The country is battling a health emergency triggered by the second wave of Covid-19 pandemic. Two years ago, during a talk on national security challenges, where the likelihood of a pandemic was flagged, students asked if a relatively minor threat was being overhyped? Should it even make it to the list?
However, last year, just before the lockdown, while speaking at LPU, including in front of a large number of international students, it was easier to drive home the point that public health will indeed become an important component of Comprehensive National Power (CNP).
Productivity and economy can be completely derailed by pandemics like Covid, with migrants deserting their jobs in sheer panic, thereby impacting GDP.
We have to recalibrate our strategy for our productive cutting-edge population, euphemistically dismissed as ‘migrants’, in terms of housing, medical care (immunisation) and social security.
Issues flagged last year, just after imposition of lockdown in the column titled ‘Covid-19: Time to Enhance Social Capital through Voluntary Compliance’ (https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/blogs/generals-jottings/covid-19-time-to-enhance-social-capital-through-voluntary-compliance/) seem to have become even more relevant.
However, a year down the line, punctuated with the declaration of a premature victory, unnecessary boasting of imaginary biological immunity, coupled with some unscientific cures, we seem to have been caught completely unprepared. The task now appears daunting. At this stage, one can only pray, breed positivity and optimism. Hope we display belated self-restraint (through Covid-appropriate behavior) and legendary resilience.
India has faced many pandemics, like cholera and smallpox, in last centuries and health emergencies, like Surat plague (1998) and Nipah Virus (2004), more recently. This pandemic, like Kargil war, has brought panic, hysteria and call for accountability, into our drawing rooms. The scale of this unfolding challenge is such that we need our social capital and communities to come to fore.
China diabolically timed its Ladakh misadventure with unleashing of Wuhan virus. Hence, it was axiomatic that Armed Forces resorted to very rigorous and prolonged ‘locked-in’, in order to ensure force protection, to face possibility of conflict escalation. There is no stipulated template for lockdown or locked-in; consequently, different cantonments/stations had different norms for entry, canteens, golf and institutions like clubs. These naturally got compared and drew avoidable adverse comments.
In the first wave, the Armed Forces, especially Air Force, played their part in logistics of evacuation, ferrying of medical equipment and drugs. Oxygen supply and transportation of mobile oxygenators seems to be a key concern currently. It is heartening that these generators will be used to boost infrastructure in service hospitals. There were lingering questions about static HQ area/sub-area network, transportation fleet and rolling stock. Could they have been utilised for mitigation of woes of migrants?
Army had set up a Covid hospital and quarantine facility in Delhi. During the second wave, these facilities are not only being revived, but scope is being expanded to regional hotspots in states, utilising DRDO, DPSUs and OFB. It is a national emergency and a whole-of-nation approach, obviously, is the need of the hour specially when mandated agency, NDRF, has no real capability in this domain.
Knee-jerk activation of hospitals validates that winding up of medical Territorial Army (TA) units, undertaken in 2014, destroying a 45-year-old legacy, as part of transformation, has been ill-advised tinkering. It is ironical that it happened soon after successful mega mobilisation steered by Maj Gen H K Singh, ADG TA. Civilian hospitals designated as general hospitals (GH) had TA component with approximately 3,000 beds, with capability to scale up pan-India spread. Bed capacities were: Kolkata (500), Allahabad (400), Jaipur (300), Patiala (300), Guwahati (300), Ahmedabad (300) and Rohtak (400). This concept needs to be revived as TA can be a key enabler for synergy in civil and military medical infrastructure for emergency response at nominal costs.
Globally, the TA concept is being proliferated and it will be a good idea to revive it in public health domain with AIIMS and elite medical colleges driving the concept. The idea needs to be extended to DRDO, DPSUs and CAPFs, albeit to forces like CISF and RPF, instead of frontline BG forces ITBP and BSF. Setting up of a Covid hospital in Delhi by ITBP is bad optics and avoidable distraction for a force which is mandated as a first-responder against China. This synergy is especially relevant, when there is a distinct possibility of pathogens being unleashed as bio-weapons, in unrestricted warfare and war-like response may have to be invoked.
Logistics infrastructure of Armed Forces needs to be seamlessly integrated with civilian infrastructure to achieve economy of effort and genuine ‘plug and play’. In Sikkim, an MoU with a Manipal hospital for 150 beds was signed, enabled by veterans heading the institution. Army has untapped bed capacities in few military hospitals. Hospitals also have adequate space for surge facilities in terms of tented/mobile hospitals. Mapping and linking of these with medical colleges, in vicinity needs to be done. While doing so, interests of veterans should be given primacy. It is indeed most unfortunate that a veteran brigadier could not receive treatment in Delhi. Hopefully, belated correctives will be applied, with empathy, to ensure timely care.
During the first wave, despite medically proven evidence of relative immunity of youth, large strength of NCC, NSS and NYKS was not optimally tapped. The PM, in his recent address, asked youth to set up committees to lead the charge. It is time to reorient their training to meaningfully harness their potential. Immunised and trained volunteer youth have the potential to become citizen warriors or nagrik yodhas, helping in mitigation of national emergencies like conflicts and disasters including pandemics.
The writer is former Army Commander, Western Command
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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