Why Army Troops Must Be Kept in Reserve & Not ‘Fight’ COVID-19

This easy fall-back—to depend on army—has obvious advantages. But overall, it is a bad idea, writes David Devadas.

4 min read
Image used for representational purposes.

In its efforts to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, the government has fallen back on military and paramilitary forces to provide quarantine facilities. The army’s southwestern command, for example, has set up a spiffy quarantine centre as far afield as Jaisalmer.

This easy fall-back — to depend on the forces — has obvious advantages. But overall, it is a bad idea.

The virus could easily spread among the forces, who are often billeted in cramped barracks.

This is particularly so when those in quarantine behave irresponsibly, as was reported about a batch of people who had returned from Italy last week and were taken to quarantine in Gurugram.

Forces Should Be Isolated to Prevent Spread of Coronavirus

The best strategy would be to isolate members of the forces from the virus rather than expose them. In fact, the brass should consider restricting leave except where urgent. For one thing, the forces could be required for their primary role, in case inimical powers use the pandemic as a cover to try and destabilise the country, or in case public unrest spreads.

Empty Hotels Should Be Used

Since hotel bookings are plummeting as people isolate themselves and meetings and conferences are called off, it would be better to requisition hostels and hotels, which are pre-equipped for cleaning and cooking — and are comfortable to boot.

The arrangement would be of mutual advantage financially: the rooms could be requisitioned for a relatively small sum, but owners would still get some income at a time of very slack demand.

If the staff at such hospitality centres are scarce owing to the coronavirus scare, surely patriotic voluntary organisations could chip in to provide care for fellow-citizens.


Army Could Be Called On to Maintain Public Order

Another reason why forces should be kept in reserve, and in good health, is that they could be required for public order.

Hospitals could potentially become the sites of riots in case the pandemic situation worsens to the extent that doctors are forced to choose which patients to save.

This sort of heart-wrenching situation was reached as the number of cases exploded in parts of Italy. In his address to the nation on 19 March, Prime Minister Modi specifically warned of the possibility of such a ‘visphotak’ (explosive) increase in infections.

Since families and kin tend to crowd around Indian hospitals, the threat of riotous responses in such situations is very real. It has happened before for far less obvious cause.

Troops Might Need to Step In To Prevent Quarantine Escapes

The number of persons who have evaded quarantine and hospitals in India raise the hoary possibility that authorities might feel impelled to place those resisting quarantine in quasi-imprisonment in case the pandemic spreads exponentially. Forces might need to be deployed for that.

A tsunami of cases could be lurking, for India has tested fewer persons for the disease (6 per million till 16 March) than other prominent countries.


Food & Essentials Shortage: Another Reason to Keep Troops in Reserve

The Catch-22 with regard to quarantine facilities provided by at least the army is that they are spick and span, and efficiently run. People are fleeing many other quarantine facilities precisely because these often lack the sort of hygiene that would keep the virus at bay. Photographs of dirty bathrooms and dormitories have been doing the rounds.

The sad state of many public hospitals will most likely become a bigger talking point in the coming days.

So could the precarious state of the economy and the country’s financial health, if consumption plummets or supply chain and cash flow glitches grow.

Shortfalls, particularly if they affect food and other basic household supplies, could also cause public unrest of the sort that could require the deployment of troops. That is one more reason to keep them in reserve.

The Kerala Model of Fighting a Pandemic

Kerala has set an outstanding example in how well the pandemic can be addressed. Since Holi, the Government of India seems to have done a relatively good job of checking and tracking symptoms among those returning from abroad.

But starting four months after this sordid tale began in Wuhan, airport screening may not suffice.

We are sitting on a volcano. If it erupts, it could cripple the economy, social harmony, and citizens’ privacy.

Indeed, the danger could be greater in India than in any other part of the world, for population density, crowded environs, levels of sanitation, garbage disposal, hygiene, and the sorry state of many public hospitals are all like flames to a moth for the coronavirus.

(The writer is the author ofThe Story of Kashmir’ andThe Generation of Rage in Kashmir’. He can be reached at @david_devadas. 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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