The Sirens Must Wail Again

 By Brig. Pradeep Sharma (Retd).
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Introduction

The sound of sirens last heard in 1971 have been conspicuous by their silence. Thank God! But then again, was it not the sound of sirens which sent everyone scrambling, running to shelters, switching lights off for black outs and alerts!

A practice tried and tested in the Country but not heard for long. As a Nation we have been through many emergencies in different forms. Mostly when least expected i.e. Earthquake in Gujarat struck on 26 January 2001, when the whole Nation was celebrating Republic Day!  The long gap between such events, brings in complacency, a feeling that it is a waste of time & money to prepare for something that might never happen again! When an emergency or disaster strikes, where and in what manner is not announced, as they say “Prevention is better than Cure” therefore prepare we must. It is Communities which feel the impact and are the first respondents.  Preparation of “Communities and drawing up plans to ensure they participate, take ownership & are protected have to be priority as has been rightly addressed in the Disaster Plan.

NDMA & Prevention of Epidemic Disease

The National Disaster Management Agency (NDMA) was created in 2005 & the Disaster Management Act was promulgated on 23 December 2005 laying down a detailed & comprehensive policy document which guides the various committees & segments at National, State and District levels. The revised terminology of the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) defines ‘disaster’ as: “the effect that can be immediate and localised but is often widespread, often persisting for long after the event”. This may challenge or overwhelm the capacity of a community or society to cope using the resources immediately, and therefore may require assistance from external sources, which could include neighbouring jurisdictions, or those at the national or international levels. UNISDR considers disaster to be a result of the combination of many factors such as the exposure to hazards, the conditions of vulnerability that are present, and insufficient capacity or measures to reduce or cope with the potential negative consequences. Amendments were carried out to the Disaster Management Plan over a period of time to cover Endemics/Pandemics, Resilience, Health, Rehearsals, Constant Review and Capacity Building as well as communities as partners.

The Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 , first enacted to tackle bubonic plague in Mumbai (formerly Bombay) in former British-India. Meant for containment of epidemics, it provides special powers required for the implementation of containment measures. Used in the past to contain diseases such as swine  flu, cholera, malaria and dengue, in March 2020, the act has been enforced across India to limit the spread of the dreaded Corona virus 2019 .

The world over, Governments have as their responsibility, “The Safety & Security of Citizens” on top of their lists. A historic perspective of events & responses in India reflects a reactive attitude for responding to such emergencies rather than being prepared and proactive. Case in point is the Amendment to the Factories Act with reference to the use or production of “Hazardous Substances” which came about only after the Bhopal Gas Tragedy and a huge loss of lives.

Emergencies & Responses

The scale of challenge and efforts required in the present situation are humungous. The simple example of what it takes to manage a Riot Affected Area  gives pointers to practical measures which could help.

Kanpur :1992 The demolition of Babri Masjid, resulted in almost immediate communal riots throughout the City. There were no cell phones, no aadhar  cards, no RWAs in the formal sense. The NDMA had not been formed.

  • The immediate response was to impose curfew and deploy forces to enforce it.
  • The Army deployed at two hours notice. Our columns were self contained for rations, medicine & were provided accommodation and  supported by SDMs.
  • Curfew remained in force for over three weeks (21 Days).
  • Water & electricity were declared as essential services.
  • Residents remained confined to their homes with little relief in the curfew for the first two weeks causing immense stress & shortage of food, milk, medicines.
  • Houses accommodated families with large numbers, they worked in factories on shifts to make adjustments for the lack space at home. With factories closed they sat in open spaces in large groups. Where required people were taken to relief camps.
  • Community Meetings were held in localities, leaders were called upon to create groups of volunteers to distribute provisions and for special care of the elderly, infirm, women and children.
  • Columns of trucks carrying vegetables, fruit, milk were provided based on Mohallas( Sectors)
  • Distribution was organised in a planned manner spread over different days in different localities.
  • Loud speakers at religious places were used for making announcements of Curfew, its relaxation, schedule of vehicles with daily needs, medical vans to attend the sick.
  • No movement in or out of the city was permitted.
  • To prevent diarrhoea and malaria, special efforts were made to disinfect areas by spraying pesticides & mobile medical teams arranged to attend to the sick.
  • Relief Shelters. Houses and homes were burnt to ashes, the homeless were evacuated to the Cricket Stadium converted into a Relief Shelter.
  • A partial blackout was clamped on media for a short while to prevent the spread of rumours/mis-information. Essential orders however were promulgated through them.

Normalcy was restored due to the twin factors; strict enforcement of CrPC 144/Governments Orders, use of existing facilities to ensure dissemination of orders and the cooperation of communities concerned. The smooth and quick responses by the army could only have happened due to advance preparations, coordination and rehearsals.

 Epidemic/Pandemics

Today, responses/coordination & dissemination of information are easier due to improved communications, formalised RWAs, Available Data through Aadhar cards, Voter I cards etc , better transportation, Industrial growth and increased number of Hospitals, Medical colleges, Nursing Training Centres as well as globalisation (for lessons & international support). Some pointers are given below:-

  • Unlike earthquakes/cyclones, an epidemic/pandemic does not disrupt communications which are a most vital requirement in such testing times. It does however increase the load.
  • Unnoticed in the initial stages, it spreads in a virulent manner before getting sufficient attention.
  • Being contagious, it needs to be contained by isolation which entails a curfew like situation & cooperation by communities.
  • Early and clear information must be disseminated to Public in order to prevent panic/fear.
  • Transport Hubs, Religious Centres & Markets require special attention.
  • All entry /exits need to be closed even before announcing any Lock down.
  • Rehearsals and preparations need to include Health Industry, Trained Medics & Para Medics, equipment available, Hospitals, number of beds, ventilators, shortfalls & Capacity to build/improvise, e.g. garment industry can produce improvised masks/gloves etc.
  • Increased pressure on Medical Institutions and Staff requires that they work in shifts or have rest areas at work stations.
  • Demand for PPE will surge from all concerned. Its supply & use must be prioritised. Lock downs lead to reduction of production and loss of jobs / finances, this needs to be kept in mind.
  • RWAs play a very important role in they must be used as a link between residents and Civil Administration.
  • Ensuring orderly conduct and obedience of orders promulgated from time to time.
  • Creating Volunteer Groups within colonies/residential areas Facilitate door to door distribution of daily needs, medicines, looking after the elderly and infirm, and so forth.
  • Each house hold, as a habit stocks for a week if not more, depending upon their economic wellbeing and number of family members a system of weekly supplies on a scheduled basis is best.
  • All residential areas RWAs must ensure controlled entry/exit. Maintain a register to record who comes /goes.
  • Record medical condition (recorded by a volunteer who could use an IR Thermometer if required).Report individuals with a travel history.
  • Assist in reporting and quarantining those affected thus reducing the risk of spreading further infection to ease the job of the Administration.
  • Reduce load on Hospitals for proper treatment of individuals affected /requiring urgent attention, prevent avoidable spread.
  • Last but not least, being a multi religious Nation, Religious leadership can be harnessed to make public aware & cooperative while partnering in relief work.
  • The Health, Transport & Finance Ministries have to work in sync while the Security Forces, Local Administration & Communities respond within given areas of responsibility

“If” the community can undertake responsibility for their own conduct, hygiene and reporting of cases, cooperate /support the Civil Administration  , act as self support systems  for residents around, more than half the battle is won.

The Government would be free to work on bigger issues like economic recovery, retention of jobs, Industrial recovery and so forth. Industry must respond with quick solutions for medication/ testing kits, shelters and much more.

In Conclusion: Back to the Siren

The “Siren However Must Wail Again” and periodic mock drills through SDMA under the NDMA be revived lest we wake up facing a calamity too large to handle in the absence of preparation.

Periodic rehearsals, to practice the entire Populace /Stake holders from time to time is essential. It gets the administration to update data of vendors, residents, age profile, state of transport, hospitals, beds, ventilators, medical industry, employees in essential services and much more. While furthering the Policy of Inclusivity as laid down in the Disaster Plan it prepares the citizens and puts systems in place to bring such a disaster under control without panic. Given the present situation, the Government and the People deserve to be complimented for the responses so far.

               A NATIONAL CONSCIOUSNESS is the need of the hour.