Mobilizing the Military Medical Services for COVID-19 Response: How Sri Lanka’s Joint Civil-Military Efforts Relieved Health Workers and Ensured Continuance of Routine Immunisation

Author: Christina Shaw

Governments around the world have relied on an arsenal of strategies to combat the COVID-19 virus, while simultaneously trying to meet the demands of routine immunisation activities. One such strategy used in many regions to support national health systems was the deployment of emergency responders, military, and other security personnel. These groups can play a crucial role in strengthening emergency response capacity, as evidenced by their efforts during the COVID-19 pandemic. Engaging the military to fill gaps when health systems are overwhelmed depends on a country’s military history, in addition to the strength and preparedness of its civilian health system.

As military medical services were mobilized to support countries’ response to COVID-19, they took on a wide range of roles. From setting up field hospitals and mass vaccination sites, delivering protective equipment, and vaccinating communities, their support filled gaps at a pivotal moment when health systems and health workers were overwhelmed.

For instance, the Vietnam People’s Army was deployed to support the nation’s response. With leadership from public health officials, the army opened its bases as quarantine centres, played a limited role in the distribution of aid to remote communities, and helped with thorough contact tracing efforts conducted throughout the country. The Singapore Armed Forces were mobilised to distribute masks to the public, carry out contact tracing, and assist in medical screening at airports. In Indonesia, the military was tasked with leading the entire COVID-19 response, with a senior military officer managing the country’s response task force and other personnel distributing equipment and enforcing rules on wearing face masks and physical distancing.

There are many other country examples of military engagement to provide surge capacity. Britain’s military assisted with the national testing effort, set up mass vaccination sites and provided inoculations, and supported hospitals across the UK in intensive care units. The Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) also supported the civil authorities by deploying to long-term care facilities, directly supporting remote communities, assisting the Public Health Agency of Canada in managing and distributing personal protective equipment, and helping Public Health Ontario with contact-tracing efforts. In the US, Operation Warp Speed was a partnership between the federal health and defense departments on the development, manufacturing, and distribution of vaccines, therapeutics, and diagnostics.

Taking an approach that blended the civilian and military responses, the Ministry of Health (MoH) and military medical services in Sri Lanka worked side-by-side to ensure health workers were able to continue providing routine immunisation and other primary health care services throughout the pandemic. Sri Lanka’s military medical services was able to rapidly mobilize to set-up vaccine and quarantine centres, provide personal protective equipment, and deliver COVID-19 vaccines. These collaborative efforts with the MoH allowed health workers to continue focusing on routine immunisation efforts and enabled the successful administration of three rounds of COVID-19 vaccines.

We recently sat down with Col. Dr. Saveen Semage, Deputy Director, Sri Lanka Army Preventive Medical Services and Consultant Community Physician, Sri Lanka Army Medical Services, to hear about the country’s experiences with its blended civil-military response to the pandemic.

Check out the full Practitioner Perspectives interview to learn about other lessons learned from these joint efforts and recommendations for other countries considering bringing in the military to help with surge capacity.

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