by Col R Hariharan

The COVID-19 virus pandemic took four months to affect one million people worldwide; but in just 12 days it has doubled the figure. It is clear the world is in for a long haul in its fight to bring it under control. As on April 16, India’s share is only 12,380 confirmed cases and a death toll 413 so far, less than one fifth of 2,228 deaths in a single day in the US. Rather than patting our backs, we should worry about the second phase when the virus spreads exponentially. 

The Union health ministry has identified and brought 170 “hotspot” districts including the metropolitan cities of Delhi, Mumbai and Chennai, under active lockdown. In this period it is proposes to carry out house to house survey and case detection as part of active containment strategy to break the chain of virus transmission. In the first phase, the country has managed to create 220 testing labs, earmark over one lakh beds and over 600 dedicated hospitals exclusively for fighting the virus pandemic. However, if we go by global projection, it is in the second phase the nation’s preparedness will be fully tested.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has extended the national lock down till May 3. He has warned that it would be more stringent, but promised to implement with a human face to reduce its adverse impact on the poor. The nation despite its diversity of caste, creed and political differences seems to have risen to the occasion to unitedly fight the virus threat. The Centre and states are on the same page; every organ of government, corporate houses, civil society and people in all walks of life are lending their support to the overall effort.

However, in the second phase when people come under increased stress, social cohesion of the country is likely to be tested more often. Already, the economy has taken a nose dive. Industry, trade and commerce have ground to a halt rendering lakhs of people unemployed. Although, governments have taken palliative measures to provide them essential supplies and some money, curbing of free flow of normal life is likely to further increase the general feeling of insecurity. Sectarian elements are already cashing on this among vulnerable population, spreading mischievous and fake news to churn up their emotions.

Already in a few places, police patrols enforcing the lockdown and medical teams carrying out the testing have been attacked. Thousands of migrant workers from Bihar and Bengal gathering near Bandra railway station in Mumbai demanding trains to go home, after the PM announced the extension of lock down, is a recent example of such behaviour. Civil administration is likely to face more such challenges during the strict lockdown phase.

The administrative organs and law enforcing agencies are already fully stretched in enforcing the lockdown and testing. Under such compulsions, services of armed forces are likely to be sought more frequently in the coming days. This will be in addition to the support the armed forces particularly, the army and the air force, are providing round the clock to the civil administration in many remote and not easily accessible areas in North Eastern states, Ladakh and J and K to reach out to the people.

Unlike some organs of the government, armed forces are professionally structured to handle emergencies and crisis situations. Troops are regularly trained and tested to undertake missions at short notice and operate under adverse conditions. They have well-defined command and control structure with self-contained logistics to maximise their effectiveness. In handling pandemics, military is probably best equipped because its units maintain high hygiene standards and regularly monitor, prevent and treat infections among troops lest the unit’s operational effectiveness is compromised. This makes them especially useful in achieving public health goals during national epidemics.

Armed forces are already geared up to fight the COVID-19 to assist the civil administration in many parts of the country. The Army has dedicated its 13 hospitals located across the country, exclusively for the treatment of COVID-19 patients. The collective capacity of these facilities is 3000 beds with about 370 intensive care and high dependency units. In J and K, army is carrying out virus awareness programs in many places.

The IAF transport aircraft have flown hundreds of sorties to airlift 380 tonnes of critical medical supplies and stores and evacuate hundreds of Indians stranded overseas. In Operation Sanjeevani, IAF airlifted medical supplies to Male, Maldives on April 2. It has been involved in such operations since February. On February 26, it flew medical supplies to China and evacuated 112 Indians and foreigners from Hubei province in China. In March, IAF evacuated 58 Indians from Iran. Last month, an IAF aircraft evacuated 58 Indians from Iran and also carried 529 samples for investigation.

The IAF is providing medical care to Indian citizens evacuated from Iran and Malaysia at air bases at Hindon and Tambaram respectively. It has set up nine quarantine facilities of 200-300 personnel capacity each. The IAF has established 24×7 crisis management cells at Air Headquarters and various Command Headquarters.

However, it should not be forgotten that army is actively committed in J and K and in parts of Northeast. Even as the nation is fighting COVID-19 virus, infiltration across the LoC in J and K has continued. In the anti-infiltration operation in Keran sector of North Kashmir, troops braving inclement weather and hostile terrain have so far eliminated five terrorists attempting to infiltrate across the LoC in the first week of April. With five more terrorists killed elsewhere in the valley, in 24 hours ten of them were eliminated. As the passes open we can expect more infiltration bids.

Armed forces nightmares are made of epidemic strike than enemy attack. This is based on the historical experience of many epidemics militaries had faced the world over. According to the US War Department’s most conservative estimate during the World War I, influenza struck 26 per cent of the million strong US expeditionary forces and killed almost 30,000 before they even reached France. The Navy recorded 5,027 deaths and more than 106,000 hospital admissions for influenza and pneumonia out of 600,000 men.

One of the memories of 1965 war etched in my mind is lining up with the crew of our artillery battery to receive two shots each – one for tetanus and the other for typhoid- from the medical officer. Our neighbouring infantry battalion, which did not follow standing orders for war, paid a heavy price during operations; one of its company was declared unfit for war after typhoid struck most of the men. Our neighbouring infantry battalion which did not follow standing orders for war in earnest paid a heavy price during operations; one company of troops were struck by typhoid and rendered not fit for war.

Army does not take kindly to failure in preventive health issues and quickly demoted the errant commanding officer to the rank of Major for his dereliction. That is why every soldier remembers the mosquito net drill and the “malaria parade” followed every week when troops are lined up and made to swallow the bitter anti-Malaria pill.