Fighting the ‘Invisible Enemy’: Military-Civil Fusion in Focus

 By Shreya Das Barman
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India is currently witnessing a downward curve in the second wave of the COVID-19 Pandemic that posed considerable challenges to healthcare, economy, employment, logistics and transportation. The sudden onset of the second wave has had a devastating effect on the population of India, and was aggravated due to the ‘birth’ of new variants of the coronavirus; however,   timely measures and familiarity to the protein structure of the virus to some extent, helped India in fighting the new variants and stabilising the situation.

Controlling the second wave was not easy—extra capacities had to be built, medical supplies had to be imported and especially medical grade oxygen production had to be increased. The pandemic coupled with natural calamities like cyclones Tauktae and Yaas posed more challenges to the authorities to manage the situation.

The pandemic had a psychological impact on the population of India, due to rising cases of infection as well as increased fatalities. Some of these got further aggravated by the rumours in the environment. We must guard against such propaganda.

In such difficult times, the Indian Army (IA), true to its ‘Nation First’ approach, came forward to shoulder the responsibility of helping India fight the pandemic. The Army deployed troops for providing logistical support to the civil authorities, opened its hospital doors for treatment of civilians and many more. The aim of this paper is to highlight the contribution of the Indian Army towards battling the pandemic without compromising on its primary role —Force Protection, Force Preservation and Operational Readiness

The Indian Army: Eye-to-eye with COVID-19

The IA supported the state authorities in whatever ways they could— for instance, the railways used the military rolling stocks to transport oxygen laden trucks to meet the sudden rise of oxygen demand. However, it is equally important for the IA to first look into the healthcare needs of its serving personnel, their families, veterans and their dependents, in that order of priority.

  • Coordinated Action Plan. The Indian Army served as a major stakeholder in COVID-19 prevention and mitigation measures undertaken by Central Govt / MoHFW since March 2020. Despite their operational commitment especially with contingencies manifesting along the Northern Borders, Indian Army personnel, both frontline workers and healthcare workers have immensely contributed to the fight against COVID-19. The Army’s response has been two-pronged vis.   ‘Force Protection’ and ‘Assistance to Civil Administration’.  The activities undertaken by the Indian Army to fight the COVID-19 pandemic are part of a coordinated action plan with the governance system of the country.
  • Force Preservation MeasuresThe IA has been proactive towards Force Preservation measures and issued exhaustive instructions pertaining to hygiene, sanitisation, social distancing, wearing of protective gear, contact tracing, isolation and quarantine. They also took the initiative to encourage a ‘Work from Home’ culture, wherever feasible.
  • Treatment of ESM and their Dependents.  Since the outbreak of the pandemic, according to reports, IA has rendered COVID treatment to approx. 7800 ESM and 5800 ESM dependents; 1100 personnel and approx. 2000 families of defence personnel belonging to sister services and CAPFs have also been treated at IA medical centres.
  • Vaccination of Serving Personnel, ESM and Dependents. As part of the vaccination drive in coordination with MoHFW, the IA has carried out vaccination of up to 99 % of healthcare workers and 89 % (as of 24 May 2021) of the frontline workers. The first dose of vaccination of approx. 1,62,000 ESM and 55,000 dependents (as of 24 May 2021) of serving personnel and ESMs has also been completed.

Military-Civil Synergy

The Central Authorities and the Army together took a timely call and made available certain Army institutions for treatment of civilians, some of which are listed below.

  • COVID Beds. Various Military Hospitals/ Command Hospitals were converted into COVID-19 treatment centres as part of a coordinated Medical Management Plan for handling the pandemic. The Indian Army provided up to 8000 beds during the 1st  wave and approx. 10,000 beds during the 2nd wave for handling COVID-19 cases in various military medical establishments across the country. Additionally, the Military Hospitals also opened their doors for treatment of civilians— pan India 1055 beds have been earmarked for treatment of civilians. At present, approx. 221 civilians are undergoing treatment at various Military Hospitals while approx.1434 civilians have been treated/ discharged.
  • DRDO HospitalsIA has provided medical teams comprising of approx. 567 Medical Officers and specialists, approx. 227 nursing officers from Military Nursing Services (MNS) and approx. 1000 Nursing Assistants & Paramedics for five civil COVID-19 hospitals established by DRDO at Delhi, Patna, Lucknow and Varanasi.
  • Operation Vande Mataram. Nearly 2500 Indian Nationals who were stranded outside the country, due to the pandemic, were successfully evacuated and underwent quarantine at IA Wellness Centres, set up at various places in India.
  • Aid to Friendly Foreign Countries (FFCs). The Indian Armed Forces have been instrumental in providing support to FFCs, like sending a 15 member medical team (Rapid Response Team) to Kuwait for COVID capacity building and also have sent similar teams to Nepal and Maldives[1] and many more. It was this ‘helping nature’ of India, that led the FFCs to supply medical pieces of equipment when India was battling the ‘ravaging’ second wave.

The IA also played a pivotal role in enhancing communication and transportation with respect to medical supplies.

  • Oxygen Tankers and Cylinders. In order to meet the sudden surge in requirement of medical oxygen, the IA provided drivers and escorts for transporting approx. 150 oxygen tankers (that arrived through the sea route) pan India. They also facilitated the transportation of oxygen cylinders through Special Military Trains, assisted in refilling empty cylinders and also repaired civil oxygen plants.
  • Critical Medical Stores. The Indian Army used its air prowess and ensured that medical essentials like PCR machines, COVID testing kits, ventilators, etc. reached the correct places in minimum time.

Way Ahead and Recommendations

The role of the Indian Army is not restricted only to the security paradigm. The pandemic is but just a small example of military-civil fusion. This could be studied further and the policymakers must look into ways for boosting this ‘new phase’ of military-civil fusion. The ESM belonging to Army Medical Corps (AMC) should take the initiative and conduct workshops so as to teach the healthcare workers ways to strengthen ‘the affected civil populations’ mental health during such times. Moreover, the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) and the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) should jointly study similar type of viruses which can, in future, be used as means of biological warfare by our adversaries.

Keeping in mind the principle of ‘force Preservation and Operational Readiness at all times’, motivated, and skilled ESM especially who were involved in Army administration, should be integrated with the civil authorities, in order to contain the pandemic. Administrative duties like assisting in the movement of migrant workers, establishing transit camps, etc. could be vested with the ESM, with certain fundamental support by the Army, till the pandemic is completely eradicated. The integration of Rajya and Zila Sainik Boards with the state and district administration could be the starting point in this regard. Additionally, due to its pan- India presence, the IA can play an important role in the ‘Vaccination Drive’, by means of raising awareness among the population and encouraging the young generation to get vaccinated. However, before venturing into this domain, the IA must ensure that the serving officers, ESM and dependents are vaccinated as well. Owing to its ‘Pan-India’ presence, the IA can assist the civil authorities in measuring the intensity of the pandemic in remote areas and make arrangements for medical supplies to reach such areas as and when required.

Studying the dynamic nature of the virus, the possibility of a third wave could not be ruled out.

The actions of the Indian Army must be taken as a lesson by the concerned civil authorities with an aim of betterment of the Nation and its population. The Army, on the other hand, can make use of their experience in handling crucial operations and suggest methods to control the ongoing pandemic.

** The statistics are taken from open sources and are likely to vary as the situation is dynamic.

***COVID and COVID-19 has been used interchangeably.

End Notes

[1]HT Correspondent, “India sends rapid response team to Kuwait to fight Covid-19”, Hindustan Times, Updated on 11 April 2021. Accessible at https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/india-sends-rapid-response-team-to-kuwait-to-fight-covid-19/story-umTw0fYhrqnsAdo7kBJfFK.html. Accessed on 17 June 2021

The views expressed by the Author is personal.