More to army than skiet en donder

A soldier deployed in Alexandra interacts with a resident. The writer says the plan presented in parliament on Wednesday suggests that the troops have been called to increase the state's capacity for a comprehensive health response to the outbreak.
A soldier deployed in Alexandra interacts with a resident. The writer says the plan presented in parliament on Wednesday suggests that the troops have been called to increase the state's capacity for a comprehensive health response to the outbreak.
Image: Alon Skuy

On Tuesday it emerged that President Cyril Ramaphosa had ordered the deployment of more than 73,000 additional soldiers to intensify the fight against Covid-19.

The deployment, the biggest in democratic SA's history, raised fears that the government was preparing to step up its efforts to clamp down on wayward civilians in its war on the pandemic.

Such fears were not unfounded.

In recent weeks incidents of brutality and even death of civilians, allegedly at the hands of soldiers and police patrolling the streets to enforce the lockdown, were a stark reminder of the dangers of security forces whose power is left unchecked.

However the plan presented in parliament on Wednesday, suggests that the troops have been called to increase the state's capacity for a comprehensive health response to the outbreak.

According to secretary of defence Dr Sam Makhudu Gulube, soldiers will begin screening people at roadblocks, they will set up field hospitals in several provinces and deliver water to communities in need.

The hospital facilities will have beds, oxygen generators, dialysis machines and intensive care units, he said.

"KwaZulu-Natal is one of the provinces that are the epicentres of the viral epidemic. We do not have a military hospital in KZN, so we will be establishing temporary facilities on the grounds of the Natal military command centre in order to support the province," Gulube said.

At least four military hospitals will be set up as well as a number of other field hospitals in other areas, including the Pretoria Showgrounds and others in Eastern Cape.

This plan suggests an expansion from a security-driven approach to one that leverages on the army's set of medical and other expertise to proactively identify the virus in order to isolate and treat those infected and hopefully slow down and contain the spread of the pandemic.

Importantly, it signals the potential scale of the war we are about to wage in the next two months, irrespective of the state and phase of the lockdown.

While we hope for the best, it is clear that government is indeed preparing for the worst.

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