Battling COVID19 and 11th anniversary of victory over terror | Daily News


Soldiers in War & Peace:

Battling COVID19 and 11th anniversary of victory over terror

Next Monday (May 18) marks an important landmark in Sri Lankan history. Eleven years ago when the three-decade-old conflict was brought to end, the members of Armed Forces were widely respected and honoured for the valiant role they played in defeating the most ruthless terrorists of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). While that exalted position did not diminish over the years, there was a definite decline as the public attention was diverted to economic issues and other mundane affairs.

On the eve of the 11th anniversary of the May 2009 victory, there was sudden upswing in the illustrious position of the Armed Forces in the public eye due to the courageous role played in the national campaign to curb COVID19 pandemic. The relentless campaign by the health authorities, ably supported by the Armed Forces, did not diminish even after it was found out that more than 400 sailors and officers of Sri Lanka Navy had tested positive for COVID19. The invaluable contribution by the Armed Forces at this time clearly proved that there is no clear distinction between the important role of the forces during peace and war.

The spread in COVID19 cases at the Welisara Navy Camp exemplifies the seriousness of the threat of the pandemic faced by the health workers and Armed Forces. Last month only a single sailor was tested positive. All sailors in contact were then quarantined and hundreds of them were later tested positive. Luckily, so far, this has been an isolated case. Almost all other branches of Security Forces and police who were at the forefront of the fight against the dreaded pandemic are free from infection. Fortunately there has been no effect whatsoever on the ongoing missions in operational areas due to the detection of affected persons at Welisara. In fact, as the Army Commander Lt Gen Shavendra Silva said the Army has stepped up its efforts in the campaign against the pandemic with added resolution.

As military experts had pointed out, since time immemorial diseases and war have been ‘deadly comrades’. History shows us that more soldiers die of disease than battle wounds. During the Napoleonic wars, the number of British army soldiers who died of diseases was eight times more than the number of those who died fighting.

For the Security Forces, being instruments of last resort for national security, disease prevention for force preservation and effectiveness is extremely important. Armed Forces maintain very high standards of hygiene and sanitation and are supported by an excellent medicare infrastructure and personnel. That is the very reason why the Security Forces were deployed to tackle the spread of the virus. However, the nature of military organizations, their habitat, training and modus operandi, both during peace and war makes them extremely vulnerable to contagious infections. Despite the odds, the military has to persevere in order to pursue its assigned mission of combatting internal and external threats. In addition, the military has to assist the civil authorities in fighting the disease.

Military forces across Europe have scaled back operations and imposed stricter rules on personnel to try to stem the spread of the coronavirus among staff who often live and work in close quarters, making them more vulnerable to infection. Preventing the virus’ proliferation among the military is important both for national security and because specialist Army, Navy and Air Force units are being drafted in to help governments tackle the virus in many countries.

Testing of military personnel is critical, but it is unclear how widespread it is. Britain and Turkey declined to say how many military personnel had been tested or had contracted COVID-19.

The Italian defence ministry would only give information on officers, saying Chief of Staff Salvatore Farina and a dozen others had tested positive. One lieutenant-colonel has died in Italy.

In Spain, which stands second behind the United States for the number of infections at more than 130,000, the defence ministry said 230 personnel had tested positive, while some 3,000 military staffers are in self-isolation. A spokesman for the German defence ministry said around 250 soldiers were infected, with fewer than 10 hospitalized.

Conflict hardly ever pauses due to epidemics and natural disasters. In December 2004, the tsunami caused severe damage in many coastal areas of the country and the Army was rushed for immediate rescue missions. There first task was not to provide relief to the beleaguered population but to rescue as many as possible from imminent death. The role played by the military was hailed by the people, including the Tamil and Muslim masses then living in LTTE-controlled areas in the North and East.

Since the time when the Presidential Task Force appointed by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa decided to deploy Security Forces in the campaign to curb COVD19 pandemic, our armed forces have done exceptionally well in ensuring force preservation without impinging on the ongoing operational missions and tasks in aid of civil authorities to fight Covid-19. However, it is a long haul and the real challenges lie ahead, as experienced in the Welisara navy camp incident. The lockdown has only provided a pause and the threat of community transmission looms large. The armed forces have to be prepared for large-scale deployment to fight the epidemic. Furthermore, the Forces will have to ensure that the conditions would be conducive for the scheduled General Elections.

Although, Sri Lanka could be happy about its successes in combating the pandemic, we should not let our guard down. As health authorities stressed, the efforts of the health sector and the Armed Forces must be backed by aggressive testing to detect virus affected.

The military will have to continue its role especially because of the medical experts’ view that it is likely that the Armed Forces as a whole, will develop herd immunity much earlier than national herd immunity which comes after 50-60 % of the population gets infected. Hence, the valiant members of Armed Forces will have an important battle ahead at this ninth anniversary of the victory against ruthless terrorists. The 2009 battle was against a visible terrorist and today’s fight is against an unseen enemy of COVID19. The role assigned to the Armed Forces is equally critical for the nation and its people.

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