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How the world’s armed forces have responded to Covid-19

Armies are battling an invisible enemy.

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US soldiers screen passengers at the Daniel K Inouye International Airport in Honolulu (Sgt John Schoebel/US Army National Guard via AP)

US soldiers screen passengers at the Daniel K Inouye International Airport in Honolulu (Sgt John Schoebel/US Army National Guard via AP)

US soldiers screen passengers at the Daniel K Inouye International Airport in Honolulu (Sgt John Schoebel/US Army National Guard via AP)

The coronavirus pandemic has forced militaries and militias to adapt to an invisible enemy, even as traditional conflicts grind on.

Armies have had to enforce social distancing rules among troops while helping with national outbreak containment and postponing manoeuvres.

On Thursday, Saudi Arabia declared a temporary halt to fighting in Yemen because of the pandemic, while in Libya and Afghanistan conflicts are intensifying despite UN appeals for a global ceasefire. An outbreak in poor or war-scarred nations would be particularly devastating.

Here is a look at how the outbreak affects some militaries and conflicts:

– Defending borders

Before the pandemic, Israel’s military kept tabs on the Iran-backed Hezbollah militia in Lebanon, carried out occasional air strikes against Iran’s military presence in Syria and retaliated for sporadic rocket fire from the Gaza Strip.

Now troops are being mobilised to help police enforce quarantines, assist the elderly or provide child care for health workers.

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An Israeli police officer and soldiers block Jaffa gate in Jerusalem’s old city (Ariel Schalit/AP)

An Israeli police officer and soldiers block Jaffa gate in Jerusalem’s old city (Ariel Schalit/AP)

AP/PA Images

An Israeli police officer and soldiers block Jaffa gate in Jerusalem’s old city (Ariel Schalit/AP)

To prevent infections, the army cancelled some weekend leave and isolated certain groups of soldiers.

Most training exercises have been cancelled or delayed, though the air force conducted a drill with US forces – with each pilot isolated in his own fighter jet.

– Bridging divides?

The virus has spread to the Israeli-occupied West Bank and to Gaza, which has been blockaded by Israel and Egypt since the militant Hamas group seized control in 2007.

The long-simmering Israeli-Palestinian conflict now exists side-by-side with efforts to contain the outbreak.

Troops have carried out home demolitions in the West Bank, soldiers killed two Palestinians in clashes and a trickle of rockets have been fired from Gaza.

But the virus is also opening doors to limited cooperation. Israel has helped deliver test kits and other supplies to both the West Bank and Gaza. An Israeli-Palestinian committee is coordinating the movement of Palestinian workers and security forces in the West Bank.

– To wage war or fight the virus?

Spurred by concern over the pandemic, the Saudi-led coalition fighting the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen declared a temporary ceasefire after five years of war. The Houthis have dismissed the offer as a ploy and clashes continue, casting doubt over a future peace agreement.

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Houthi rebel fighters in Sanaa, Yemen (Hani Mohammed/AP

Houthi rebel fighters in Sanaa, Yemen (Hani Mohammed/AP

AP/PA Images

Houthi rebel fighters in Sanaa, Yemen (Hani Mohammed/AP

The UN had called for an end to escalating fighting so authorities can confront the coronavirus. Yemen confirmed its first case this week, while foreign backers Iran and Saudi Arabia have struggled to stem massive outbreaks. An outbreak in Yemen, where the conflict has devastated the healthcare system, could be catastrophic.

The past month has brought more human suffering across the country. Ground fighting in the north caused 270 deaths in 10 days. The Houthis fired missiles at the Saudi capital, Riyadh, triggering retaliatory strikes on Yemen’s capital, Sanaa. A rebel attack on the city of Taiz, in western Yemen, killed at least six female prisoners and wounded two dozen women and children.

Even modest hopes for peace talks in Yemen stand in contrast to Libya, where rival forces have ignored humanitarian pleas for a ceasefire, seeking to exploit the diplomatic void left by the pandemic.

Eastern-based forces under the command of Khalifa Hifter are escalating a year-long siege of the capital, Tripoli, which they want to wrest from the UN-backed government.

– Balancing threats

In South Korea, which has managed to slow the outbreak, the military is key to containment. More than 450 military medical staff and 2,700 troops have been deployed to help with treatment at hospitals, screening travellers, enforcing quarantine, producing face masks and helping trace the contacts of virus carriers, according to the Defence Ministry.

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South Korean soldiers spray disinfectant in Daegu (Kim Do-hoon/Yonhap via AP)

South Korean soldiers spray disinfectant in Daegu (Kim Do-hoon/Yonhap via AP)

AP/PA Images

South Korean soldiers spray disinfectant in Daegu (Kim Do-hoon/Yonhap via AP)

South Korea has postponed its annual military exercises with the United States and prohibited most enlisted soldiers from leaving their bases.

While the country is under constant threat from its nuclear-armed rival North Korea, experts say the cutback in training is inevitable. An outbreak among troops would be devastating for combat readiness.

– Waging war games

For the 30 member nations of the Nato military alliance, which is not fighting any wars, the virus poses a challenge to its routine training exercises.

Last month, the US Army announced it was cutting down the number of troops taking part in massive war games, the Defender-Europe 2020 exercises, that have been planned across Europe over the next six months.

The Nato chief, Jens Stoltenberg, said the alliance remains ready to act.

– Unseen disaster

India has ordered its 1.3 billion people into lockdown, but tensions remain on its militarised frontier with Pakistan. In March, soldiers exchanged gunfire and mortar shells along the frontier at least two dozen times, according to the Indian army.

The military has stopped recruitment and halted movement across military stations except for essential services. It cancelled training exercises, such as the Indian Navy’s 41-nation drill, which was set to begin on March 18.

Lt Gen Vinod Bhatia, who leads India’s Defence Ministry-run think tank the Centre for Joint Warfare Studies, said that “all militaries build scenarios, but there hasn’t been a scenario around this kind of disaster”.

PA