Can Indian Armed Forces Help Ramp-up Fight Against COVID?

With civilian medical capabilities badly over-loaded, leaders are looking at armed forces for help.

Updated
Opinion
5 min read
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On 30 April, Raksha Mantri Rajnath Singh granted emergency financial powers (EFP) to the armed forces for assisting COVID-19 patients. The EFPs, granted for a period of three months from 1 May to 31 July, are over and above similar powers delegated to medical officers of the Indian armed forces last week, akin to those granted last year, and intended to allow the armed forces to establish and operate quarantine facilities/hospitals, and undertake procurement/repair of equipment/ items/material/stores, besides provisioning various services and works required to support the ongoing effort against the COVID-19 pandemic ravaging India.

It is evident that the government had neither recognised nor prepared for the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. The same is now severely ravaging India — and on 29 April, noted surgeon Dr Devi Prasad Shetty predicted that the pandemic is only going to get worse, and India will need an extra five lakh ICU beds, two lakh nurses and 1.5 lakh doctors in the next few weeks. With civilian medical capabilities badly over-loaded and fully stretched, apex leaders are looking at the Indian armed forces to help fill the capacity void.

Why Weren't Armed Forces Roped in Earlier?

While some are questioning why the armed forces were not roped in earlier, there are cogent reasons for that. The primary mandate of the armed forces relates to defending India from external threats and aggression.

Given the challenges on our volatile borders, the extent to which the nation should involve the armed forces in such contingencies merited deep deliberation at the highest levels.

This is because a canny adversary can easily exploit the diminution of operational capability stemming from deployment of armed forces on domestic commitments (in early 2020, the Indian Army cancelled its border exercise at Ladakh in view of the pandemic – and the PLA intruded in May 2020). 

Fortunately, the border challenges seem to have subsided a bit — the stand-off with China has stabilised and the latter has even offered to assist India; and there’s a ceasefire in place with Pakistan on the LOC.

EFPs and Pandemic-Related Capability Upgradation

Militaries are trained to quickly mobilise in crisis situations. They have a large pool of disciplined, organised manpower as well as mechanical equipment, excellent communications and a capability to swiftly build situation awareness. In a medical emergency such as the one facing us, they can assist in many ways, like building temporary hospitals and shelters; providing food & water; organising logistics, including transportation of medical supplies and patients by land, air and water; diverting defence production units from tools of war to those required to fight the pandemic, among others.

Yet, there are limits to what the armed forces can do in pandemic contingencies. Besides, their involvement is also aimed at a psychological level — to promote the perception of a government doing all it can to support a beleaguered people.

The fact is that while funds, financial powers, and associated acquisitions are a critical component of any credible response to a pandemic, they are not magic — the EFPs are sanctioned, and voila, we have the capability! Hence, what the EFPs can do is analysed below under two heads:

  1. It will take time to set-up and operationalise the mooted facilities with requisite quantities of medical equipment and medicines. A look at some of the facilities created by some volunteer organisations show a vast hall, beds, along with a chair, and bottle of water. Where are, for example, the electrical fitting and stands to operate medical equipment, the oxygen lines, the bathrooms? Is a patient on oxygen expected to disconnect and take that long walk to the bathroom four to six times a day? This is because there is a dire scarcity of medicines, medical equipment and ancillary aids. Hence, the EFPs can be effectively deployed only after internal production is ramped up, or the items are available (and arrive) ex-import. That said, given that the second wave of the pandemic has yet to peak, capacity augmentation by the armed forces could prove life-saving to many in the weeks and months ahead.
  2. The existing medical staff in civilian facilities, fighting the pandemic since last year, are strained, tired, and diminished by infections. The armed forces’ medical services too are fully stretched, managing the existing but now overloaded military medical installations. An elemental, legacy problem is that over the past decades, the obsession, particularly in the Indian Army, to add more “teeth” has led to cutting the “tail” – and over a period of time, we have denuded our hospitals to the bare minimum functional staff. Additionally, military hospitals and medical facilities are geared for treating a healthy population (soldiers and their families) for standard ailments and injuries in peacetime, trauma, and combat wounds in wartime – but not infectious disease. Moreover, standard soldiers, while qualified in basic first aid, cannot be expected to render medical assistance.

Thus, after hospitals and oxygen, the next big challenge is the availability of doctors, nursing staff and medical attendants (the last category is truly under-rated).

Armed Forces Can Still Contribute to the Fight Against Pandemic

While the armed forces can pull out some/all medical personnel serving on staff appointments, as also recall retired medical personnel, these will clearly not be enough as every new facility will require regular shift working. It is not clear how this scarcity of medical personnel will be overcome.

That said, the armed forces will make a dent in the overall fight against the pandemic now ravaging India. In the end, three aspects merit mention:

  • The way the personnel in the armed forces live (in close proximity in barracks), eat (community dining halls), procure daily needs (in bulk), travel, the availability of bathrooms, etc, make for a potentially grave breeding ground for a pandemic. The Spanish Flu (1918-19) inflicted far more fatalities on the US military than did the combat of World War I. Hence, there is perhaps a need to involve the CAPF, who could be tasked to take over some of the mundane, routine duties at upcoming facilities. This would ensure that the fighting echelons are not fully exposed and the operational edge is not blunted.
  • The existing military hospitals should cater to only the serving and retired personnel. Cases of denial of admission to veterans, or their deaths generate an adverse effect on the morale of serving soldiers — many of them are second or third generation, while others perceive a sense of abandonment by their organisation.
  • The government should immediately and intensely focus on building state capacity. But it does seem there is sparse awareness or concern, that healthcare and education are the true building blocks of a nation and the pathways to a powerful economy, and that large outlays for building state power, with healthcare and education being neglected are self-defeating.

(The author is a retired Brigadier of the Indian Army. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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