through innovative methods.

Generally, today’s army, but ours only, is, indeed, a modern institution, which posts its press releases on Facebook, which has remote employees, which has digital technologies as any other field. Its missions are, however, outside the national security projection, and its involvement in managing an internal crisis is a challenge the military institution only faces once in decades.

Let’s hope the wisdom of those politically leading country’s future will met the strictness and professionalism of those wearing uniforms, to identify the best way to involve the military men in the management of crisis.

Translated by Andreea Soare