The coronavirus in its Indian avatar is a double mutant. The new variant called B.1.617 was initially detected in India with two mutations - the E484Q and L452R - and is considered more potent and virile. This virus has spread like wildfire on a populace that was careless and carefree after managing to negotiate the first wave nearly as effectively as any country in the world. This misplaced notion led the people to abandon masks and social distancing. Indians started partying, gathering for social events like weddings, going on shopping sprees, catching up with religious visits and tourism with fervor like a student after the class 12 exams.

It is well known that viruses mutate all the time as part of their evolution process. Some mutations weaken the virus while others may make it stronger, enabling it to spread faster or cause more infections, despite measures such as the world's largest lockdown last year. An exploding outbreak in India risks undoing a hard-won victory over the pathogen.

The present rate of coronavirus infection in India is mind-boggling 3.5 lakhs a day. As of date, there are nearly 16.6 million positive cases in India. The medical infrastructure is on the verge of collapse if not already collapsed. Patients are dying on the roadside due to lack of beds in the hospital, while even those who are lucky enough to gain entry into a medical facility are dying due to lack of oxygen (O2).

The situation is grave, to say the least, and as it happens during every disaster or calamity in this country, the government of the day calls upon the Indian armed forces to rescue the situation and manage the problem mismanaged by the local administration.

Oxygen shortfall is the major and most serious problem of the day. Hospitals, especially in Delhi, are without any supplies. The IAF and Railways have been pressed into service. The IAF has tasked its fleet of C-17(Globemaster) heavy-lift aircraft which is capable of carrying a payload of 40-70 tons up to a distance of 4,200-9,000 km in a single hop.

In addition, IL-76, AN -32, Avro aircraft along with Chinook and MI-17 helicopters have been pressed into service to airlift medical personnel, oxygen containers, oxygen cylinders, trolleys, and essential medicines to places where they are needed. "Doctors and nursing staff from Kochi, Mumbai, Visakhapatnam, and Bengaluru for various hospitals in New Delhi, have been air transported by IAF," a statement from the Air Force said. Chinook and Mi-17 helicopters have also been kept on standby for deployment.

The Indian Railways, too, is running dedicated corridors for Oxygen Express.

The C-17 and IL-76 are airlifting Cryogenic tankers from the states requiring oxygen to Vizag, Bhubaneshwar, and Panagarh where O2 plants are generating the much-needed liquid gold. Air transportation is to reduce the travel time but unfortunately, the aircraft can only transport empty tankers as O2 filled tankers can't be airlifted as O2 in its liquid form is highly inflammable. The largest of these cryogenic tankers weighs around 20 tonnes and smaller ones around eight to 10 tonnes. So depending on their weight and volume, the C-17s carry one to four tankers in one sortie. The C-17 brought four cryogenic from Singapore on Saturday to Panagarh airfield in West Bengal. There is a major shortfall of these types of tankers in our country which are required to transport liquid O2. Other than Singapore, the IAF will also fly its transport aircraft to the UAE and will bring in oxygen tankers to augment the supply of oxygen in the country.

Chinook and Mi-17 helicopters have also been kept on standby for deployment. Apart from airlifting oxygen from abroad, IAF is ferrying tankers from one state to another. The An-32 carried 700 kgs of filled oxygen cylinders on Friday between the Indian states. The AN-32 and AVRO are now flying regular sorties between states carrying critical medical supplies and personnel to help set up medical infrastructure to augment the existing facilities. The IAF is fully engaged in contributing towards battling this pandemic as a nation.

The government of India has deployed all its resources at its command to ensure the crisis is addressed and the curve is flattened as early as possible. It is the responsibility of the citizens, too, to ensure that all COVID protocols are followed in earnest and we do not repeat the mistakes of the past few months. Remember, the coronavirus will not be eliminated. It can only be contained by vaccination and proper COVID-19 protocol practice.

Sagar Bharti

Air vice-marshall SagarBharti was commissioned in 1981 in the flying branch of IAF. He is a highly decorated pilot with more than 5,600h of flying experience. An alumnus of NDA, Staff College Wellington, and Naval War College, he has commanded a helicopter unit and the forward-most base of IAF in Ladhakh, supporting the air effort in the most difficult terrain in Siachen and along the Indo-China border. In 2011 he took over as deputy comdt. at the Air Force Academy Hyderabad whereas HOD Flying and Ground Training he was responsible for training over 850 cadets each year. The air officer has also served as senior air and administrative staff officer of maintenance command, one of the largest commands of IAF. The air officer has the distinction of being appointed on diplomatic assignment as Air Attaché’ to Ukraine and Romania. In his last assignment before retiring, he headed the Air wing of BSF, MHA. For his participation in IPKF in Sri Lanka and various other operations, including HDR missions, the officer has been awarded the presidential medals YudhSeva Medal, Vayu Sena Medal, and Vishisht Seva Medal.

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