Hours after an Indian Army soldier tested positive for the novel coronavirus, or COVID-19, the centre has asked all paramilitary forces to go into "battle mode". An advisory has been issued by the government with details about soldiers' roles and responsibility in containing the spread of a virus that has killed nearly 7,000 people worldwide and infected over 1.7 lakh others.
The 34-year-old soldier, posted to Leh in Ladakh is the first case of coronavirus in the armed forces. In India, COVID-19 has been linked to the deaths of three people and there are 147 confirmed cases.
"The Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR, the government's main medical research body) has given India an estimated 30 days to prepare. The only thing that is likely to slow the exponential growth and spread of this infection is measures to prevent community transmission," the advisory, issued by Dr Mukesh Saxena, ADG (Medical), said.
According to Dr Saxena, the people most at risk are medical staff. "If and when they fall sick, the healthcare system is likely to become overburdened. So a plan for their safety also needs to be chalked out," he added.
Describing COVID-19 as "the most infectious virus the world has seen in recent times", the advisory said India is already in the middle of a pandemic and referenced the National Disaster Act. It also postponed certain administrative tasks normally performed by medical staff, in lieu of the demand already placed on their time and effort.
"Social distancing (maintaining a gap of at least a metre to other people) for general public and meticulous personal prophylaxis and disinfection for healthcare staff is required. There is a need to get into battle mode and plan ahead... in theory and through drills," the four-page advisory reads.
India's paramilitary forces number at least 10 lakh men and women posted all over the country, including in difficult terrain like Jammu and Kashmir and naxal-affected areas like the North East.
"It is a big challenge to keep the force healthy, as most stay in barracks and move around in troops," a senior ministry official said. Personnel have been asked not to travel and stay in assigned locations.
"Avoid international or domestic travel (air, train or bus) for at least one month, except when essential. Non-emergency leave of any kind may be cancelled forthwith. This will cut down travel-related risk of virus spreading," the advisory said.
In keeping with what is now global protocol to prevent the spread of COVID-19, paramilitary personnel are also being encouraged to avoid physical contact such as handshakes and are being taught to practice cough hygiene.
The advisory also instructs personnel to wash hands frequently, especially when in public places, and keep shoes outside the house. It also instructs personnel on handwashing techniques.
"Plan and arrange for emergency budget for protective equipment and disinfection material for all staff, especially medical staff and workers. This includes washing powder, bleaching powder, sufficient buckets and mops, and foot-operated dustbins," forces have been advised.
The advisory also asks paramilitary personnel to organise public awareness and education camps, and to put up posters available on Health Ministry and World Health Organisation (WHO) websites.
India is currently at Stage 2 of the coronavirus pandemic. According to the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), this means that at present, there is no community transmission of the virus.