Is COVID-19 Refusing to End?
The global statistics of COVID-19 as of 18th April 17, 2020 reads, total positive cases 24,28,274 and 1,66,126 (6.84 %) have died. Figures of India stand at 17,656 and 559 (3.16%) have died. At the global level it took 4 months to reach 10 lakhs but only 14 days to reach 20 lakhs.
Increase in infections suggests that cases will only mount as days pass by unless we do some critical intervention. India has done well until now in managing the outbreak of COVID-19 barring a few incidents such as Anand Vihar and Tablighi Jamat. It is a model that caters best for Indian conditions given its population and concentration of weaker sections of the society.
This has given time to medical institutions to attend to COVID-19 patients and keep the numbers low. However, the action which stands out most is the leadership of the PM to keep the public motivated and galvanised together in this crisis.
The Indian Challenge
The rapid rise of cases in India, too, in the past few day does not paint a very healthy picture. At the current rate of increase we will double the infections in 4 to 5 days.
The situation in a number of states is extremely serious total cases versus deaths in Maharashtra (4203/223), Delhi (2003/45), Gujarat (1851/67), MP (1485/74), TN (1477/15) and Rajasthan (1176/17) are worrisome. The infection rate is threatening to reach community transmission in some places.
We have to halt this or else this pandemic will assume epic proportions and states will have to take harsh measures. First, establishment of several testing centres with adequate screening staff. People should be segregated, isolated and quarantined. Second, the moment cases of COVID-19 positive are reported they should be designated as hot spots.
The hot spots have to be barricaded and movement totally restricted to bare essentials such as delivery of food to the poor, ration delivery at door steps and medical emergencies.
Third, establishment of proper quarantine camps with medical, administrative and access control mechanism. In China government employees from non-affected areas (districts) were trained in basic medical care and redeployed to manage camps and screening centres.
Fourth, banning of all mass gathering and strict population control. Fifth, we need to boost the strength of medics, paramedics and Police force by trained volunteers. Any attack on medics, para medics and essential delivery staff should be dealt under the National Security Act.
Sixth, ban public air conditioning. Seventh, need to streamline and enhance the system of delivery right up to the doorsteps rather than allowing people to go out to purchase essential items. Eighth, deployment of awareness staff in remote and rural areas to educate the population to follow prevention guidelines.
Ex-Servicemen can be the Game Changers
Rapid spread of COVID-19 will entail deployment of large manpower. First, for screening cum testing centres. Second, for management of quarantine camps at block level in rural areas and ward level in cities. Third, for provision of essential services. Fourth, for ensuring social distancing during controlled farming activities. Fifth, to enhance the law and order strength. Where do we get the manpower that can perform these tasks with minimum briefing and training?
ESMs have medics and paramedics for medical care, electricians, communications, engineering, tradesmen, and drivers and combatants for administration and security of quarantine camps. Combatants for augmentation of police to maintain law and order. We can also use ESMs in rural areas to spread awareness amongst the rural population especially during farming activities.
Realising the potential, some state governments have tapped this potential in managing the COVID-19 pandemic. Karnataka has mobilised a team of 45 bicyclists providing medicines and essential supplies. UP DSSA board has identified around 6592 ex-Army Medical Corps personnel for deployment. 300 volunteers are assisting Andhra Pradesh police in maintaining law and order.
Punjab has used over 4200 Guardians of Governance for community surveillance and data collection. But is this enough? Can we deal with the situation when cases start increasing like Maharashtra? We all know that the development of a vaccine takes around 12 to 18 months. Medics are trying the Plasma technique to treat patients but it is still not proven. Prevention may be the only answer, and ESMs have the numbers along with quality to do so. Some may turnaround and counter this suggestion on the ground of old age profile hence unsuitable for high-risk jobs.
To the naysayers, a very large proportion of men in uniform retire very young, therefore, it would be easy to get ESMs between the acceptable age brackets of 35 to 50. As of June 2019 DGR (Director General of Resettlement) figures, 26,75,223 ex-servicemen are present in the country. Number of ESMs who have registered for jobs is 5,69,404. Almost 80% of the defence personnel retire between the ages of 37 to 48 which, comes to approximately over 4.5 lakhs. Even if only 60% of this as volunteer, we will still have 2.7 lakhs ESMs available in the country. This is a huge potential. We are just not tapping it.
Therefore, the country can do well to create a temporary Task Force to manage COVID-19. We can use the ESMs on contractual basis with compensation paid out of PM/CM COVID CARE FUND. We also must realise that most of the ESMs have extended life cover till the age of 80. This is an added advantaging in addition they are available in situ. Employment of ESMs may be the game-changer in defeating COVID-19 and the government would do well to tap this well-trained, highly disciplined and aptly qualified resource base.
However, pending development of a vaccine or a failsafe line of treatment, the people should adhere to the lockdown, get themselves tested and not fall prey to misinformation. Stay home stay safe.
The writer is a retired senior military officer with national and international exposure. He has operational and policy formulation experience in the Army, and has headed large combat formations and training establishments.