The decisions of John Poyer, the 12th Naval Governor of American Samoa, are widely praised the annals of public health history. Hearing through radio services of the devastating impact of the Spanish Influenza epidemic in Western Samoa, Poyer made the decision to fully quarantine American Samoa. The decision led to authorities in Western Samoa cutting off communications with the American controlled side, but it also saw no flu-related fatalities within Poyer’s quarantine zone. Poyer won the Navy Cross for his actions. 

This case is often cited to justify quarantine measures during viral outbreaks. However, the methods of using quarantine as an effective public health strategy during pandemics has a history of mixed results. Quarantines are ancient methods of public health interventions dating back to the book of Leviticus (500 B.C), and with them come ancient problems. Ensuring good health, order, and economic activity during a quarantine has never been easily managed. In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic ordinances of sheltering in place, self-isolation, and social distancing have effectively derailed a globally connected, and globally dependent economy, leaving hundreds of millions of people out of work and facing uncertain times.

The question is then how can governments and militaries respond to such modern-day global health emergencies, ensure some level of economic and social prosperity, while remaining vigilant against security threats?  Some have suggested that a whole-of-government approach should be used to incorporate disaster management protocols from pandemic planning. What does this look like, and in what ways could there be benefits and challenges with such an approach?

Some lessons for pandemic management may be learned from the core principles of emergency preparedness protocols. First, much like the response to an international disaster, governments benefit by structuring their actions through cooperation and collaboration with each other to address a problem, rather than through competition and isolation against a presumed enemy. Second, much like a natural disaster, security threats change in a pandemic, and as such, defence forces should be vigilant to these new areas. Abandoned public spaces like deserted airports, and grounded aircraft are less likely to be targets of terrorism at the moment. However, the now total dependency on supply lines, including rail and sea invites closer attention to the safety and operations of those networks.

Much like a natural disaster, it is crucial in a pandemic for governments to have a clear sense of knowing who will do what, when, and with what resources.  Broadly speaking, the World Health Organization’s pandemic preparedness guidelines loosely mirror that of natural disaster management in terms of developing 1) preparedness; 2) response; and 3) recovery strategies. According to the WHO, within pandemic management, the stage of developing a “concept of operations” is essential in “establishing the roles, responsibilities and how organizations will work together and coordinate national subnational and local levels of pandemic response”.  The challenges of coordinating resources raise the question as to whether militaries should have a greater role in responding to pandemics in a similar way to that of natural disasters. Strong arguments exist both for, and against, tasking military resources with pandemic response management. 

As Molina et al. (2010) argue, the military “roles during pandemic outbreaks could include: taking national and regional command of the event, assigning workforce for essential civilian missions, use of logistic and military resources, maintaining public order and implementing public health measures such as isolation and quarantine”. Such duties come with both serious pros and cons. One of the military’s greatest strengths is the mobilization of massive quantities of resources, both human and material, quickly and across great distances. However, this assumes that resources are in place for such mobilization. The lack of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) during the COVID-19 pandemic presented an enormous challenge to government procurement to which national and regional health authorities had to seek dedicated manufacturing facilities abroad to supply depleting stocks. A greater challenge is mustering human resources for health. Already, the Canadian military struggled to fill its compliment of medical service providers.  In 2007, Canada, some 63,500 military personnel have their own medical needs met by roughly 540 civilian professionals, including doctors, nurses, and mental health workers. Considering that the military relies on the service of civilian contractors for health needs, and considering the PPE shortfalls during COVID-19, it is erroneous to assume that military services can simply “show up” and set up hospitals easily.  

This is in part why the cons of total military-led emergency management in pandemics outweigh the pros. Taking command of an area and reassigning civilian workforces, resources and governance can be enormously disruptive, and it may not guarantee any better access to human and material health resources during a crisis. During times of crisis, it is better to enhance and strengthen existing community networks, especially for shelter in place orders, and to ensure long-term social distancing. The coordination of existing supply lines, community-based networks, transportation services and civil governance is far more efficient and less disruptive than direct military involvement. Since there are no bystanders during a pandemic, a new command structure for events can be needlessly disruptive and present new challenges in acquiring resources and delivering care.

Rather than military forces leading the efforts of a pandemic, it is far more important to plan out how the security scenario changes during a pandemic. The military must continue its primary role of maintaining the security of the citizenry and guarding the borders of the state, especially in times of global geopolitical changes due to the pandemic. Since global trade networks are disrupted and since shelter in place orders drastically change urban landscapes, the security challenges also change. Societies become more dependent on constrained trade and transportation networks during pandemics, and as a result the impacts of any disruption will have widespread impacts in terms of acquiring access to food, medical, and energy supplies.  

Military resources can ensure that vital supply chains remain uninterrupted during the crisis. However, increased security for swift operations and ensured mobility of supply chains can in fact present new security threats. The smuggling of illicit or belligerent materials could actually increase in scenarios when scrutiny is reduced in order to ensure efficiency in supply chains. One argument is to suggest that since traditional trade and traffic services are reduced, border enforcement agencies would have an increased capacity to apply scrutiny to the networks that are in play. However, during the COVID-19 pandemic, several border agencies issued furlough notices to their agents because of the reduced demand for their services. What’s more, physical scrutiny at the border may matter less than deeper scrutiny of the management of the trade networks themselves. Maritime shipping and transport networks are notoriously porous in allowing deceptive behaviour for smuggling. Countries like North Korea have mastered the art of it by employing a wide range of shell companies, flags of convenience, disingenuous vessel identification behaviour, and even sea to sea transfers. With the need for uninterrupted transport through more limited supplies will occur in a pandemic, there is a role in ensuring that those networks remain secure from illicit or harmful smuggling.

How will governments approach cooperation and partnerships with other nations?  Since 9/11 the international security framework has largely been structured to respond to security threats from enemies, rather than situational threats from problems. Just in terms of numbers, the pandemic has cost the world dearly in terms of lives, resources, and prosperity.  No terror attack has been able to match the breadth or scale of such damage. While national, and international cooperation security schemes are well set up to handle the comprehensive threats that belligerent governments and terrorist groups can produce, what is in place for governments to respond to viral pandemics that make short work of borders and control points. 

Some have suggested that globalization itself brought about the COVID-19 pandemic, and that many nations may turn towards insular policies of migration and trade for the foreseeable future. This would be a disappointing outcome, as the increased speed and efficiency in mobility and communications has benefited the lives of billions. Rather, it could be an opportunity to realize that the greatest threats to each and every person will come from global events connected to human and environment health, rather than from limited theatres of conflict. If foreign relations remain open to globalization in the immediate future, those relations will have to deal with “problem-based foreign policy” rather than “enemy-focused policy”. In this way, the military has an important role in taking on coordination roles to which coordinated civilian organizations struggle with. 

The nature of pandemics has changed greatly since John Poyer closed down America Samoa during the Spanish Flu. Any disruption to global connectivity of the planet presents immediate and real economic, social and security threats to which militaries should be profoundly aware of, and ready to adapt. It may not be the best approach for militaries to “handle pandemic management” outright, but there are clear benefits for militaries adapting to new security geographies during and after a pandemic. During a pandemic, assistance in the transportation of essential goods and materials is vital. So too is to realize that targets and threats change during a pandemic. Conventional targets of terrorism or belligerence from hostile nations could indeed be replaced by new security risks involving transportation networks that provide much-needed services and equipment in times of disruption.  

How then can military strategies adapt to problem-based foreign policy that is attentive to the human and environmental health threats that the world is likely to face in the 20th century? Answering this call may require serious adaptations to traditional military coordination and planning, but in doing so, it may embolden key strengths of military operations such as getting who and what is needed to where when it is needed the most.

Works Cited

Auditor General of Canada. (2007). Chapter 4—Military Health Care—National Defence. Retrieved from 2007 October Report of the Auditor General of Canada:

CBC News. (2020, April 12). Border cuts won’t affect front line, government says. Retrieved from CBC:

Galloway, G. (2018). Military aims to alleviate doctor shortage by increasing number of sponsored residents. Retrieved from The Globe and Mail:

Huish, R. (2017). he failure of maritime sanctions enforcement against North Korea. Asia policy,, 23, 131 – 52.

McLane, J. (2013). PARADISE LOCKED: The 1918 Influenza PandemIc In amerIcan Samoa. Sites: a journal of social anthropology and cultural studies,, 10(2), 30 – 51.

Miller, C. (2020). Foreign Policy Research Institute. Retrieved from Will COVID-19 Sink Globalization?:

Molina, V., Balicer, R., Groto, I., Zarka, S., Ankol, O., Bar-Zeev, , Y., & Ash, N. (2010). The military role in a flu pandemic. Harefuah, 149(1), 9 – 13.

Tognotti, E. (2013 ). Lessons from the history of quarantine, from plague to influenza. Emerging infectious diseases, 19(2), 254.

Tomkins, S. (1992). The influenza epidemic of 1918–19 in Western Samoa. The Journal of Pacific History, 27(2), 181 – 197.

World Health Organization. (2018). Building Capacity for pandemic response. Retrieved from Global Influenza Program:

World Health Organization. (2020, March 3). Shortage of personal protective equipment endangering health workers worldwide. Retrieved from World Health Organization Newsroom: