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Where the Coronavirus Meets Conflict: the security sector response to a global health crisis


The United States Institute of Peace (USIP) recently organized a panel discussion on Coronavirus and Conflict: The Security Sector Response”.  DCAF’s contribution to the panel focused on the role of formal security forces in pandemic responses.

Formal security actors can be very helpful to public health services and local and national governments in managing the COVID-19 crisis. In many countries, however, they have responded in an ad hoc fashion to evolving challenges as they were not well prepared and trained to deal with a pandemic. As the crisis continues, the learning curve has been steep. Those countries that are at the early stages of an outbreak can learn from those who have already accumulated some experience. Of course, the many valuable contributions of security forces in the response to the pandemic must be recognized. However, national and subnational emergency measures tend to extend the scope of duties for security actors and consolidate power to allow for fast decision making, thus creating the conditions for potential abuses of power. Given that, it is important that their interventions and assistance are proportional to the challenge, time-limited, and in close adherence to the legal framework.

It is here where parliaments, judiciaries, civil society, and the public must be prepared to uphold accountability. It is also here where adherence to the principles of good security sector governance – the goals of any security sector reform effort – will pay off. It is important to ensure that security forces’ contributions to managing health crises and recovering from their destructive consequences will be in adherence to the rule of law, transparent, responsive, effective, efficient, and accountable.

A key challenge in this regard is the lack of trust in, and poor perceptions of, security forces by the people they serve. This, in turn, affects their behaviour. All too often even the best intentions on the part of the security forces face scepticism and resistance by the population. If security forces abuse their central role and wide-ranging authorities during this period of crisis, the consequences will be felt long after it is over. If the population witness a lack of discipline and competence on the part of security forces - if their actions viewed as punitive and coercive - trust will be undermined and take a very long time to rebuild.  

It is therefore important that security forces behave in a way that does not damage trust. They need to offer services that people see as valuable and helpful without grabbing or holding on to special powers when the crisis is over.  Security forces also need to be properly mandated, prepared, and trained in crisis management, health-related matters, medical and public health concepts, handling of personal protective equipment, inter-agency cooperation, and how to provide non-violent quarantine and crowd management that respects human rights and fundamental freedoms. Training on these issues should be part and parcel of the improvement of professional capacities that are at the core of national security sector reforms.  

During the COVID-19 crisis, many instances can be cited where security forces have responded in a measured and well-organized way, especially in the Asia-Pacific region where security forces are practiced at responding to natural disasters and have learned important lessons from SARS outbreaks in recent years. However, in some developing nations in the region and elsewhere in the world , public health infrastructures are not able to manage major outbreaks, and only the wealthier parts of the population will tend to benefit from the restrictions imposed to slowdown the spread of the virus. In these countries, crises of public despair and civil disorder might put the security forces to very severe tests.

In conflict situations it is considerably worse. Warring parties and trapped civilian populations are all potentially exposed to the virus. In the case of an outbreak, only a ceasefire would allow protective measures and treatment for the infected. If armed violence rages on, pandemic responses will be futile. If a cessation of hostilities can be negotiated and medical assistance offered, trust can be created between the warring parties, the local population, state security institutions, and political authorities. It is here where the COVID-19 pandemic might serve as a catalyst for some positive outcomes that could help counterbalance the otherwise horrific damage the virus has wrought all over the world. On this topic, see also a newly-published edited volume on the topic by Frances Z. Brown from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who also spoke on the panel.

For DCAF analyses of the role of the security actors in the 2014-2015 Ebola crisis, with valuable recommendations that remain relevant for the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, please see:

The Security Sector's Role in Responding to Health Crises: Lessons from the 2014-2015 Ebola Epidemic

The Security Sector and Global Health Crises: Lessons and Prospects. A Policy Brief

Security Sector Engagement in Global Health Crises: A Brief for Policy-Makers

Albrecht Schnabel
Albrecht Schnabel is the Head of DCAF’s Asia-Pacific Unit and has co-directed an analysis of the security sector’s role on the 2014-2015 Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Together with colleagues he is currently applying these lessons to the COVID-19 pandemic.