13 November 2014

Alex de Waal sharply criticizes the use of military in global health

This week saw the launch of the first US Ebola hospital in West Africa. There was plenty of debate over the use of the US military to respond to the crisis. Now Alex de Waal of Tufts University weighs in for the Boston Review. In short, he is not a fan of the idea:

The only rationale for sending the troops is that they and their equipment are available and already paid for, and would be doing nothing of significance otherwise. And, as a supplementary justification, that the U.S. Congress and taxpayers are ready to spend vast amounts of money on the military over modest amounts on global health.

This argument has a dreadful circularity; we are in this trap because we have paid for a bloated military and a threadbare global health system. It would be sickeningly wrong for the army’s role in responding to Ebola—inefficient, largely ineffective, but nonetheless better than nothing—to become a justification for why the Pentagon should continue to consume limitless resources. Soldiers can perform some useful tasks in West Africa. But their role should be brief, limited, barely visible, and subordinate to civilian control.

Militarizing public health is a strategic error. Security and public health experts know this and have tried to steer global health and security policies in a direction that is informed by the best evidence and analysis. But somehow, the beguiling metaphor of sending soldiers to fight pathogens still wins out, fueled by our deepest fears of disease, and by our uncritical acclaim for soldiery. It is time to discard misleading military metaphors and spend real money on real global public health.