By Rey Casambre

Fifteen months after the first COVID-19 incursions into Philippine territory, we are still groping for the proper balance between confining ourselves to the relative safety of our homes and daring to venture out to earn a living. How much longer before we can get out of this dilemma?

Notwithstanding government’s claim of having “excellent” performance in managing this unprecedented threat, the larger consensus is that government has failed miserably. First, it has not given due importance to “the science.” It did not promptly undertake mass testing, contact tracing, border controls, and quarantines.

Moreover, medical experts have not been given the lead role in the campaign. The lead role instead has been given to ex-generals, rendering the entire campaign militaristic, with excessive reliance on disciplinary and regulatory measures to control the population. This inevitably has resulted in abuses of authority by military and police forces.

While one may agree in general with this assessment, some qualifications are in order.

First, science does not offer quick fixes. It is neither a handbook of complete and infallible knowledge nor a magic wand one can wield to resolve any emergency or crisis. Science asks more questions than it answers, and the answers are always tentative, if relative. Its value and power derive from its tenet: There is no such thing as absolute truth.

The experience of Sweden is a tragic illustration of a scientific concept — herd immunity — used as the basis for its national strategy in taming the pandemic. Health protocols such as wearing face masks, social distancing, contact tracing, travel restrictions and border controls, and quarantines were deliberately set aside. Sweden reeled from successive waves of widespread infections.

Further, to ask a provocative question: Is it absolutely wrong to have a military response to an extraordinary crisis? Nobody complains when police and armed forces are deployed for disaster rescue and relief. Why not in a pandemic?

Take Vietnam, which has controlled the epidemic with exemplary success, registering lower death and infection rates compared to its Southeast Asian neighbors and most other countries worldwide. This, despite sharing a 1,290-km border with China, the COVID-19 source.

International media and health institutions, including the World Health Organization (WHO), have not projected the Vietnam response as a model to emulate. Based on the few but reliable accounts available, this may be because the Vietnam COVID-19 response has, well, military features. But being so partly explains its efficacy in controlling and minimizing the spread of the virus.

Learning lessons from the devastating 2003 SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) epidemic, the Vietnamese government promptly undertook measures to avert a repeat. The Vietnamese prepared in advance for the possibility of another and even more lethal epidemic, not knowing what it could be and when it might strike. They spent heavily and worked double-time on upgrading and expanding their entire public health system, building more hospitals and quarantine centers nationwide and allotting personnel, facilities and structures for an emergency. (In contrast, other developing countries including ours had cut budget allocations for health and other social services, bowing to international creditor pressures or willfully siphoning these off to national defense and other “priority” items.)

Vietnam’s rare prescience may arguably be attributed to a military mindset: win or lose, armies always prepare in earnest for the most recent war they had fought. But this attribute of military single-mindedness is anchored on the people’s mobilization.

As soon as the epidemic broke out in China, and before it could cross over the border, the Vietnamese government and people went on high alert. Military and police, along with health services personnel, were mobilized at the frontlines. What Vietnam has done is a success story to this day. (See Phan Anh, “How Vietnam fought a pandemic and won,”

But it is a tough act to follow. To begin with, the Vietnamese people have carved out over the centuries a glorious history and tradition of victorious, if heroic, struggles against foreign transgressors. Their most recent foe, expelled from their shores nearly half a century ago, just happens to be the most powerful armed force the world has seen.

The Vietnamese government, army, and civilian population know that above anything else, the key to victory rests on social unity and cohesion. The war against the COVID-19 virus could be nothing less than a people’s war. The state bureaucracy, security forces, and civilian population fully trusted and relied on each other, performing their tasks as allies, not protagonists, willingly bearing sacrifices to defeat the common enemy.

Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc unequivocally attributed the Vietnamese people’s social cohesion in confronting COVID-19 to this glorious tradition, describing their campaign as the “spring general offensive of 2020” (German Press Agency, “With no death reported, Vietnam’s response to coronavirus pandemic earns praise,” April 13, 2020), referring to the 1975 Great Spring Offensive that culminated in the fall of Saigon and the expulsion of US forces from Vietnam. Similarly, the elderly remarked that “they had not seen such degree of compliance, discipline and solidarity since the war.” (Ibid.)

Most armies recognize the need for the local population’s support in any war. The US counter-insurgency (COIN) doctrine stresses “winning the hearts and minds” of the people. Insurgents are likened to fish and the people, the water. Take away the water and the fish will die. Thus, US COIN manuals deal heavily on Population Control Operations — hamlets, checkpoints, curfew, census, food rationing, etc. These invariably hurt the civilians more than they do the mobile guerrillas. In Vietnam and elsewhere, civilians were eventually tagged as potential if not suspected sympathizers of the enemy. Reprisals and coercion, rather than persuasion, education and cooperation became the rule. “Grab them by their balls and the hearts and minds will follow,” better described US counter-insurgency policy and practice.

Eventually, US strategists crafted the “whole-of-government” and “whole-of-nation” approach to address problems encountered in US military presence in Sudan, Iraq, and Afghanistan. The 2009 US Counter-Insurgency manual prescribes “people-centered” programs as primary, relegating the military role to being mere “enablers.” Studies show, however, these “paradigm shifts” failed in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere (Brett Doyle, “The Whole-of-Nation Approach and Whole-of-Government Approach in Action,” Inter-Agency Journal, Oct. 1, 2019., pp. 105-122).

Perhaps we can learn a thing or two from our Vietnamese neighbors on how to deal with formidable foreign transgressors, including COVID-19.

Rey Casambre, is the Executive Director of the Philippine Peace Center. He had actively participated in the peace negotiations since 1992 as consultant to the National Democratic Front and had helped convene various civil society peace advocacy formations. He was arrested on charges of murder and illegal possession of firearms and explosives and was recently designated a terrorist by the Anti-Terrorism Council based on the 2020 Anti-Terrorism Act.