Lt Gen (Dr) Prakash Menon, PVSM, AVSM, VSM (Retd) Writes :
The metaphor of war has been universally invoked to describe the conditions under which ‘victory’ over COVID-19 is sought. The metaphor is certainly useful to galvanize a nation and harness its capacities that can be directed towards the ‘enemy’. The challenge in the fight is that the enemy can spread invisibly even through hosts who are unaware, as the individual can transmit the virus even during the incubation period when the individual is asymptomatic. Its detection requires testing but is not as yet known as a killer of the magnitude of previous pandemics, even though there is no cure nor vaccine. The most vulnerable are people over 60 years of age and those who are already nursing other ailments. It is obvious that if lives have to be saved then this war must be fought by the young while the old are specially protected.
The Defensive Line
Among others, public health workers, doctors, nurses, hospital staff are manning the trenches and directly dealing with COVD-19. Their safety requires Personal Protection Equipment (PPE). To be effective, they must have the medical equipment like ventilators which could be required in large quantities. Nationally, the trenches are manned in segregated sections of hospitals that must scale up quantum of beds.
The second line of defence is manned by the support staff like ambulance drivers, doctors and nurses who operate outside the COVID-19 hospitals and are the first to interface with a suspected patient. It also includes the scientific fraternity that is researching COVID-19 using data analytics to map the pandemic and provide information for the decision makers.
The third line of defence is civil society, the members of which are expected to abide by the restrictions imposed by the Government and take precautions according to guidelines to protect themselves and also obviate the probability of acting as a host in spreading the disease. A complementary role of civil society is to augment the resources of the State in whatever manner possible that especially includes providing for the needs of our countrymen rendered homeless and destitute due to unemployment and displacement. Their numbers today, due to the inter-state movements of migrant labour are daunting
The fourth line of defence is made up of the organizations that are authorized by law to enforce the restrictions imposed on civil society. and organise the essentials for the populace. The Civil administration, the police and the judicial system constitute its main components.
The fight is directed at two main levels of the Centre and the States. At the Centre, it is driven by the PMO and in the States/ Union Territories it is done by the Chief Ministers / Lt Governors. Considering the nature of the pandemic, decisions of grave nature have to be made in conditions of great uncertainty by the political and scientific leadership. One can only wish them success since they all work keeping the welfare of the citizens in mind. One of the decisions that may need to be taken is how should the Armed Forces be involved in the fight?
Relevant Characteristics of the Armed Forces
The institutional structure and ethos of the Armed forces ensure their ability to deploy quickly and provide assistance, which the civil authorities might requisition. The civil authority could be a District Magistrate or anyone else up the chain. The greatest strength the Armed Forces can bring to the fight against COVID-19 is that it is the youngest force that can be fielded, unlike other institutions like the police and even the public healthcare system.
What the young profile of the Armed Forces implies is that, if necessary, they can be exposed to greater risks since Covid-19 is relatively less potent against the young. This is also combined by another characteristic, which is that fielded personnel are amenable to close and speedy individual monitoring which will ensure that detection is done early, and mortality rates are minimized.
The main emotion that has gripped the global population, and India is no exception, is fear. Fear of course encourages survival but its exaggeration through the media is an inevitable consequence of the interconnected world. The pandemic of COVID-19, unlike the earlier ones of recent vintage, which too are of respiratory nature like SARS and H1N1, is also accompanied by a pandemic of fear on a global scale hitherto never witnessed, as earlier, the information flow was relatively slower. It is also the case that political leaders while cautioning the citizenry have induced a sense of fear that in reality is avoidable, as the mortality rates is much less than the earlier pandemics. Operating in conditions of fear is what the Armed Forces are about and therefore if briefed, equipped and trained adequately, they can be deployed wherever needed and in any line of defence.
It is this combination of age, structural cohesion and ability to overcome fear that will be particularly useful for utilizing the Armed Forces during the pandemic, whose duration, scope and scale are difficult to predict. Therefore, it is also necessary to NOT keep the Armed Forces locked down but instead they should, while taking all precautions possible, ready themselves for both the primary task of defending the country as also for action in aid to civil authority.
Training must continue wherever feasible, except medical training. There is a strong case for substituting the medical staff of the Armed forces medical organisations to the extent possible by veterans, to supplement the civil medical infrastructure. This is not a small number and are also distributed widely across the country. The mobilization of such personnel could be done by the Ex-Servicemen’s organizations at the State level. Depending upon the needs, this methodology can be employed in other fields of activity as well.
COVID-19 may not go away in a hurry and that is why the Armed Forces should not be locked down and merely wait for being called out. Instead it should, while taking necessary precautions, prepare itself for deployment in a situation that is unique, and innovate to equip itself with PPE. In addition to their known strengths, their three key characteristics of young age profile, personnel monitoring potential and ability to overcome fear must be the conceptual framework for employment. Presently, the Indian trenches are not overwhelmed but the possibility of community spread in some areas is real. The Indian Armed Forces must prepare and not be locked down like the rest, even at the risk of getting infected, which for a youthful force cannot amount to much.
Lt Gen (Dr) Prakash Menon, PVSM, AVSM, VSM (Retd) is the Director, Strategic Studies Programme, Takshashila Institution, Bangalore, and former Military Adviser in the National Security Council Secretariat.
Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the organisation that he belongs to or of the USI of India.