One Year In: How Militarism Made the Pandemic Worse | Opinion

On March 13, 2020, then-President Donald Trump declared a national emergency due to COVID-19, warning that the unfolding calamity "threatens to strain our nation's healthcare systems." Like a looming tidal wave, the disaster would inundate our country and the world.

On the same day, the Pentagon spent more than $910 million on military contractors alone. Not on troops or operations—just private contractors. A huge sum, but a drop in the bucket for a military that got $740 billion in 2020.

Over the last year, a lot has changed in the conventional wisdom about government. But so far, these enormous military budgets—and the militarism they represent—remain the norm. As we reckon with the disastrous government responses to the pandemic, we need to interrogate how militarism shaped and hindered efforts.

From the beginning, rather than take actual emergency measures like redirecting the Pentagon's excess billions to the country's health systems, the federal government proceeded with business as usual after a short lockdown. The military machine chugged along—while public health collapsed.

Shortages in protective equipment and medical instruments abounded. The country's testing capacity lagged far behind skyrocketing cases. Meanwhile the Pentagon continued to disburse funds to weapons manufacturers—in one case, spending $1 billion budgeted for protective equipment on jet parts and body armor.

Spending is just one part of the problem. In our country, flexing military muscle is a default response to a broad range of situations. But when this approach was applied to the virus, it largely failed, wasting resources that were badly needed elsewhere.

Last March, the Navy deployed two hospital ships—the USNS Comfort and USNS Mercy—to treat patients in hard-hit Los Angeles and New York. It took 10 full days between the Comfort's activation in San Diego and its arrival in Los Angeles, normally a two-hour drive by car. It took nearly two weeks for the Mercy to dock in Manhattan from Norfolk, Virginia.

Despite the fanfare, it soon became clear that the ships' protocols prevented them from treating COVID-19 patients at all. Personnel and equipment sat idle offshore as hospitals a stone's throw away were strained under the crisis. When the two 1,000-bed ships left in May, the Comfort had only treated 182 patients and the Mercy treated 77—none of them for COVID-19.

Elsewhere, Navy ships themselves helped spread the virus. The worst instance came on the USS Roosevelt, whose captain was disciplined for calling attention to an outbreak that ultimately led to more than 1,000 cases. All told, there were COVID cases on no fewer than 26 Navy ships—which caused further alarm in places like Guam and Okinawa, Japan, where large numbers of military personnel are stationed.

The worst pandemic impacts of U.S. militarism, however, came through aggression abroad.

U.S. Military
A Sikorsky VH-92A helicopter flies along the Potomac River next to the National Mall on a training run on President's Day, February 15, 2021, in Washington, D.C. Samuel Corum/Getty Images

The Trump years were especially cruel toward Iran, with the administration abandoning the nuclear deal, imposing new sanctions, deploying new troops in the Middle East and assassinating an Iranian general. The pandemic did nothing to change this.

Sanctions—which spelled disaster for Iran's population for years—prevented Iran from developing medical treatments and investing in public health during the pandemic. Ultimately Iran's nightmarish outbreak was the worst in the Middle East.

Trump also used the COVID crisis to escalate American hostility toward China. Saddling the country with the blame for the entire pandemic, Trump attacked China on the world stage and raised military tensions by conspicuously arming its regional rivals—especially Taiwan.

At a time when the world needed collaboration across borders to control the pandemic, this militarism led to the opposite—driving an arms race in Asia and unleashing a wave of anti-Asian racism in the U.S. that continues to swell, including the horrific recent mass shooting in Atlanta.

The anniversary of the pandemic invites us to take pause, reflect and imagine a new future. In his speech on March 11, President Joe Biden condemned anti-Asian racism and called for mobilizing resources and practicing social solidarity.

On the international stage, that should mean approaching the world in the spirit of humanity and cooperation—and ending sanctions, withdrawing troops and investing in vaccine distribution and exchanges among medical professionals across borders. It should mean approaching China with respect, as a potential partner in global public health, rather than with suspicion as an adversary.

It is not too late to suspend military exercises and bring personnel home to cut the risk of spreading the virus or sparking armed conflict. It is not too late to stop the endless flow of funds to the Pentagon and redirect that wealth toward a painfully needed national health care system.

It is not too late to do these things, and it is urgent that we do.

Khury Petersen-Smith is the Michael Ratner Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.