The second wave of Covid hit India this April with a ferocity that led to a surge in infections and overstretched hospital infrastructure. In a matter of days, India turned into the second most affected country, triggering a wave of panic, despondency and high body counts. ‘Our nation is at war,’ as former army chief, Gen. V.P. Malik, described it in an April 18 tweet as the daily death toll surged past 1,300.
In the days that followed, the armed forces were brought in to plug the gaps in medical care and speed up delivery of medical infrastructure. The army has so far set up eight field hospitals with over 5,000 beds in some of the worst affected cities, including the national capital Delhi. It plans to roll out at least six more such field hospitals. Indian Navy warships have brought back ISO containers, oxygen cylinders and concentrators from the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) countries and Singapore. The IAF’s transport fleet, including C-17 heavy-lift aircraft that can carry nearly 70 tonnes of cargo, have flown over 400 sorties within the country and abroad, airlifting 5,669 metric tonnes of oxygen containers. (ISO containers are refillable, weigh 3.6 tonnes and can store over 21,000 litres of liquid medical oxygen or the equivalent of two tanker loads.)
The defence ministry’s research wing, the DRDO (Defence Research and Development Organisation), is installing 849 medical oxygen plants in hospitals across the country by July 31. It is also teaming up with pharma major Dr Reddy’s to roll out a drug which could hasten the recovery of Covid-19 patients and cut down oxygen dependency. “This has been declared a war,” Lt Gen. Madhuri Kanitkar, deputy chief of defense staff (medical) and deputy chairman of the Covid-19 crisis committee, told India Today TV on May 3. “In this war with the virus, doctors, healthcare workers, all of us are soldiers.”
As the pandemic devastated the world last year, some of the worst-affected countries turned towards their armed forces, repurposing their skills and equipment to confront a once-in-a-century pandemic. The military is a repository of skilled personnel with the logistic networks and platforms to speedily move large loads. It has a large medical corps which is trained to set up field hospitals completely staffed with doctors and medical assistants in a matter of hours.
The US, the country worst hit, has deployed over 60,000 defence personnel, including 4,400 doctors, nurses and medical personnel, to fight the pandemic (mostly from the National Guard, a reservist formation under its Department of Defense). In France, the military has bolstered civilian response in three areas—healthcare, logistics and protection. Turkey has used the military to set up field hospitals. The UK defence ministry confirmed this January that their armed forces’ response to Covid-19 was the biggest ever homeland military operation in peacetime with more than 5,000 personnel involved.
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