The neglected role of the military as a disease vector:Implications for Covid-19 and for global public health policy


  • Claudia Chaufan York University
  • K.J. Noh


Covid-19, military as pathogen transmitter, military civilian transmission of infectious disease, militarization of public health, critical public health policy


With the development of communication and transportation technologies, increases in international trade, and mass population movements, chances of human-to-human transmission of infectious disease agents have increased, alongside the pressing need to understand their transmission mechanisms and develop effective responses to contain their spread. Since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, mass testing, contact tracing, isolation of confirmed cases and varying degrees of restriction on population movements have contributed to flattening the global disease curve. However, the role of military transmission in the spread of Covid-19 has been largely overlooked, not only by the military itself, but also by government officials, policymakers, and even medical professionals, despite the rich body of literature spanning at least a century providing evidence for the role of the military as a pathogen transmitter. We call attention to this omission, offer a snapshot of the historical evidence for military-civilian transmission of infectious disease and its disproportionate impact on vulnerable populations, and underscore the need to acknowledge the neglected role of the military as a disease vector for the successful design and implementation of a more equitable Covid-19 public health policy.

Author Biographies

Claudia Chaufan, York University

School of Health Policy and Management

K.J. Noh

Independent scholar, author, investigative journalist and peace activist


Worldometer. 2020. Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic. Retrieved August 18, 2020, from

Wang, C., Horby, P. W., Hayden, F. G., & Gao, G. F. (2020). A novel coronavirus outbreak of

global health concern. The Lancet, 395(10223), 470–473.


Hernández, J.C. (2020, February 28). China spins coronavirus crisis, handling itself as a global

leader. New York Times.


Schallom, R. (2020, March 21). Diary of a lockdown: What it feels like in 17 cities during the pandemic. Fortune.

Reuters. (2020, July 21). China requires negative COVID-19 tests for arriving air passengers. Reuters.

Global Affairs. (2020, December 17). Flying to Canada: COVID-19 testing for travellers - Travel restrictions in Canada.

Israel extends lockdown, demands all international arrivals present COVID test—Israel News— Jan. 19, 2021. Haaretz English. Retrieved March 12, 2021, from

Zemke, J.N., Sanchez, J.L., Pang, J., & Gray, G.C. (2019). The double-edged sword of military response to societal disruptions: A systematic review of the evidence for military personnel as pathogen transmitters. The Journal of Infectious Diseases, 220(12), 1873-1884.

Barry J. M. (2004). The site of origin of the 1918 influenza pandemic and its public health implications. Journal of Translational Medicine, 2(1), 3.

Shorrock, T. (2019, December 2). Welcome to the monkey house. The New Republic.

Kime, P. (2020, January 15). These military towns have the highest rates of sexually transmitted diseases in the country. Military Times.

Cohen, J. (2009, April 25). Behind the scenes: Navy researchers helped spot swine flu in the United States. Science.

Zarocostas, J. (2017). Cholera outbreak in Haiti-from 2010 to today. The Lancet, 389(10086),


Starr, B. (2020, April 26). How the coronavirus pandemic has shaken the US military. CNN.

Ismay, J. (2020, April 5). Navy captain removed from carrier tests positive for Covid-19. New York Times.

Nkengasong, J.N. & W. Mankoula. (2020) Looming threat of COVID-19 infection in Africa: Act collectively, and fast. The Lancet, 395(10227), 841-842.

Erickson, R.J. (1994). Status of forces agreements: A sharing of sovereign prerogative. Air Force Law Review, 37, 137-154.

World Health Organization. (2005). International Health Regulations.;jsessionid=74BDCFFCEAA7BC89B8CBCFD0746426ED?sequence=1

Michaud, J., Moss, K., Licina, D., Waldman, R., Kamradt-Scott, A., Bartee, M., Lim, M., Williamson, J., Burkle, F., Polyak, C. S., Thomson, N., Heymann, D. L., & Lillywhite, L. (2019). Militaries and global health: peace, conflict, and disaster response. The Lancet, 393(10168), 276–286.

Herhalt, C. (2020, April 24). Army deployed to five GTA long-term care homes ravaged by COVID-19. CTV News.

Council of Canadians makes landmark nomination of Cuban Medical teams for Nobel Prize. (n.d.). The Council of Canadians. Retrieved March 12, 2021, from

Barrera, J., March 30, 2020 7:51 PM ET | Last Updated:, & 2020. (2020, March 30). Deputy PM Chrystia Freeland cool to Manitoba chiefs’ request for Cuban doctors | CBC News. CBC News.

Jenson, D., & Szabo, V. (n.d.). Cholera in Haiti and Other Caribbean Regions, 19th Century—Volume 17, Number 11—November 2011—Emerging Infectious Diseases journal—CDC.

Waal, A. de. (2014, November 11). Militarizing Global Health. Boston Review.

Chaufan, C., Dutescu, I., Fekre, H., & Noh, K. J. (2020). The military as a disease vector, from the World Wars to Covid-19: A systematic review. Prospero: International Prospective Register of Systematic Reviews,






Original Research