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Why the war on Covid-19 needs an extra 73,180 soldiers

23 April 2020 - 11:02 By Kgothatso Madisa
The more than 73,000 additional soldiers come from different branches, including the air force, navy and military health services.
The more than 73,000 additional soldiers come from different branches, including the air force, navy and military health services.
Image: Sebabatso Mosamo

Soldiers will now move beyond just enforcing the lockdown regulations on the streets, with the additional personnel set to screen people at roadblocks, set up field hospitals and deliver water to communities.

President Cyril Ramaphosa deployed an additional 73,180 defence force members on Tuesday to support government departments and to control borders to combat the spread of the coronavirus in all nine provinces until the end of June.

Yesterday, secretary of defence Dr Sam Makhudu Gulube briefed parliament's joint standing committee on defence about the latest deployment. He said most of the deployed soldiers would be helping the department of health with the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic through tasks such as quarantining civilians and delivering personal protective equipment (PPE) to those on the ground.

The additional soldiers include members of the air force, navy, military health services, military police, defence intelligence, legal services, operational communication, technical services and finance accounting, among others.

President Cyril Ramaphosa announced on April 21 2020 that the South African government will make an additional R500bn available to assist in the fight against Covid-19. The money will come from reprioritising the country’s current budget and from international institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the New Development Bank (NDB). Here’s where the government will spend the money.

Through the SA military health services, they will establish military field hospitals in the provinces most affected by Covid-19, including Gauteng, Western Cape, Free State and KwaZulu-Natal.

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

The SANDF yesterday briefed the parliamentary committee on defence on the deployment of more soldiers by Ramaphosa this week at a revised budget of R4.5bn.

Gulube said the budget was also allocated to procure PPE items such as masks and gloves for the soldiers on the ground.

Four men were arrested after footage was captured of an alleged thief as he climbed up a 15m pole and attempted to steal precious metal from the destroyed Central Line in Cape Town on April 15 2020.

“The military health service is presently at the stage of deploying field hospitals at the grounds of 1 Military Hospital [in Pretoria] and also field hospitals on the grounds of two military hospitals in Cape Town and field hospitals on the grounds of three military hospitals in Bloemfontein,” Gulube 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.”

He said they would establish four military hospitals as well as a number of other field hospitals in other areas, including the Pretoria Showgrounds and others in the Eastern Cape.

Gulube said the health facilities were expensive and that they were looking into making them permanent.

“All of these military hospitals require medical equipment. When we talk of medical equipment of a field hospital, you imagine that we have to establish the ICU units, they are very expensive.

“Just their beds alone - electric beds and electric mattresses - they will be have to be accompanied by various ventilators as well as oxygen generators in case we run out of oxygen. We also have to establish dialysis machines.

“The president has advised in the command council that as we establish these hospitals, we should be looking into the future. 

“How are we going to be able to use these hospitals? Immediately as temporary shelters, but moving forward some [will become] permanent structures so that the legacy of Covid-19 should include the improvement generally of the health-care facilities through the country.”

Cyril Xaba, the co-chairperson of the joint standing committee on defence, said the cost implications for deployment were necessary in the context, which demands an extraordinary response.

“Of critical importance is the deployment of military health services to support the department of health when considering the trajectory of infections expected as per research by experts,” said Xaba.

“Furthermore, the committee is satisfied with the reason that the initial 2,820 deployed was insufficient, considering the expected scale of the disease.”