Yesterday, headlines broke that the United States military is barring COVID-19 survivors from joining the military. Social media erupted (and is continuing to erupt) with concerned Americans wondering aloud if the Defense Department knows something we don’t about the lasting effects of infection.
“During the screening process, a reported history of confirmed COVID-19 will be annotated ‘Considered disqualifying’“ pic.twitter.com/ZKx91AUbXo
— Free (@Nathaniel_Free) May 4, 2020
That memo, which has been confirmed as real by Pentagon officials, outlines how any potential candidate that have been hospitalized in the past for COVID-19 will be considered permanently disqualified from joining the military.
“During the medical history interview or examination, a history of COVID-19, confirmed by either a laboratory test or a clinician diagnosis, is permanently disqualifying …” the memo read (it has since been updated).
Why was this decision made?
It’s easy to see how people might assume this decision might be based on some bad news about coronavirus recovery that the rest of the public isn’t privy too–especially amid the onslaught of conspiracy theories related to the virus that have gotten traction in recent weeks. Americans are more primed than ever to assume they’re being misled by the government, in large part because we assume the government should have the answers to the burning questions we’re asking. The problem, however, seems to be that the government doesn’t have all the answers, and that’s why they’re hedging their bets and playing it safe.
From the standpoint of Operational Risk Management (ORM), this decision makes logical sense, despite the conspiracy theories the headlines may have fueled. It’s important to remember that even at this point, there are far more questions regarding COVID-19 than there are answers. Scientists are actively studying the virus, how it spreads, and how effectively people can recover from it.
With the understanding that scientists still aren’t quite sure when a patient is no longer contagious, how effectively a patient can recover, or whether or not there are any lasting effects of infection, it seems pretty logical that the Defense Department doesn’t know either. For many of us, those questions are a source of anxiety, but for America’s war fighting apparatus, they represent a significant threat to military readiness, and good ORM dictates that the threat be mitigated as effectively as possible.
What is the Pentagon saying about this memo?
Sandboxx News reached out directly to the Pentagon, and while details regarding the order remain sparse, DoD Spokesperson Jessica Maxwell pointed out that the memo represents interim guidance, and clarified that only those who have been hospitalized for the illness are subject to the ban, as well as that the guidance was updated yesterday. She also pointed out that aspiring service members can request a medical waiver to be exempt from disqualification.
Of course, the novel coronavirus is not the only medical issue that can bar someone from joining the military, there are others ranging from an abdominal wall hernia to wearing braces. All of these ailments can be circumvented, when appropriate, through a waiver.
Will service members that test positive be separated from the military?
That also puts to rest another concern permeating social media: does that mean service members that have contracted COVID-19 will be separated from service? Thus far, there has been no official statement suggesting that they would, but its understandable to make the logical leap from “no one that’s had COVID-19 may join,” to “no one that’s had COVID-19 may serve.” Thus far, that’s not the case, and to be clear, there are other medical conditions that set precedent for that.
As stated above, an abdominal wall hernia can bar aspiring service members from joining the military, but I personally developed an abdominal wall hernia during my time in the Marine Corps. While it may have prevented me from enlisting, because I was already in service, I had the hernia repaired at a military medical facility and went on my way.
Is this a permanent decision?
Ultimately, the decision to bar COVID-19 survivors from joining the military appears to be one made out of an abundance of caution, rather than as a result of any classified intelligence the Defense Department may be privy too. Until the scientific community can identify clear roadmaps regarding the spread and recovery of this virus in the American population, it’s simply safer to recruit among the portions of the population that have yet to contract this disease.
Orders, however, can often be rescinded as easily as they are passed, particularly in the case of interim guidance, which is meant to guide decision makers while more formal precautions can be taken. For now, trying to keep COVID-19, in any form, out of the training environment has been deemed a worthwhile effort, particularly because the second and third order effects of delays at basic training reverberate throughout the force for months or even years.
For the military, mission accomplishment and troop welfare are the two guiding principles behind nearly all decisions, and right now, barring recovered COVID-19 patients from serving in the military seems to serve both–that is, until more questions have been adequately answered.