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Military intervention during the 2014 Ebola outbreak was helpful, but more research is needed to define how the armed forces can work with civilian organisations in future health crises, a report says.

More than 5,000 foreign soldiers were deployed to help combat Ebola in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone after aid organisations struggled to contain it and because organisations such as the WHO were “widely perceived as slow and inadequate”, it says. Military forces built Ebola treatment units, deployed health workers and trained up local people, the report says.

People who dealt with the crisis on the ground generally welcomed assistance from foreign armed forces, but also viewed them as risk averse and slow to build Ebola treatment units, says the report, published this week (26 October) by the University of Sydney in Australia.

“There are times when the presence of security forces can reassure people, and others when they can make them very uncomfortable.”

Josiah Kaplan, University of Oxford 

Clare Wenham, one of its authors and a researcher formerly at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine in the United Kingdom, says that health and humanitarian workers have, in the past, “automatically opposed” military intervention in health crises.

But with the Ebola outbreak, the military’s role was “paramount” and both sides should be encouraged to improve future coordination, Wenham says. “[The military] have a different approach to working and a different mandate, and it didn’t necessarily work as well as it could have,” she says.

But she stresses that military intervention should remain a last resort and that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. “We do not want to suggest that the military should continue to have a role in [all] global health crises; merely that if they are deployed again, these are some lessons learned,” she says.

To draw further lessons, the report urges more research on when and how armies should assist civilian organisations in health crises. Topics to investigate include “the impact of military participation in activities ranging from quarantine and isolation to clinical care, and whether, in fact, they should play a role in these types of activities at all”, it says.

This research should be carried out by “independent entities, such as academic institutions”, together with international NGOs, military forces and the UN, the authors recommend. Josiah Kaplan, a research consultant on humanitarian issues at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, agrees that research in this area is “still quite sparse and underdeveloped”.His team, for one, is researching how local communities perceive military involvement in crises. “There are times when the presence of security forces can reassure people, and others when they can make them very uncomfortable,” he says.

WHO consultant Daniel Bausch broadly agrees with the report’s recommendations. “There’s no doubt in my mind that the military played an important role” in coping with the Ebola crisis, he says, “so let’s at least ask the questions and explore how we can capitalise [on its involvement] in the future.”


Marie Bashir Institute & Centre for International Security Studies Saving lives: The civil military response to the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa (The University of Sydney, 26 October 2015)