Coronavirus: Armed forces’ response to the COVID-19 pandemic in India

April 22, 2020 5:11 PM

India has been fortunate to have been spared the horrific toll that the virus has taken in vast swathes of countries across Europe and North America.

Coronavirus, Armed forces, COVID-19 pandemic, North America, Indian Army, NCMC, covid 19, china, HADR,indian armyThe very first tasks assigned to the Armed Forces were two missions to evacuate Indians stranded in foreign lands which had become hotspots for COVID-19.(File photo)

By Dr (Lt Gen) CS Narayanan

The ferocity with which the COVID-19 pandemic has struck has left almost all countries in the world struggling to cope.

The first case in India was reported on 30th January 2020, in a student returning to Thrissur, Kerala from China. As of 21 April 2020, the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare has confirmed a total of 18,601 cases, 3,252 recoveries and 590 deaths in the country.

India has been fortunate to have been spared the horrific toll that the virus has taken in vast swathes of countries across Europe and North America.

The Government of India has been resolute in its response putting in place a host of measures, including a nation-wide lockdown since 25 March 2020.The Armed Forces, which have always played a pivotal and proactive role in Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR), have been an integral part of the unprecedented response to this biologic calamity.

The top leadership of the Indian Army, Navy and Air Force have been working round the clock with key stakeholders including the Armed Forces Medical Services (AFMS), Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), Defence Public Sector Undertakings, Ordnance Factory Board, Indian Coast Guard, Cantonment Boards, and the National Cadet Corps in putting swift and co-ordinated mechanisms in place to thwart the virus.

The Integrated Defence Staff which advises the Chief of Defence Staff is an organization especially suited to bring in synergy and jointness in the current rapidly evolving scenario.

The National Crisis Management Committee(NCMC) has been overseeing the Command, Control and Coordination of the Crisis Management Group(CMG) of various wings of the Government and Armed Forces.

The very first tasks assigned to the Armed Forces were two missions to evacuate Indians stranded in foreign lands which had become hotspots for COVID-19.

112 Indian citizens and citizens of friendly foreign countries were flown back from Wuhan on 27 Feb 2020 in a C-17 Globemaster and 58 Indians were evacuated from Tehran on 10 March 2020.

These evacuees were quarantined in six facilities across the nation including Manesar, Jaisalmer, Jodhpur, Chennai, Hindan and Mumbai. Seven other Air Force quarantine facilities have been kept in a state of readiness in Bhatinda, Devlali, Dundigal, Chakeri, Agra, Gorakhpur and Bangalore. The Indian Navy has set up quarantine centres at its bases in Visakhapatnam and Kochi.

Three COVID positive cases from these Quarantine centres were transferred to a Referral Hospital in the Capital.

Indians evacuated from Iran have been hosted in an Army Wellness Facility at Jodhpur under ‘Operation Namaste’. These centres provide holistic facilities for medical treatment, as also their physical and mental wellbeing.

The Army has taken over a civil quarantine centre at Narela. Gen Bipin Rawat, Chief of Defence Staff visited the camp recently to take stock of the situation and to interact with doctors from the Army Medical Corps (AMC) and the armed security personnel deployed there.

In case of further escalation of the crisis, various Army Schools have also been tasked to be on standby as quarantine facilities.

The Armed Forces Medical Services (AFMS) is the backbone of the Armed Forces response to the pandemic. More than 8,500 doctors, 50,000 paramedical personnel and the vast infrastructure of the AFMS have been placed at the disposal of the nation. Twenty-eight service hospitals have been earmarked purely for coronavirus cases, according to Lt Gen Anup Banerji, Director General Armed Forces Medical Services (DGAFMS), who chaired a meeting with medical chiefs of the Army, Navy and Air Force. These hospitals will cater not only to military personnel, but also to civilian patients transferred from state health facilities. High Dependency Care Units (HDUs) and Intensive Care Unit Units (ICUs) are being readied in 51 service hospitals to receive patients.

General MM Naravane, Chief of Army Staff said that Field hospitals across the country have been instructed to set-up a 45-bed isolation facility and create a 10-bedded intensive care unit exclusively for COVID-19 patients.

Quick-reaction medical teams (QRMTs) and BattleField Nursing Assistants (BFNA) will augment resources at short notice wherever required.

Five Armed Forces hospitals, including Army Hospital Research and Referral, Delhi and Armed Forces Medical College, Pune have begun testing for SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for causing COVID-19 illness in humans.

The Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO) and the various agencies under its ambit have taken on the responsibility of augmenting vital equipment and resources needed by medical personnel.

Bharat Electronics Ltd (BEL) has been tasked to manufacture ventilators and the Ordnance Factory Board has scaled up production of hand-sanitizers, masks and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)

The Indian Air Force has done a commendable job in transporting men and material to the remotest locations in the country using heavy lift transport aircraft.

Commanders are all too aware that Personnel of the Armed Forces are also vulnerable to rapid transmission and spread of the virus in view of their living conditions and deployment in hazardous operational areas like forward posts and battleships. Commanders at all levels are taking steps to prevent such an eventuality while performing their assigned task.

In a laudable move, our men in Uniform have decided to contribute one day’s salary to PM-CARES Fund amounting to about Rs 500 crore.

Twenty-five thousand cadets of the National Cadet Corps (NCC) are being mobilised to assist the civil administration in traffic management, supply chain management, sensitization of the public about social distancing and other essential measures.

While the Armed Forces have responded with speed and efficiency to the on-going pandemic, the Chief of Army Staff has assured the nation that this will in no way affect their core duty of protecting the nation from external aggression and defending our borders.

(The author is Former Deputy Chief of Integrated Defence Staff (Medical). Views expressed are personal.)

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