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As of Sunday, March 22, the American President Donald Trump has deployed the National Guard to aid with the country’s response to Covid-19, particularly in the states of New York, Washington, and California, where the number of infections is extremely high. This comes after widespread criticism that the White House’s course of action has not been sufficient. Washington has made it clear that the deployment of the National Guard does not indicate the country is under martial law. They will be used to set up medical stations and deliver medical supplies, as well as delivering food, administering testing, and disinfecting public spaces. The Guard has been instructed to only serve law enforcement functions under the direction of local police.
Lindsey Cohn, a Naval War College expert in the National Guard, states “[they are] called up when local resources are insufficient to meet the need,” reassuring the population that they will not serve military roles in the communities they’re in. The Chief of the National Guard, Joseph Lengyel, elaborated on why the deployment is necessary: “With Covid-19, it’s like we have 54 separate hurricanes in every state, territory, and the District of Columbia. When disaster strikes, we don’t have to mobilize from some base. We pack a lunch, we go to work, because we are already there in the communities where these events are taking place. We live there, we can respond faster.” The National Guard is composed of individuals who live in the state and have normal lives and work — they train on the weekends and serve in their roles as National Guardsmen only when necessary. “The National Guard comes from the community and knows the community,” says Christine Wormuth, a Pentagon official. This makes their response crucial and community-tailored.
The National Guard has enacted two major responses. They are delivering food to New Rochelle, one of the hardest-hit communities in New York. Governor Andrew Cuomo directed them “to deliver food to homes and help with cleaning public spaces in the containment area.” They have since helped to feed 3,000 students who normally rely on school lunches. Cuomo has taken a more aggressive stance against the virus than many other national leaders, which is essential in a dense urban place like New York City, where the disease has already infected more than 20,000 people: “The president says it’s a war. It is a war.”
Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida sent 500 National Guard troops to administer drive-through testing for the virus in Broward County, the Florida epicenter. This decision helps to mitigate the painfully slow national testing efforts, an unforeseen failure on the part of the federal government. He notes that many of the officers are medical professionals in their working lives, and therefore are an excellent resource in times like these.
The mobilization of the National Guard is a good response to times of crisis; for example, it was activated by New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. But they do not make up for the follies of the Trump administration thus far. The administration has procrastinated and downplayed the seriousness of the disease, threatening to end the quarantine early for the sake of the economy. Compared to South Korea, which had a test developed and in use within a week, the United States has failed and continues to fail distributing sufficient tests. In the United States, the first tests weren’t available until six weeks after the first confirmed patient. In the meantime, President Trump claimed to “have it totally under control. It’s one person coming from China. It’s going to be just fine.” Now, there are more than 86,000 cases in the nation. And testing is still not readily available—which means that the experts in the field are unable to define the extent of the virus in the United States.
The deployment of the National Guard will be a useful tool to deliver food and supplies, administer testing, and fill in the gaps where they can. They have been useful in New York and Florida to help the most at-risk communities. But they cannot fill the most crucial gaps that the Trump administration left behind: failure to create testing, failure to mobilize the production of supplies, and failure to take seriously a global pandemic.