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Civilian-Military Coordination During the U.S. National Response to COVID-19

May 18, 2023


A new report released by the Center for Human Rights and Humanitarian Studies titled, "Civilian-Military Coordination During the U.S. National Response to COVID-19" examines civilian-military interaction during the first year and a half of the U.S.’s national response to COVID-19.

Within the first few months of the World Health Organization declaring the COVID-19 outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International Concern, most nation states mobilized a level of military involvement in their domestic responses. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs 2007 Oslo Guidelines and 2018 Recommended Practices for Effective Humanitarian Civil-Military Coordination of Foreign Military Assets in Natural and Man-Made disasters both detail the proper use of military assets in humanitarian disasters. According to the ‘Principle of Last Resort’ stipulated in these guidelines, military assets “should be requested only where there is no comparable civilian alternative and only the use of military or civil defense assets can meet a critical humanitarian need.”1 For U.S. domestic responses, the Federal Emergency Management Agency utilizes a similar framework, preferring to use the U.S. military as a last resort in national disaster responses – primarily because of the high cost associated with using military capabilities.

The U.S. military’s health system is substantive across metrics such as budget, size, and logistical capacity for disaster or public health emergency response. The U.S. National Guard alone played a variety of functions, such as setting up new medical facilities and isolation centers, screening for COVID-19, disseminating public health guidance, contact tracing, supply chain/logistical support, providing COVID-19 testing to both students and the public at large, providing direct medical care to patients with COVID-19 and other illnesses, supporting vaccination efforts, and even driving school buses and teaching in schools. However, despite also being the global topspender in health care, the U.S. faltered in its early response to the COVID-19 pandemic. As of March 2023, according to the CDC there have been over 103 million confirmed cases of COVID19 and 1.1 million deaths in the U.S.

This project examines civilian-military interaction during the first year and a half of the U.S.’s national response to COVID-19. Utilizing the Eastern United States (FEMA Regions 1-4) as a case study, the project contributes evidence to a field where relationships, roles and responsibilities, and leadership structures have historically formed through necessity rather than through an institutionalized approach. Coupled with desk research that focuses on the national level, the interview data collected for this project offers a grounded approach to understanding how civilian and military actors worked together in discrete response contexts within the U.S. It also captures anecdotal data on real-time decision making that resulted in important on-the-ground innovations that may carry generalizable lessons for future responses.