May the Force be with you

Richa Mishra | Updated on April 03, 2020

In charge: Evacuees from Covid-19-affected countries housed at a quarantine facility set up by the armed forces at Jaisalmer, Rajasthan   -  IMAGE COYRTESY: MINISTRY OF DEFENCE

From evacuating stranded citizens to running quarantine facilities, India’s defence forces have been at the forefront of the battle against Covid-19

Just for a moment, Sgt PK Dhaka confesses, he was worried what his family would say about his journey to Wuhan. The Indian Air Force (IAF) personnel was part of a team that went to China last month to bring back Indians stranded after a lockdown following the spread of the deadly novel coronavirus.

What kind of support did he get from his family and society in this, Prime Minister Narendra Modi asked him over the phone in a conversation now made public. “Gharwale toh naraaz ho gaye hongey (The family must have been upset)?”

There was some fear that the family would fret, Sgt Dhaka replied. “But I was also hopeful, as my father is a retired Air Force person and my younger brother is in the Army. I would be able to make them understand.”

And this — the preparedness to deal with any situation — is what keeps the armed forces motivated, senior defence personnel stress. War, natural calamities, terrorist encounters — they are ready for it all.

“For us, all these are like a mission for which we are ready to sacrifice,” says General Satinder Kumar Saini, Vice-Chief of the Army Staff. “There is a high level of motivation within the Forces to deal with any situation.”

Spot for one: A quarantine facility at Jaisalmer   -  IMAGE COURTESY: MINISTRY OF DEFENCE


The Forces actually started preparing for measures on Covid-19 in January, and geared up for action in February, much before it had snowballed into a national crisis.

“Even before the first case was reported in India, we were mapping the patterns the virus took in China and other countries,” Gen Saini says. “The Army has a pan-India presence, so we prepared ourselves and our facilities accordingly. We had to ensure that the country’s border security is healthy and ready to deploy.”

Defence minister Rajnath Singh has been reviewing the situation via video conferences. The Ministry of Defence (MoD) has been participating in meetings chaired by the Cabinet Secretary from the very beginning. “As in other crises, our armed forces were directed to fully assist the civilian administration in facing the Covid-19 crisis,” MoD spokesperson A Bharat Bhushan Babu says.

The Forces set up quarantine facilities at different locations, where evacuees were accommodated and provided with healthcare. “In coordination with the Ministry of External Affairs, the IAF through its transport planes brought back Indian nationals as well as nationals of other friendly countries,” Babu says.

Six quarantine facilities are operational — in Manesar (Haryana), Hindon (Uttar Pradesh), Jaisalmer, Jodhpur (both in Rajasthan), Mumbai and Chennai. So far, Babu says, 1,462 people have been evacuated from the affected areas — Wuhan, cruise liner Diamond Princess in Japan, Italy, Iran and Malaysia. Of these, 1,073 are under quarantine, while 389 have been discharged, he adds.

Another evacuation flight from Iran with 284 people reached the Jodhpur facility on March 29. “A C-17 aircraft of IAF carried 15 tonnes of medicines as a goodwill gesture to Wuhan and carried 112 evacuees in the return flight. Another C-17 evacuated 53 people from Iran.”

The Navy is a part of the exercise, too. Six Covid-19-positive patients are being kept in isolation at the Naval Hospital in Karwar, Karnataka. “A Naval aircraft has also been used to ferry swab samples from Goa to Mumbai. An aircraft carrying fumigation equipment is being planned shortly to assist the civil administration in Srinagar,” Navy spokesperson Commander Vivek Madhwal says.

As of now, five hospitals across the Army, Navy and Air Force can carry out Covid-19 tests. Six additional hospitals are being equipped shortly with resources for testing.

Babu adds that the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) is assisting in the manufacture of sanitisers, personal protection equipment (PPE) and ventilators. Some defence public sector units are also geared up for this.

“Our medical establishments were also further prepared,” Gen Saini says. “By medical establishments I also mean preparing the field formations to... be ready to be deployed if needed.”

The Vice-Chief adds that the forces are ready with plans to take over other field stations, if necessary. “Greenfield projects have also been identified, if need be, for creating [medical] centres.”

Like other healthcare professionals across the country, the armed forces are also looking at the possible shortage of PPE. “Their rational usage is crucial,” Army spokesperson Col Aman Anand states.

While there is adequate PPE in hospitals, additional procurement is being planned for the coming weeks and months. “The armed forces have also been directed to augment medical resources for the civil health set-up,” he adds.

What about the personnel on the borders? Instructions have been issued to sensitise troops on preventive measures, the spokesperson stresses.

Preventive measures along the Line of Control and Line of Actual Control, and isolation wards at peripheral hospitals have been strengthened. “Intensive information, education and communication campaigns are on for serving personnel.”

The stations are also geared up for an eventuality such as viral community spread. “For the personnel and families, even before the first case was identified in India, we were issuing advisories. Those who were on leave were asked not to come back. Return to units was delayed, transfers and movements of personnel have been kept in abeyance,” Gen Saini points out.

The Army’s pan-India presence makes it ideally suited to address any emerging hotspots, he says. “Our priority is, while maintaining continued security of the borders, ensuring force protection so as to be ready to be deployed in this crisis.”

Richa Mishra

Published on April 03, 2020

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