Indian Armed Forces now fight a different battle

Since the outbreak of the deadly coronavirus in Wuhan, China, Indian Air Force, Army, Navy, working with the Ministry of Defence, have proactively worked to evacuate Indian people from some of the worst affected countries - China, Iran, Italy and Japan - and quarantined them at their facilities to release after mandatory isolation

Anil Bhat Apr 05, 2020
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Since the outbreak of the deadly coronavirus in Wuhan, China, Indian Air Force, Army, Navy, working with the Ministry of Defence, have proactively worked to evacuate Indian people from some of the worst affected countries - China, Iran, Italy and Japan - and quarantined them at their facilities to release after mandatory isolation.

From 1 February till 20 March 2020 the Air Force evacuated well over 1000 people (including five foreigners)  and quarantined them at their facilities/bases in Manesar (Haryana), Hindon (Uttar Pradesh), Ghatkopar (Maharashtra), and Jaisalmer (Rajasthan). 

As of 3 April 2020, the IAF, assisting in transportation of essential supplies, medicines and medical equipment, has airlifted approximately 60 tonnes of s-material to various parts of the country, with 28 fixed-wing and 21 helicopters on standby at various locations across the country.  

Six naval ships are kept ready for assistance to neighbouring countries. Five medical teams are also on standby for deployment in the Maldives, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan and Afghanistan. Naval ships continue to remain mission deployed during the COVID-19 crisis. \ 

Besides the Indian Navy has set up a quarantine camp at INS Vishwakarma at Vishakhapatnam which is fully equipped to accommodate nearly 200 personnel. Navy has also set up isolation facilities at its premier hospital INHS Asvini at Mumbai.   The naval base, Kochi under Southern Naval Command is gearing up to provide quarantine facilities for Indian nationals. The SNC is also actively coordinating with the Kerala state health officials and Ernakulam district administration to explore the feasibility of provisioning civil hotels/resorts for quarantining.

All Army Hospitals  also have been kept on alert to meet any eventuality.

On 26 March, consequent to the announcement of the 21-days national lockdown, SNC took a slew of measures, in consultation with the state governments and Naval Headquarters, aimed at a two-pronged strategy to counter the contagion COVID-19, which is to be prepared and equipped to assist civil society in its fight against the disease and concurrently to ensure insulation of own personnel from infection as well as availability for all duties as required. 

Ten teams of BattleField Nursing Assistants (BFNA), comprising of non-medical personnel, have been readied at Kochi, Kerala to help medical staff should the situation become overwhelming. Such BFNA teams are being readied at all other stations under SNC as well. Indian Navy has implemented 'stay wherever you are, no travel' policy with regards to its personnel on leave or temporary duty. SNC had prepared one of its training units at Kochi as the Corona Care Centre (CCC) for 200 Indian citizens being airlifted by the government from different parts of the world.  A separate CCC facility for another 200 service personnel and families has been created for any eventuality affecting service personnel. The two facilities have been prepared as per existing directives of requiring dedicated and isolated food, toilets, medical waste management and recreational arrangements for 14 days. The CCC will be administered by a dedicated group of officers and personnel and a separate Medical Care Centre of Indian Navy doctors and nursing staff, who would conduct the medical aspects of control of the patients. Medical protocols promulgated by the Ministry of Health are being strictly adhered to. Special sanitization drives of public areas and education of personnel including families is also being undertaken.

Six quarantine facilities run by the Armed Forces are currently operational at Manesar, Jaisalmer, Jodhpur, Chennai, Hindon and Mumbai. So far a total of 1,463 people, including foreigners, evacuated from COVID-19 affected countries have been housed and observed at these centres. Of them, 1,073 persons are presently under quarantine and being provided proper care. These include evacuees from Iran, Italy, Japan and Malaysia, besides the IAF and medical crew. A total of 390 evacuees from China, Japan and IAF evacuation flight crew have been discharged following completion of their mandatory quarantine period.

In addition to the active quarantine centres, more facilities readied to be made operational within 48-72 hours, if needed, are  at Kolkata, Visakhapatnam, Kochi, Dindigul near Hyderabad, Bengaluru, Kanpur, Jaisalmer, Jorhat and Gorakhpur.

Interacting with media on 27 March, Director General Armed Forces Medical Services (AFMS), Lt Gen Anup Banerji, said 28 Service Hospitals have been earmarked as COVID hospitals for managing purely coronavirus cases. This will include Armed Forces as well as civilian patients transferred from state health authorities, in case their capacity is overwhelmed. He added that, as of now, there are five hospitals across Army, Navy and Air Force which can carry out COVID tests. These include Army Hospital Research and Referral, Delhi; Command Hospital Air Force, Bangalore; Armed Forces Medical College, Pune; Command Hospital (Central Command) Lucknow; Command Hospital (Northern Command) Udhampur. Six more hospitals are being equipped shortly with the resources to begin testing. Lt Gen Banerji also informed that, as of now, only one serving soldier has been tested positive of COVID-19. He was on leave at his home in Leh, taking care of his father who had returned recently from Iran and suffering from COVID. The soldier has recovered. 

Banerji added that isolation wards at peripheral hospitals have been activated at Army formations along Line of Control and Line of Actual Control with Pakistan and China respectively. “Intensive information, education and communication campaigns are going on for serving personnel. Leave extension of those on leave as well as curtailment of leave to bare minimum have been imposed. Segregation facilities have been set up to observe troops already back from leave from various states,” he said.

A 14-member team of medical officers and paramedical staff of Army Medical Corps was sent to the Maldives for capacity building measures and assist in setting up their own testing, treatment and quarantine capacities. The team stayed in the Maldives for 10 days and returned on March 23. Lt Gen Banerji said, apart from the Maldives, AFMS is ready to dispatch a Rapid Response Team to Nepal for assisting them with the COVID situation there. He added that other assistance for other countries will be provided as and when required.

On the availability of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), the DG AFMS said, it is a challenge at national as well as global level, adding that advisory for rational usage of PPE has been issued to the three services. “The AFMS is presently geared up with adequate PPEs for use in our hospitals. Additional procurement is also being planned to tide over crisis foreseen during the coming weeks and months since the Armed Forces have been directed to augment medical resources for the civil health set up also,” he added.

The AFMS has suggested setting up of medical facilities within train coaches in case of emergency. Various advisories have been issued by AFMS on social distancing, cancellation of courses and training, use of masks, preventive measures to be taken at workplace and guidelines on COVID surveillance and contact tracing.

Also on 27 March, a shipment of 60,000 face masks ordered by the Indian Medical Association (IMA), Goa to offset the shortfall in Goa, was stuck at Delhi as trucks could not proceed further in the current situation of lockdown. A request for facilitating transportation of the masks to Goa was made by the IMA president to the Indian Navy at Goa. Accordingly, an Ilyushin 38SD (IL-38), a Long-Range Maritime Reconnaissance Aircraft of the Indian Navy, was promptly readied to depart INS Hansa for Palam Airport, New Delhi on 27 March. The collection of the items at Delhi was coordinated by Air Force Station, Palam and the aircraft returned to Goa with the masks the same day. On 1 April, Goa Naval Area coordinated with the Councillor of Mangor Hill and distributed critical supplies to families of daily wagers, migrant labourers and low-income families at Gandhinagar. Around 1000 kg of essential provisions were distributed to 200 families. Additionally, 600 kgs of provisions were handed over to Goa’s Minister for Urban Development and Social Welfare Milind Naik for distribution to families in need. Earlier, personnel of the Defence Security Corps (DSC) and Indian Navy from INS Hansa had distributed food at several locations in Vasco, Goa.

On March 28 it was reported that Border Roads Organisation (BRO) was braving the COVID-19 threat to expedite construction of a bridge and undertake snow clearance operations. They have been working relentlessly to completely replace the Daporijo bridge (430 feet Multi-Span Bailey Bridge), the only lifeline of Upper Subansiri district, Arunachal Pradesh, to restore lines of communication for all 451 villages and security forces located along the China border. The personnel of 23 BRTF (Border Roads Task Force) of Project Arunank are, on special request from the local administration, working in full swing in spite of the dilapidated state of the existing bridge.  

Meanwhile, in Northern India, BRO is presently engaged in snow-clearance operations on the Manali-Leh axis, day and night despite inclement weather and COVID 19 threat to provide relief to Lahaul valley and Ladakh in an earlier time frame. Presently Rohtang Pass and Baralachala Pass are being tackled by four snow clearance teams. This is the first time, BRO personnel were inducted by air to Sarchu to carry out snow clearance of the mighty Baralachala Pass.

On 01 and 02 April, IAF airlifted essential medical supplies and commodities from nodal points to Guwahati, Dibrugarh and Mohanbari in Assam; Prayagraj, Gorakhpur, Bareilly and Agra in the Central region; and the Union Territories of J&K and Ladakh.

Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), which has been tracking the spread of COVID-19 since the world media started reporting its devastating impact in China’s Wuhan Province, took a call in the first week of March 2020 to enhance efforts to create countermeasures to stop the spread of the disease in India. DRDO started focusing on creating mass supply solutions of critical medical requirements and, by the end of March, it became ready with four different items – hand sanitizers, ventilators, facial masks and bodysuits. DRDO is also ready with technologies for sanitising areas of different sizes. The Centre for Fire Explosive & Environment Safety (CFEES), Delhi has developed two configurations of sanitising equipment. 

National Cadet Corps (NCC) has offered a helping hand to civilian authorities in the country’s fight against COVID-19 by extending the services of its cadets nationwide. The tasks envisaged for NCC cadets include, manning of helpline/call centres; distribution of relief materials/medicines/ food/essential commodities; community assistance; data management and queue & traffic management. 

Ex-servicemen (ESM) across the country have also risen to the occasion. In Punjab, an organisation called Guardians of Governance, comprising 4,200 ESMs, are assisting in data collection from all the villages. Chhattisgarh government has employed some ESM to assist police. In Andhra Pradesh all the District Collectors have asked for ESM volunteers.  Sainik Rest Houses are being readied in Uttarakhand to act as isolation/quarantine centres if need arises. 

(The author, a strategic analyst and former Defence Ministry and Indian Army spokesperson, can be contacted at wordsword02@gmail.com)

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