Why are the cantonments sealed? Where are the troops?
While soldiers in several countries are helping civilian efforts to cope with the COVID-19 crisis, in India they are rarely to be seen. Cantonments are sealed and nobody is allowed to go in or out
After the initial weeks of March and April, when the Indian Army set up isolation centres to quarantine people flying back to the country, soldiers have been conspicuous by their absence on highways, cities and hospitals.
At a review meeting last month presided over by the Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, it was revealed that 50 military hospitals were equipped to deal with COVID-19 patients and that testing centress too had been set up. It was also revealed that 43 retired army officers and 900 retired para-medics had volunteered to help.
The report left the impression that the arrangements were meant to take care of its own personnel. That impression has been strengthened by reports that cantonments across the country are sealed and locked down. The Indian Army clearly thinks discretion to be the better part of valour and does not believe in taking unnecessary risks.
The situation is ironical because army bands have played across the country to boost the morale of caregivers. The Indian Air Force has flown and showered flower petals on select hospitals. But unlike armies in several other countries, the Indian military appears to be far less active than its counterparts in the United States, Russia, China and in Europe.
While some ex-servicemen NH spoke to supported the decision to keep troops away from COVID-19, a few wondered if the measure would work. “Sooner or later, cantonments will open up; soldiers will go home and return and interaction with the world outside will increase. The troops could actually be more vulnerable and more likely to get infected than civilians then because the latter would have developed herd immunity but not the troops,” said an ex-serviceman.
There were expectations in some quarters that the army would help set up tent cities for migrant workers or transport them in trucks or feed them on the highway. The army could have kept some of the industrial units running by supplying manpower in place of workers who had left. Some hospitals could have been handed over to the army while the army in peace stations could have been used to make masks and sanitisers.
Spain’s special army unit (Unidad Militar de Emergencias) has been at the forefront of the country’s battle against the pandemic. Germany and the UK mobilised reservists while others called non-active duty personnel to volunteer.
Germany has used soldiers to support the population, ensuring order and traffic regulation, for disinfecting areas and for logistics – transport and storage of goods.
Medical units have supported civilian hospitals in several countries, military hospitals have treated patients and set up mobile and field hospitals. Their tents were also used for setting up makeshift COVID-19 test centres at hospital entrances, thus avoiding contamination of medical personnel.
In some countries military units transformed some of their barracks into nurseries to shelter patients not in critical condition. The US sent two Navy hospital ships to New York City and Los Angeles, to help hospitals overburdened with patients infected with the coronavirus. Military engineers also helped building makeshift medical centres. In Mexico, the military took the responsibility of running hospitals.
They manufactured disinfectants, hand sanitizers, paracetamol, antivirals, and other medicaments that pharmaceutical companies had stopped producing in many countries In Spain, the airborne troops produced low-tech masks to compensate for the shortage in the market.
The military also put their logistics services and experience at the disposal of civil authorities. In Italy, they transported corpses from morgues to cemeteries, delivered meals in lockdown areas (sometimes via helicopter), and helped homeless people.
In Wuhan, the PLA took the entire responsibility of delivering medical and critical supplies. Chemical, biological and bacteriological military units have also participated in the decontamination and disinfection of installations and adapted their vehicles to carry out disinfection of big areas.
But in India the government does not seem too keen to use the expertise of the armed forces in meeting the challenge.