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Fighting COVID-19: The Indian Navy As A Good Samaritan – OpEd

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Since recorded history, pandemics and disasters have remained  as part and parcel of human civilization. Both have been playing havoc with human life by killing thousand to million people in one go. Notwithstanding the exceptional progress and development in science and technology, yet both pandemics and natural disasters have been going side by side with the human race. However, during the last a few couple of decades, the Armed Forces have been playing their monumental role helping out humanity during the disastrous times.

India being a peninsular country and sharing a  long coastline of about 7,500 km, the Indian Navy holds an important place in the security of the country. However, in the recent past, it has been noticed that the role of Indian Navy has been expanded. The humanitarian role particularly during the disasters and pandemics, has become part and parcel of the Indian Navy. The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has been playing a destructive role causing both men and materials losses. In this situation, the military in general and the Indian Navy in particular has emerged as a good Samaritan during the ongoing pandemic which is declared as a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) and Pandemic on 30 January and 11 March by the WHO and WHO Director General respectively. In this global health  emergency, along with the government, a number of social, religious organizations and civil societies, and I/NGO have been working day long and night to provide humanitarian help to the affected people. 

Kulshrestha  (2014) has examined how natural disasters used to play havoc with the countries in general and littoral countries in particular.  During the last one hundred of  years  (1904-2003), more than two million deaths have taken place and a large chunk of deaths, about 75 per cent of that  in Asia, during the 6,300 disasters. These disasters had caused a loss of property worth US$ 1.4 trillion. During the last decade (2001-10), the death toll has been reached more than 1,00,000 people. In 2010, one of the most disaster prone years in recent times, over 2,90,000 deaths had occurred.

The role of Indian Navy has remained very monumental in nation-building. Its role can be divided into three categories like the combat role; diplomatic or foreign policy role and lastly constabulary and policing roles. The main focus of the combat role is to display the projection of power through the control over oceans during the time of peace and war/conflict. Secondly, comes  the diplomatic or foreign role whereby Indian Navy projects the Indian influence through a wide array of functions ranging from humanitarian aid to cooperative regional engagements. The third role includes the Constabulary and Policing roles of the Indian Navy wherein it plays an important role in the protection of national sovereignty and ocean governances. However, in the 21st century, the role of Indian Navy has been undergoing a paradigmatic shift from traditional to modern (humanitarian) roles. Under this role, largely it is being deployed for humanitarian relief operations/missions during natural disasters/pandemics at the local/regional/ world level. Of course, the nation-building role has always remained on priority list to keep India’s maritime trade routes free and open.

The Indian Navy has a spectacular history of its humanitarian role. The Indian Navy has been playing a humanitarian role in providing relief during the times of natural disasters, including floods, cyclones and tsunamis/pandemics etc. Soon after 9/11, the Indian Navy deployed its ships in the Indian Ocean to secure the Strait of Malacca to escort the  US Navy resources for Operation Enduring Freedom (2001-14). In the post-2004 Indian Ocean Earthquake and Tsunami, the Indian Navy had carried out disaster relief operations by deploying about  27 ships and dozens of helicopters along with more than 5000 personnel deployed in relief operations to helping out not only the Indian coastal states rather the neighbouring countries like Maldives, Sri Lanka and Indonesia as well. One more operation named Operation Sukoon was launched during the Israel-Lebanon Conflict (2006) and evacuated about 2,280 people including  Sri Lankans (436), Nepalese (69) and  Lebanese (7) from the war-torn Lebanon. In 2006, the Indian Naval Doctors had served on board USNS Mercy  for 102 days to  provide  medical care  to the Philippines, Bangladesh, Indonesia and East Timor. The Navy had also extended relief to the survivors of Bangladesh Cyclone Sidr and Myanmar victims of Cyclone Nargis in 2007 and 2008 respectively.  In 2011, Indian Navy once more became a panacea for the Indian Nationals through the Operation Safe Homecoming. Through this operation, Indian  were evacuated from the war-torn Libya.  During the Yemen Crisis (2015), the Indian Navy became part of  Operation Raahat and rescued about 3074 people including the 1291 foreign nationals. 

Thanks to God, India is not in the danger zone of COVID-19, however, with the exponentially growing cases of COVID-19, it has become one of the serious causes of concern. It left indelible imprints on every aspect of life. Various rating agencies have predicted the dismal growth rate likely to be experienced by India. As per Moody’s prediction, the GDP growth rate would be 2.5% in 2020. Fitch Ratings put Indian growth rate in more critical level likely to slip to 0.8% in FY21. Many other top institutions also predicted the same such as IMF, Barclays, World Bank etc.  Health services, unemployment and many other  critical issues likely to haunt the country in the coming time. Although a lot of arrangements, financial packages, have been put in place, still the citizens especially the poor sections of the society have been facing a lot of challenges in their day to day life.  

Role of Indian Navy 

Source: Worldometers, https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/, Retrieved on 05 May 2020. 

The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has become very critical for the human race, especially in the case of pandemic when there is no treatment/vaccine  of the same is/are available. As of today (04 May), about 3,673,992   infected cases were reported at the global level causing 253,425 deaths. The gravity of the situation can be assessed from the figure given to the right. 

In this backdrop, Indian Navy has been playing an important role. During the pandemic, health security becomes the top priority from top to bottom. In this regard, the Indian Naval Hospital Ship (INHS) have been serving the corona patients as good Samaritans.  About 51 military hospitals (Army, Navy, Air Force) have been earmarked for the civilian corona affected patients. Apart from Army and Air Force’s Hospitals, the Indian Naval Hospital Ship (INHS), Asvini (Mumbai), INHS Nivarini (Odisha), INHS Jeevanti (Goa) were placed in the earmarked list. These hospitals have been providing coronavirus facilities including intensive care units to the civilians’ and many other facilities for the corona patients. 

The INHS Patanjali has been extending its medical support to the corona virus affected patients for the Uttara Kannada district. The civilian patients admitted in the hospital who have been treated successfully by the Naval doctors. When the Karwar District Administration requested the INHS Patanjali, the latter prepared itself within a very short span of time to  help out the COVID-19 positive patients. An active team comprising doctors,  and supporting staff have put on 24×7 duty for the COVID-19 patients admitted. It is good news to hear that  admitted COVID-19 patients have been cured successfully. 

The Eastern Naval Command  (ENC) of Indian Navy (located at Visakhapatnam-AP) has been providing training to the non-medical naval personnel as Battle Field Nursing Assistants (BFNA). The BFNA has been extending help to the Doctor’s and Paramedics in treating the COVID patients. This kind of training has commenced at all stations under ENC from 30 March onward. Till 04 April 2020, about 313 personnel including 37 officers have been trained. The training of the BAFNA mainly covers how to protect oneself by donning the  Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). Disinfection is one of the major parts of the training of not only the officers and sailors rather the defence civilians including the ladies as well. The main focus of the training is the prevention, management, and casualty carriage of the COVID-19 patients. Along with these elements, the training  also creates awareness about the  PPE and social distancing to contain the spread of the Coronavirus. In order to extend help  to the health officials from the state and District Administration, the ENC has set up a quarantine facility. This facility is equipped to accommodate nearly 200 personnel with adequate facilities and arrangement.  

For the remote places , the Indian Navy has provided its services the services of the Air Evacuation Pods (AEPs). These would be used to transfer the coronavirus patients from remote places to nearby medical facilities available areas. These EAPs  have been designed and created by the Indian Navy in its Kochi Naval Yard at the very lowest cost of  Rs. 50,000 per pod which is very low compared to the importing cost Rs. 59 lakh per pod. The Indian Navy has also carried out a feasibility study for carrying out in-house modification to separate the cockpit and cabin area and simulated airlifting of patients. One more medical achievement  is credited to the Indian Navy i.e., designing and manufacturing a ‘portable multi-feed oxygen manifold,’ which can be used to supply oxygen to the six patients concurrently. Some of the sets have already been handed over to the Visakhapatnam local administration  and some are underway.

When 26 sailors infected by coronavirus at INS Angre (Mumbai), the Indian Navy reiterated its strong commitment to its preparedness for combatting the pandemic as, “Our naval assets continue to be mission-deployed in 3 dimensions, with networks and space assets functioning optimally. The Navy is combat-ready, mission-capable and is in full readiness in a national mission to fight COVID-19 and provide support to friendly nations in the Indian Ocean Region.” 

The supply chains have been critically affected given the lockdown put in place. The Indian Navy has kept its six naval ships standby particularly in major coastal areas like  Vizagapatam, Kochi and Mumbai  to  meet the emerging situation not only for  India rather for  the neighbouring countries as well to provide  logistic support to the civilian authorities for required supplies and medical equipment. Some medical teams have also put on standby for deployment in the SAARC countries.

The Gulf region has been hosting a massive Indian diaspora amounting to  9 million that holds a very significant position in the Indian economy.  Given the coronavirus pandemic, most of the people working in these countries have been laid off and asked to leave for their country. To bring these back would be  a very herculean task.  When the urge for repatriation on part of the stranded diaspora is rising in the virus-hit Gulf countries, Indian government has decided to bring these people back. The Indian government had asked the Indian Navy and Air Force to be in standby mode. During his press conference with India’s Chief of Defense, Admiral Karambir Singh (PVSM, AVSM, ADC) said, “We have readied our ships and will go for the evacuation as soon as we get the go-ahead.” On 4th May , The India Navy  has launched ‘Operation Samudra Setu’ by sailing two ships (INS-Jalashwa and INS Magar) to  Maldives and one (INS Shardul) to Dubai to repatriate the stranded Indian people.  

In this way, Indian Navy has been playing humanitarian role during COVID-19 not only for India rather for the neighbouring countries as well. Its services included the medical facilities, training, quarantine and isolation centres, help to the local administration  and health officials, AEP, ‘Operation Samudra Setu’ etc. An example of humanitarianism and Good Samaritan-the Indian Navy.

*About the authors:

  • Dr. Bawa Singh has been teaching at the Department of South and Central Asian Studies, School of International Studies, Central University of Punjab (Email- [email protected]).
  • Priya Gauttam  is a Ph. D. Research Scholar at  the Department of South and Central Asian Studies, School of International Studies, Central University of Punjab  (Email- [email protected]).
  • Nitesh Patel is a Ph. D. Research Scholar at  the Department of South and Central Asian Studies, School of International Studies, Central University of Punjab  (Email- [email protected]).

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