Attrition: An Epidemic Military Threat

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February 16, 2022: Fears that covid19 would disrupt military operations or even reduce the number of recruits proved wrong. In most countries it was all about the age and health of the average soldier. The troops tend to be younger and healthier than the population as a whole. Despite the difficulties conducting basic and advanced military training, fewer new recruits were needed because fewer first-term soldiers were leaving the military after their initial enlistment. That was due to the rising unemployment rates because of the lockdowns. Not only were more troops staying in, but there was no shortage of qualified recruits trying to enlist. Periods of high-unemployment do that.

Covid19 had minimal impact on most armed forces worldwide. This was particularly the case in the United States where the rate of infection was lower than the population as a whole and was kept that way because most troops lived on military bases, which include housing for families of service members. Restricting all personnel to base during the epidemic further reduced exposure. Rates of infection varied between services, in part because the army and marines had troops training in large groups while the air force did not. The navy worked hard to keep covid19 away from ships going to sea.

The advantage the troops have is that recruits and veterans are generally young and must remain in excellent health to continue serving. This is especially true of troops in units deployed overseas and the crews of ships. Some 87 percent are between 18 and 39 years old while over 90 percent of ship crews are 18-39. The main covid19 danger in the military is to family members and civilian employees. These are more likely to include civilians who may be older or less healthy. These groups are more likely to die if infected. For the American military, the ability to limit the spread of covid19 was essential for troops stationed overseas, especially in the Far East where countries like South Korea and Taiwan were able to contain the spread of covid19 and suffered a much lower number of deaths per capita than Western nations.

Containing infections was important because, if people are never exposed to the disease, there are no covid19 deaths at all. Even then most people less than 60 years old quickly figure out that the danger is much less than publicized. For example, the death rate of covid19 victims is 0.13 percent for younger (under 40) victims but that death rate gets much higher (2-3 percent) for males between 60 and 80 in poor health and that goes to 20 percent for those over 80. This was something a lot of public health officials did not realize early on.

In the military, the most serious problem was troops getting infected and passing it on to more vulnerable civilians. Some 10-15 percent of the troops will suffer the effects of covid19 but few will die. Nevertheless, the impact of covid19 on troops is a problem for morale and overall readiness. In combat zones around the world, the presence of covid19 was soon a reality. Most of these wars are disorganized affairs involving lots of irregulars, part-timers and militias. The fighting tends to take place in areas that never had much in the way of modern health care or high standards of living. Since covid19 is less lethal than many of the existing diseases, like malaria in many parts of Africa, the new flu-type disease would come and go without much notice were it not for all the publicity. It was different in urban areas where the politicians and wealthier individuals prefer to live. These have better health care but they are also older and more prone to die from covid19. For them, covid19 was a crisis and many foreign reporters preferred to do their interviews in urban areas, not realizing the younger soldiers and irregulars out in the countryside were more vulnerable to the usual diseases or lack of medical care for wounds or other injuries. Islamic terror groups warned their members to avoid places where covid19 was infecting and killing people. In some areas there was less Islamic terrorist activity for a while but since these groups are largely composed of younger men, all they had to do is follow the alternative advice; trust in God. Many Islamic terror groups depend on raiding and extortion to obtain supplies and cash. In these cases, some of them were seen wearing face masks as they made their rounds.

Armed forces have always been particularly vulnerable to epidemic disease. For this reason, nations that can afford it ensure that new recruits have all available vaccines before joining. The worst that can happen is that a new epidemic disease comes along. With covid19 it was not a problem, but a century ago a severe strain of influenza, that was especially lethal to the young and healthy, came along. The 1918 (Spanish Flu) had an overall death rate (2.1 percent) three times that of covid19. For people of military age, the Spanish Flu was more than ten times deadlier than covid19. Unlike covid19, there were no drugs available to treat Spanish Flu victims. The Spanish Flu deaths were accepted by the population as another natural disaster.

The Spanish Flu was so devastating for military organizations that it was believed that if the Spanish Flu had arrived a year or two earlier, it might have caused World War I to end differently, with a ceasefire or armistice rather than the outright defeat of Germany. Since then, finding a cure or treatment for flu-like diseases has been one of the key goals of medical research.

The next “Spanish Flu” has yet to appear and covid19 certainly wasn’t it. Even the particularly severe “Asian Flu” of 1957/58 had a higher fatality rate among the young than covid19. What made covid19 more frightening was that those who did get it felt more pain and suffering than the worst influenza. That made it seem like more of a threat than it actually was. Because of that many politicians and some public health officials declared covid19 to be a much greater threat than severe strains of flu, which it wasn’t. In time covid19 will become known more as the covid19 panic rather than a major killer like the Spanish Flu.

While an epidemic disease is active the risk is more about what you think it is than what it actually is. The difference in 2019 was that a century of efforts to find a cure, or at least treatments, for the flu and related diseases like covid19, were successful. There were no vaccines for the flu but the tech had arrived that allowed a treatment to be developed each year for the annual flu and this antiviral treatment was erroneously called a vaccine even though it obviously did not prevent the vaccinated from getting the flu but did increase resistance to the flu, reducing the severity of the disease and reducing deaths. By 2020 similar antivirals could be quickly developed for related diseases like covid19 and the 2012 MERS and 2003 SARS. These earlier covid type diseases were less lethal and quick to spread, but it was obvious that eventually one would come along that spread more quickly and might be more lethal as well. Politicians and the media largely ignored the facts and portrayed covid19 as one of the worst flu-like diseases ever while also assuring the public that vaccines would soon be available. The scientific reality was overwhelmed by misrepresentation and sensationalism.

 


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