COVID ‘War’: Lessons from the Battlefield – For India to ‘Win’

Lt Gen (Retd) Satish Dua shares his lessons from the battlefield as he urges India to unite to fight the pandemic.

5 min read
Hindi Female

The world is going through testing times; the whole of mankind has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic — some more, some less. India’s handling of the situation was a good model to follow in 2020. India’s huge pharmaceutical industry also supplied injectables around the globe; the world appreciated it.

Things changed drastically in the second wave this year. Now India is facing multifarious challenges — COVID cases are on the rise; the fatalities are increasing. We have seen an exponential rise in not just cases but also COVID-related deaths. Where did we go wrong? How did we go wrong so grossly? The blame-game has begun.


Post-Kargil Review: What We Can Learn Today & Apply to COVID Crisis

This is not the time for directing energies against each other; this is the time to synergise our efforts to defeat the pandemic. In fact, we should follow the military model of post-war analysis. Take the Kargil conflict for instance. First, the whole country put their might together to defeat the enemy. After the conflict, there was analysis within the army, also at the national level. The Kargil Review Committee made scathing indictments, a group of ministers led by Mr LK Advani made an honest appraisal, and four task forces made bold recommendations. Consequently, most telling defence reforms were initiated post-Kargil. A similar analysis and soul searching should be done within our health sector too, post-haste.

The food shortages due to famine eventually resulted in the Green Revolution in the 1960s. In 1991, consequent to the financial crisis caused by low foreign exchange reserves, bold economic reforms were launched, which in turn kickstarted the growth story of India.

After Kargil in 1999, unprecedented defence reforms were initiated for the first time. The present COVID crisis in the country calls for bold reforms in the health sector. Our health sector has never been our strongest suit. While defence and educational reforms have been initiated recently, health certainly merits more attention. In fact, this is perhaps the right time and the correct trigger to launch wider reforms within India.


Are We Prepared For Future Crises? We Must Act Now

There can be no two views that nationwide, at many levels there have been lapses, failures, insufficient planning or foresight and poor administration in coping with the COVID crisis. If oxygen or hospital beds or vaccines are inadequate, someone has to be responsible. If lifesaving equipment like ventilators is either faulty or unused, there is something wrong.

If there are constant disagreements between the Centre and the states on their roles and responsibilities, eventually leading to politicising the issue — while the death toll piles up — there is every reason to sit up and course-correct — however bold or blunt they may appear to be.

The time is now — we do not know how long this crisis is going to last. The Allies started planning for the United Nations during the World War, when Churchill had famously said, “never let a good crisis go to waste.”

We also need to act with urgency, because this may be the shape of challenges we are likely to face increasingly in the future. Pakistan has openly spoken of death by a thousand cuts. Not yet blaming China for the pandemic, the effects of the information warfare on various disruptive activities in the country are there to see. The next crisis may well be caused by an ‘electronic virus’, shifting gears into cyber warfare.

If essential services like power grids, railways, banking etc are severely hampered, it can spell doom and chaos. In addition to adopting defensive and deterrence measures, we also need to be prepared to deal with it.


Streamlining of Processes, Administrative Reforms, Grassroots-Level Involvement Needed

The reforms that the country needs, need to go beyond the health sector. The coronavirus crisis has overwhelmed the health sector, but it has also engulfed the economy, industry and several other areas. The endeavour to overcome it also involves several sectors. While the Disaster Management Act was promulgated, health still remains a state subject.

It remains unpardonable that orders for vaccines were not placed in time or oxygen was not provisioned on time. Such lapses clearly impose the urgent need to reform our processes.

During crisis, when lives are being lost, our processes still supports the L1 system of tendering of lifesaving equipment. Foreign aid received from friendly countries was held up at the airports. Such lapses call for wider reforms.

It may be time to streamline our processes by injecting them with the best practices from all around. There is a case to be made for integrating experts, management gurus, corporate professionals along with career administrative cadre officers.

While there is a need to build in accountability and responsibility, the administrative reforms must be based on comprehensive analyses by experts and distilled recommendations after a deliberate review.

At a functional level, it would also be prudent to involve the participation of grassroots-level human resources in the response mechanism, more so in crisis situations like these. We should create a reservist resource for dealing with crisis situations, to spread awareness and even train them in basic skills of administering first aid and preventive care. For instance, the Home Guards, Civil Defence Battalions and National Cadet Corps can be expanded in numbers and scope, and retrained more purposefully. Territorial Army units can be raised with a nucleus of ex-servicemen and other retired professionals.

The advantage of these organisations is that they are not permanent standing structures. These can be mobilised or disembodied as required, and have a wide reach.


Wider Awareness Programmes Needed to Meet Future Challenges

In a situation where COVID protocols consisting of simple habits are an important part of the solution, there is a requirement for widespread education and awareness. A nationwide campaign to create awareness of such emergencies is imperative. It might be prudent to begin young, starting with schools.

To meet these challenges of the future, creating a wider awareness is almost as important as the reform processes at the national level.

A national consensus rather than political brinkmanship is required, because everyone’s survival is equally at stake. COVID-19 has already proven to be a great leveller. It does not differentiate between the rich and poor, rural or urban, caste or creed. It is therefore, incumbent on us to unite to fight it.

(Lt General Satish Dua is a former Corps Commander in Kashmir, who retired as Chief of Integrated Defence Staff. He tweets @TheSatishDua. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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Topics:  Indian Army   Kargil War   Battlefield 

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