Keeping vigil over high seas while helping govt fight Covid-19

Shashwat Gupta Ray
Saturday, 9 May 2020

The navy was first approached by the Goa State Health department on March 24, 2020 for assistance to transport doctors and blood samples to Pune for testing. The same was undertaken on March 25, 2020.



Indian Navy's largest aviation base INS Hansa which was in the forefront of helping Goa government fighting Covid-19 by airlifting samples and government medical staff to National Institute of Virology (NIV), Pune, simultaneously maintained strict vigil over high seas to keep the "unknown enemy" at bay.
"As a consequence of nationwide lockdown for COVID-19 announced by the Prime Minister on March 24, all airlines, trains and domestic public transport system were brought to a grinding halt. Transportation of essential medical care equipment, doctors and health workers in such circumstances becomes a challenge. These are the times when the armed forces play a vital role to support the government to build a standby system that needs to be robust and supplement the Govt in missions towards relief," Commanding Officer of INS Hansa told GT.
 The navy was first approached by the Goa State Health dept on March 24, 2020 for assistance to transport doctors and blood samples to Pune for testing. The same was undertaken on March 25, 2020.
"Subsequently, sorties were flown almost on a daily basis to Pune towards relief material and training for doctors. In addition, a sortie was also flown to Delhi and Chandigarh to collect hand sanitisers and masks. This we knew was just the beginning of the many sorties that would need to be undertaken to various parts of the country," the CO of INS Hansa said.
Speaking on the action-plan of the authorities at INS Hansa for transporting the samples of suspected patients, the CO Hansa said idea was to maintain a balance between operational tasking and flying towards supporting the health care system of the government.
"In such circumstances, it may be a possibility that anti national elements take advantage of the situation and carry out an attack. It was therefore important to maintain a strict vigil over the high seas while also ensuring that the Goa government would become self sufficient to take on the pandemic situation that was developing," he said.
The station earmarked aircraft and air crew that would be utilised for missions towards COVID. These assets were to be operating independently and kept in isolation between missions.
"The interaction of COVID mission crew with rest was restricted to bare minimum to prevent the spread of pandemic. Towards such operations, the Naval Headquarters at New Delhi and the Flag Officer Naval Aviation have laid down strict procedures for compliance," he said.
This includes guidelines for handling medical equipment and blood samples for transportation, movement of doctors within the nation, procedures for transportation of patients, both positive and suspect patients for medical assistance and precautions and procedures for cleaning the aircraft that are being utilised towards COVID 19 missions.
"Towards transportation of patients, innovative and indigenous equipments with an independent breathing systems have been manufactured overnight to ensure no contact of patients with the aircrew," he said.
In the event of any of the aircrew being suspect of interacting with COVID 19 positive patients or secondary transmitters, the crew were to undergo a self quarantine for a period of 14 days. The base aircraft have till date flown over 60 hours towards COVID 19 missions.
On how the precautionary measures were taken, the Hansa CO said the Navy is being guided by the Standard Operating Procedures laid down by Director General Medical Services (Navy) and the Naval Headquarters at Delhi. The two organisations have both the medical specialists and specialists of air operations who have worked together.
He asserted that safety of the aircrew is of vital importance for the success of this prolonged battle against the pandemic. Following the laid down guidelines to the teeth is thus of vital importance to sustain relief operations over a prolonged period of time.
Last year Hansa played a stellar role in providing flood relief as part of Operation Varsha Rahat. This year it again played a stellar role in Mission Covid-19.
Reflecting on the base's contributions towards aiding civilian administration during crisis, the CO said, "One of the roles of the Indian Navy is to provide aid to civil authorities through cooperation and coordination with central and state governments. It is important for the Armed Forces to stand by the government and the people during times of crises.
"The challenges faced during the ongoing pandemic are very unique in nature. The pandemic, being very viral in nature, requires strict precautions to be taken by the aircrew and the squadrons that are operating the aircraft towards relief missions. The SOPs need to be followed strictly to ensure the missions can be sustained and are a success."
According to him, these operations could be unique in a way, that, the assets available are restricted and one needs to prepare to operate in a situation wherein the aircraft and aircrew are operating in an environment that is not conducive for relief operations.  
On the key learning from the operations, CO INS Hansa said it has been one of the most challenging missions in the recent past.
"The biggest of them would be the restriction in assets available for relief operations. With a limitation of aircrew available and prolonged sortie duration, more often than not, the pilots end up flying to their fatigue limits and on occasions, crossing it," he said.
But managing with minimum staff and ensuring max results has been the key to success in the ongoing operations.
"In addition, the relief required smooth coordination with various civil agencies like the health, ministry of civil aviation and ministry of transport etc. During the lock down period, INS Hansa has carried out relief operations to ensure repatriation of foreign nationals," he said.
 In one such instance, Air India has appreciated the support rendered by the air station in accommodating the relief aircraft. In total, 33 flights have operated from Dabolim to cities across Europe, Middle East and South East Asia.
"Such operations cause stretching of the available meagre resources, but at the same time ensures that each one puts his best foot forward in ensuring smooth conduct of relief operations," the Commanding Officer said.    

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