The Covid-19 pandemic took four months to affect one million people worldwide; but in 12 days, the figures doubled. It is clear that the world is in for a long haul in its fight to bring it under control. As on April 16, India’s death toll is less than one-fifth of the 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 in Delhi, Mumbai and Chennai, under active lockdown. During this period, it proposes to carry out house-to-house surveys and case detection as part of its active containment strategy to break the chain of transmission. In the first phase, the country managed to create 220 testing labs, earmark over one lakh beds and over 600 dedicated hospitals exclusively for fighting the pandemic. However, if we go by global projections, it is in the second phase that a nation’s preparedness will be fully tested.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has extended the national lockdown till May 3. He has warned that it would be more stringent, but promised to implement it 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 threat. The centre and states are on the same page; every organ of the 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 unemployed. Although governments have taken palliative measures to provide them essential supplies and some money, curbing normal life is likely to increase the general feeling of insecurity. Sectarian elements are already cashing in on this and spreading mischievous and fake news to churn the emotions of vulnerable people. Already in a few places, police patrols and medical teams carrying out the testing have been attacked. This was seen when thousands of migrant workers from Bihar and Bengal gathered near Bandra railway station in Mumbai and demanded trains to go home after the PM announced the extension of lockdown. The civil administration is likely to face more such challenges during the second phase.
Administrative organs and law-enforcing agencies are already fully stretched in enforcing the lockdown. Under such compulsions, the services of the armed forces are likely to be sought more frequently in the coming days. This will be in addition to the support that the army and the air force are providing round-the-clock to the civil administration in many remote and not easily accessible areas in the north-east, Ladakh and J&K.
Unlike some organs of the government, the 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 a well-defined command and control structure with self-contained logistics to maximise their effectiveness. The military is probably best-equipped to handle pandemics 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.
The armed forces are already geared up to fight Covid-19 to assist the civil administration in many parts of the country. The army has dedicated 13 hospitals across the country exclusively for the treatment of such patients. The collective capacity of these facilities is 3,000 beds with about 370 intensive care and high dependency units. In J&K, the army is carrying out virus awareness programmes 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. Under Operation Sanjeevani, the IAF airlifted medical supplies to Male on April 2. On February 26, it flew medical supplies to China and evacuated 112 Indians and foreigners from Hubei province. In March, the IAF evacuated 58 Indians from Iran and carried 529 samples for investigation. Indian citizens evacuated from Iran and Malaysia are being treated at air bases at Hindon and Tambaram, respectively. It has set up nine quarantine facilities with 200-300 beds. The IAF has also established 24×7 crisis management cells at Air Headquarters and various Command Headquarters.
However, it should not be forgotten that the army is actively committed in J&K and parts of the north-east. Even as the nation is fighting Covid-19, infiltration across the LoC has continued. In the anti-infiltration operation in Keran sector of north Kashmir, troops braving inclement weather and hostile terrain eliminated five terrorists attempting to infiltrate the LoC in the first week of April. Five more terrorists were killed elsewhere in the Valley. As the passes open, we can expect more such bids.
Armed forces are equipped to handle epidemics due to historical experience. According to the US War Department’s most conservative estimate, during World War I, influenza struck 26 percent 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 1,06,000 hospital admissions for influenza and pneumonia out of 6,00,000 men. One of the memories of the 1965 war which has been 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. One of its companies was declared unfit for war after typhoid struck most of the men.
The Army does not take failure in preventive health issues kindly 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.
—The writer is a military intelligence specialist on South Asia, associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies and the International Law and Strategic Studies Institute