India’s largest military quarantine facility at Jaisalmer, which is currently housing almost 500 people, can be expanded, while a dozen additional facilities and military hospitals are being kept on standby, to deal with the evolving Covid-19 situation.
The armed forces have also readied five rapid-reaction medical teams to support Saarc countries.
Two battalions of troops have been moved and makeshift arrangements made for the desert facilities in Rajasthan and the one at Manesar in Haryana to quarantine Indians arriving from abroad. The facilities can house a total of 1,600 people.
Senior officials told ET that they were prepared for any eventuality. The capacity of the quarantine facilities could be “ramped up” and several military hospitals pressed into service to set up isolation wards and critical care centres.
“We have standby facilities at Jaisalmer (part of the existing one), Jodhpur of the army, Vishakhapatnam of the navy and Gorakhpur of the air force. If there is a requirement, more facilities can be created,” said Brigadier Anupam Sharma of the Headquarter Integrated Defence Staff, who is the nodal officer for the defence ministry’s efforts to tackle coronavirus cases. The Jaisalmer facility is the military’s biggest, he said.
If a need arises, the entire machinery of the armed forces can be used to support the civil administration in tackling the coronavirus outbreak, officials said. Besides Jodhpur, Visakhapatnam and Gorakhpur, quarantine facilities have been kept ready at Kolkata (army), Chennai (army), Kochi (navy), Dundigal near Hyderabad (IAF), Bengaluru (IAF), Kanpur (IAF) and Jorhat (IAF).
Currently, four quarantine facilities are being run by the defence forces. These are at Manesar and Jaisalmer by the army; Hindon by the air force and in Mumbai, which is being run by the navy.
On help being extended to India’s neighbours, Sharma said: “The Prime Minister has offered the support of rapid-reaction medical teams to Saarc countries. Five such teams are on standby, if there is a requirement.” Officials said such a requisition from a Saarc country could come.
Internally, too, the forces are taking precautions, following medical protocols such as social distancing and hygiene at offices and barracks as directed by the Directorate General Armed Forces Medical Services.
The forces will also follow the ‘janta curfew’, called by Prime Minister Narendra Modi between 7 am and 9 pm on Sunday, asking people not to move out of their houses during that duration.
Army chief General MM Naravane has reviewed the preparations of the army in tackling the pandemic, while a fresh advisory has been issued giving instructions to reduce attendance at offices in the army headquarters from March 23. Thirty-five per cent of officers and 50% junior commissioned officers are to work from home for one week starting March 23. The second group will work from home from March 30.
Meanwhile, the forces have postponed all conferences, seminars and temporary duties till April 15. Leave of those already on leave has been extended till April 15. New postings will also be deferred. All army personnel attending courses ending before April 15 will be retained at the training institution. There will also be no movement of officers to or from a country of foreign assignment whether on leave or completion of tenure till April 15. All Annual Medical Examination postponed till April 15.
The involvement of the armed forces for tackling the coronavirus started in mid-January. Officials said it involved preparation of medical teams and quarantine facilities. The first quarantine facility was setup at Manesar on February 1, after the government decided to keep Indian citizens evacuated from Wuhan there.
While 484 people evacuated from Iran are now kept in the Jaisalmer facility, 83 who came from Italy are at the facility in Manesar. The Hindon and Mumbai facility are housing 58 and 44 people, respectively, who came from Iran. This follows after the IAF evacuated 1059 people from different countries.
Officials said the quarantine duration at the facilities was 14 days. Two batches of people being quarantined cannot be mixed due to the fear of contagion. If a person tests positive for the virus, he would be isolated at a tertiary care hospital near the quarantine facility. Even if the person tests negative after 14 days, that person is still monitored by state medical teams for 14 another days.