Life in the Times of Covid-19

Armed forces in India and across the world are rising to the occasion to help fight the deadly virus

Palak Gupta

As the first case of Coronavirus came to light on 30 January 2020, the Indian Army and Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) swung into action immediately. They constructed two isolation facilities in Haryana’s Manesar and Delhi’s Chhawla to house quarantined patients. The construction of these two facilities, equipped to accommodate as many as 800 people, was one of the initial steps undertaken by country’s defence and paramilitary services to help in combating the Covid-19 outbreak.

A woman wearing mask at CP, New Delhi

As the world grapples with an unprecedented global pandemic of this scale and magnitude, the Indian armed forces have earmarked 28 hospitals of the Indian Army, Indian Air Force and the Indian Navy to handle coronavirus cases. This was conveyed by Director General, Armed Forces Medical Services (AFMS) Lt Gen. Anup Banerji while interacting with the media. Apart from this, five hospitals of the tri-services can conduct Covid-19 testing. These include Army Hospital Research and Referral, Delhi; Command Hospital Air Force, Bangalore; Armed Forces Medical College, Pune; Command Hospital (Central Command) Lucknow and Command Hospital (Northern Command) Udhampur.

Six additional hospitals will soon be equipped with the resources to begin testing.

The Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) has contributed a sum of Rs 33 crore, 81 lakh, which has been put together with one-day pay of the force’s personnel, to Prime Minister’s Relief Fund. The force believes that, “We are dutifully committed to stand firmly with our nation in this challenging time of Covid-19 pandemic.”

Defence minister Rajnath Singh has announced to donate his one-month salary to the PM-CARES fund. A Trust named Prime Minister’s Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations Fund (PM CARES Fund) has been set up by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to help the people of India in their fight against Covid-19. “I have decided to donate my one month’s salary to the PM-CARES Fund. You can also contribute to this fund and strengthen India’s resolve to fight against the menace of Covid-19,” said the defence minister.

Singh said he has also asked the Chairman Members of Parliament Local Area Development Scheme (MPLADS) to release Rs 1 crore to the PM-CARES Fund.

The army, navy and air force as well as employees of the defence ministry have decided to donate a day’s salary – a total of Rs 500 crore – to the relief fund.

Ordnance Factory Board (OFB) has received an order to manufacture 13,000 litres of sanitiser.

Defence secretary Ajay Kumar took to Twitter and wrote, “The OFB has quickly made changes to be able to manufacture various medical supplies required to fight the war against Covid-19 – sanitisers/masks/PPE equipment for health staff etc.”

Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) had already manufactured and supplied masks and sanitisers to various organisations. “Approximately, 4,000 litres of hand sanitiser has been provided to the Indian armed forces, Armed Forces Medical Corps and Defence Security Corps; 1,500 litres to ministry of defence; 300 litres to Parliament, and 500 litres to various security establishments and high offices to address sanitisation issue at first,” the ministry of defence said in a statement adding that DRDO has provided 20,000 three ply masks and 1,000 litres of hand sanitisers to Delhi Police.

Corona cases are growing worldwide with no relief in sight. India has reported over 2000 cases till now, with more than 50 Covid-related deaths. The numbers are due to change with time and stand verified at the time of filing this report. Globally, the virus SARS-CoV-2 has affected 9,00,000 people on record and a lot many who do not have a mention anywhere. The number is likely to increase. There also exists another category which has never been tested. From disrupting economies to throwing daily life out of gear, the virus has made the world stop in its track, literally.


Indian Army

The Indian Army has launched an anti-Covid-19 operation codenamed ‘Operation Namaste’. “To fight this problem (coronavirus), the government has taken several special steps. In this fight, it is our duty to help the government and civil administration,” said Army Chief General Mukund Naravane. Six quarantine facilities run by the armed forces are currently operational at Manesar, Jaisalmer, Jodhpur, Chennai, Hindon and Mumbai.

According to a statement issued by the MoD, “In addition to the active quarantine centres, more facilities have been readied and may be made operational within 48-72 hours, if needed. These facilities are in Kolkata, Visakhapatnam, Kochi, Dundigal near Hyderabad, Bengaluru, Kanpur, Jaisalmer, Jorhat and Gorakhpur.”

Lt Gen. Anup Banerji has also announced India’s readiness to dispatch rapid response teams to Nepal after Maldives to extend support to the Himalayan nation to fight the pandemic.

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 Maldives for 10 days and returned on 23 March 2020. Lt Gen. Banerji said AFMS is ready to dispatch a rapid response team to Nepal for assisting them with the Covid situation there. He added that any other assistance for more countries will be provided as and when required.

The army has already set up command-wise helpline which is one of the several measures to deal with any eventuality.

The Indian Army has postponed all its courses that were due to commence from 20 March 2020. Courses already in progress will continue with “precaution.” The army has also cancelled non-essential training, conferences and movement in light of Covid-19 outbreak.


Indian Navy

Headquarters Southern Naval Command has prepared one of its training units at Kochi as the Corona Care Centre (CCC) for 200 Indian citizens being airlifted by government of India from different parts of the world back to India as directed by the government earlier.

A separate CCC facilities 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 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, read an official statement from the Indian Navy, adding that the medical protocols “promulgated by ministries of health are being strictly adhered to.”

Ten teams of Battle Field Nursing Assistants (BFNA), comprising non-medical personnel, have been readied at Kochi to help medical staff should the situation worsen. Such BFNA teams are being readied at all other stations under SNC as well. The Indian Navy has implemented ‘stay wherever you are, no travel’ policy with regards to its personnel on leave or temporary duty. In addition to this, special sanitisation drives of public areas and education of personnel including families is being undertaken.

Furthermore, the Indian Navy has set up a Quarantine Camp at INS Vishwakarma in Eastern Naval Command (ENC) for Indian nationals being evacuated from Covid-19 affected countries. The quarantine camp can accommodate nearly 200 personnel.

Meanwhile, the Indian Navy’s Ilyushin 38SD (IL-38), a Long Range Maritime Reconnaisance aircraft on 27 March 2020 departed INS Hansa for New Delhi’s Palam Airport to mobilise a shipment of 60,000 face masks ordered by Indian Medical Association (IMA), Goa to offset the shortfall in Goa.

Collection of all items in Delhi was coordinated by Air Force Station Palam and the aircraft returned to Goa with the masks the same day.

For all the ships deployed in international waters for patrolling, anti-piracy and training missions, the Indian Navy is exercising precautions like adhering to minimum port calls on foreign shores and continuous monitoring on board.

Earlier, the Indian Navy called off multilateral biennial naval exercise MILAN which was scheduled to take place in Visakhapatnam from 18 March 2020. A total of 41 nations were invited for the joint naval drill, including the navies of the US, UK, France and Japan. The announcement cancellation was made amid the Covid outbreak. Other countries invited to participate in the exercise included Russia, Iran, Indonesia, Maldives, Australia, Somalia, Kenya, Mozambique, Sudan, Qatar, Thailand, Malaysia, Egypt, France, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Myanmar, New Zealand, Israel, Tanzania, Comoros, Seychelles Brunei, Philippines, Madagascar, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Mauritius, Cambodia, Singapore, South Africa, South Korea, Kuwait, Djibouti, Bahrain, UAE, Eritrea and Bangladesh.


Indian Air Force

The IAF has created nine quarantine facilities of 200-300 personnel capacity each, at nodal IAF bases across the country. Command Hospital Air Force Bangalore (CHAFB) has been designated as the first laboratory in the IAF to undertake Covid-19 testing. A 24×7 crisis management cell has been set up at Air Headquarters and various Command Headquarters.

IAF AN-32 aircraft delivering essential medical supplies which include Personal Protective Equipment, Hand sanitizers, surgical gloves, thermal scanners etc as part of IAF’s efforts to support fight against coronavirus

“All measures and directives issued by the government towards containing the spread of Covid-19 has been strictly enforced across all IAF stations. The IAF stands with the government in this fight to contain the spread of Covid-19 and provide all possible assistance to the citizens of the country,” according to an official press release from the IAF.

Additionally, the IAF has set up a quarantine facility for civilians at the Air Force Station Hindon with facilities for rest and recuperation. Earlier, the IAF C-17 aircraft has evacuated Indian citizens from China (Wuhan) and Iran on two occasions.

On the second occasion, a total of 57 pilgrims from Ladakh region who had visited Quom, Iran for pilgrimage, were brought by C-17 aircraft on March 10 to Hindon. These consisted of 33 women, two children and 22 men.


Non-Conventional Solutions

The Covid-19 outbreak is a non-conventional existential threat, hence the approach towards its resolution includes several non-conventional and high-end technology solutions.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi on 24 March 2020 announced that people would have to remain in their homes for the next 21 days, with only essential services remaining open, putting a country of 1.3 billion people under lockdown.

Between all that is said and done, not everything is as rosy as it seems. There is not an iota of doubt that the administration, medical community, researchers are working overtime in these testing times, but according to Dr Saif Ahmad Wali, General Surgeon, SANA hospital and research centre in Lucknow, “ We do not have enough tests, enough infrastructure to tackle it (Covid-19). We are short on supplies and doctors.”

Evident to this statement is the fact that ministry of micro, small and medium enterprises has announced to reach out to firms and people who manufacture “items related to use in Covid-19.”

There is a total of 39 items in Section A (medical supplies) which places ventilators on top followed by alcohol-based hand rub, face shield, N95 Masks, ICU beds, cardiac monitors, oxygen cylinders and so on. Category B is auxilliary supplies which has a total of 62 items including soaps, box file, official seal, Rubb hall tents and etc.

Ratan Tata-led Tata Group has pledged Rs 500 crore. Anand Mahindra of the Mahindra and Mahindra Group offered to provide Mahindra resorts as care facilities for those infected. The Mahindra group is also working on making ventilators available. Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Foundation has set up a dedicated Covid-19 centre with 100 beds in Seven Hills Hospital in Mumbai which reportedly has a negative pressure room to prevent cross contamination.

Crisis like these bring Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) as well as the nation’s collective scientific temperament under review.

Group Captain MJ Augustine Vinod (retd), a former IAF fighter pilot, has a couple of inventions to his name. He owns a couple of 3D printers and is working on developing ventilators. “The design for a ventilator is ready. What we fall short of is the hardware – which is difficult to procure now as the shops are shut and there is a nationwide lockdown.”

The former fighter pilot is looking forward to deploy one of his inventions Vargus Hexaspray to spray disinfectant. Vargus Hexaspray, designed to spray liquid in a designated area, can be operated manually or programmed for autonomous operation, utilising the system’s advanced avionics and precise GPS navigation.”

One of his inventions, called Tether Drone, has already been inducted in the Indian Army. Some of its key features include remote video terminal, remote data and video parsing, retractable undercarriage and triple redundant airborne power system.

Threats like Covid-19 require looking outside the traditional options available in the nation’s public health infrastructure. It challenges the limits of the human mind, pushing it to come up with out-of-the-box solutions.


Around the World

One such instance is Rafael Advanced Defence Systems which has proposed a solution. The state-owned technology company has converted an AI-based cyber-security defence system in order to predict the location of the coronavirus outbreak. The system uses Artificial Intelligence to analyse big data sets and find patterns and draw conclusions from them. The company used several databases, including social networks. The system helps extract data from health, municipal and other databases for predicting the locations of the coronavirus outbreak. Israel has more than 1,200 confirmed coronavirus cases at the time of filing this report.


Russia’s Face recognition: Russia is employing facial recognition system to identify people violating quarantine. According to a media report, cops in Moscow have claimed to have caught and fined 200 people who violated quarantine and self-isolation using facial recognition and a 1,70,000-camera system. The country has rolled out live facial recognition earlier this year. Ironically, in January 2020 a civil rights activist knocked the doors of a court against the country’s increasing use of facial recognition technology and its operation on a ‘mass scale.’ However, the recent triumph of this surveillance system in tackling the Corona threat has tempered public outrage. Tracking and data-crunching are some of the effective and important tools for localising outbreaks.


Militaries Elsewhere: Established on 29 January 2020, the White House Coronavirus Task Force is a US State Department task force that ‘coordinates and oversees the administration’s efforts to monitor, prevent, contain, and mitigate the spread’ of the coronavirus disease.

“The United States is at war with an invisible enemy in the coronavirus,” said US President Donald Trump. He along with defense secretary Dr Mark Esper saw off the Navy hospital ship USNS Comfort as it left for New York City to join the response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Comfort, which arrived in New York on 30 March 2020, is equipped with two oxygen-producing plants, 12 operating rooms, with hospital beds, a medical laboratory, a pharmacy, an optometry lab, digital radiology, a CAT scan, and a helicopter deck, according to the media report published on the US Department of Defence (DoD) website.

US National Guard troops are being called in across the US to fight against Corona outbreak.

There are reportedly at least 670 Guard members in 15 states called up to support Covid response efforts. The US Army Corps of Engineers have also created alternative care facilities.


Singapore: The Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) distributed medical masks to the public. According to reports a team of 1,500 from the SAF worked around the clock to pack medical masks. The SAF also assisted to monitor passengers at Changi Airport and make phone calls to support contact tracing.


Canada: Canada’s chief of the defence staff Gen. Jonathan Vance, in a five-page letter to the troops has ordered them to be prepared to respond swiftly if and when the military is called into action in order to combat Covid.


Australia: The teams of Australian Defence Forces (ADF) have been called in to assist the response against Corona outbreak. In supporting the civil administration, the ADF will provide logistics, transport, health and general planning. The teams have been ‘embedded’ in Victoria, Queensland and Western Australia.


The United Kingdom

Britain’s Prince Charles and the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson have both tested positive for Covid-19. The country’s military is also assisting the civil administration. According to the British MoD, the Coldstream Guards for example, have delivered diagnostic research equipment in the north of the country and have assisted with the collection and delivery of other medical equipment from a number of locations in the South. Planners, from all branches of the army including logistics, engineering and medical, are increasingly being called upon for assistance.

The British Armed Forces have postponed a number of overseas training exercises including: Swift Response, Defender 20 Cpx, Dynamic Front, Joint Warrior and Prairie Storm. For the aviation support, forces from the Joint Helicopter Command are on stand-by to provide aviation capability in support to civil authorities.

The British Army Engineers and Medics worked with NHS staff to help turn the ExCel Centre in London, into an emergency hospital to treat Coronavirus patients. Known as the NHS Nightingale hospital, it is expected to have a capacity to treat 4,000 patients.

The transformation of exhibition centre into a hospital completed in record nine days and it was readied by 3 April 2020.


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