With the first anniversary of South Africa’s COVID-19-induced national state of disaster looming, it should be remembered the SA National Defence Force (SANDF), in particular elements of the SA Army and SA Military Health Service (SAMHS), were among those leading initial preventive efforts.
Acknowledged as the country’s first real exposure to coronavirus, a repatriation flight aboard an SAA airliner brought 114 South Africans home from the epicentre of the virus in Wuhan, China, to a bout of isolation at the Ranch Motel outside Limpopo capital Polokwane. The mission was executed under the codename Ditaba and was led by Colonel Mcebisi Mdutywa, Officer Commanding the specialised airborne medical unit, 7 Medical Battalion Group.
This is noted in the latest available Department of Defence (DoD) annual report for the 2019/20 financial year.
Its military health support section notes: “During the month of March 2020, a team of healthcare practitioners was tasked to assist with the repatriation [of] South African citizens who was (sic) in the People’s Republic of China, during the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak in Wuhan City. This mission was successfully executed with clinical and military precision, where after the repatriated citizens were brought back to South Africa via a South African Airways flight, which landed in Polokwane on 14 March 2020, where after these repatriated South Africans were settled in a quarantine facility in the Limpopo Province.”
Insight into particularly the role of the SAMHS Reserve Force component in Operation Notlela, the codename given to the “employment” of 80 000 plus military personnel to curb the spread of the virus from 27 March last year, comes from military medical reserve officer Colonel JJ Templehoff.
He writes in the latest edition of the Reserve Force Volunteer that the arrival of COVID-19 on the world stage showed “many previous mind sets about shaping the present and future are outdated and inaccurate”.
“Since the advent of democracy in 1994, force preparation and force employment strategies focused on the full spectrum of war, excluding the relevance and importance of a worldwide outbreak of a disease like COVID-19.
“Since January 2020, the SANDF was sensitised about the challenges COVID-19 brought to countries worldwide. Health and medical infrastructure was overloaded; measures implemented by governments to contain spreading of the virus were met with protests and military forces around the globe were expected to fulfil collateral responsibilities.
“On 15 March 2020, the South African Government declared the spread of the virus a national state of disaster and announced a raft of interventions to curb the spread in the country. The President of South Africa and the Commander-in-Chief of the SANDF announced the SANDF would be deployed in support of the SA Police Service in the enforcement of national lockdown regulations in an effort to curb the spread of the virus. This initiated implementation of Operation Notlela as from 27 March 2020.
“Op Notlela was executed under Operational Command of Joint Operations HQ (CJ Ops Division). It was a joint operation, executed by Regional Joint Tactical HQ’s of every province. The SA Army was identified as primary executor with the other services and divisions in support. The operational design of Op Notlela focussed on execution of urban and rural operations. This included activities such as roadblocks, road closures, cordon and search, health promotion, mandatory screening, medical support to all deployed forces and screening of medical facilities.
“The overall operational objective of SAMHS was to contribute to the reduction of infection, morbidity and mortality from COVID-19. Specific objectives were to ensure the provision of basic health services to the affected population and communities and prevention and control of outbreaks in the affected population and communities. The Area Military Health Formation (88 sickbays) and Tertiary Military Health Formation (three military hospitals and military medical institutions) was identified as the primary formation to support the national effort. In addition to support for the military community, SAMHS, as the operation unfolded, was requested to assist the Department of Health (DoH) in situations where existing infrastructure and resources were found to be inadequate.
“SAMHS also launched a campaign on mass screening and testing of DoD personnel to ensure force protection, health promotion and subsequent flattening of the curve in the military community. The campaign rolled out under the slogan ‘Warfare against the Invisible Enemy: The fight against COVID-19’ based on mobilisation of the military community to ensure early detection, intervention, prevention in order to decrease mortalities and mitigate the spread of the coronavirus. Screening (and testing if determined necessary) at the entrance of military institutions is still the order of the day.
Military hospitals, military training facilities and holiday and indoor sporting facilities were identified and prepared for mass quarantine and isolation. The military hospitals and identified sickbays provided high care and intensive care treatment.
“The Reserve Force component of SAMHS played an important role. Personnel were deployed as operational emergency care practitioners in support of deployed soldiers in urban and rural operations; acting as thermal scanner operators; nursing personnel involved in health education, mass screening and testing; manning hotlines at approved military institutions and contact tracing.
“The need to deploy additional health care practitioners was evidenced by an invitation to volunteers to join SAMHS as auxiliary personnel. Not many of these were deployed, due to the then decrease in the rate of infections this was an effective exercise and will strengthen the hand of SAMHS in similar future operations.
“Many challenges were experienced during planning and execution of Op Notlela and combatting COVID-19 in general with statistics providing an astonishing success rate achieved by the SANDF and SAMHS in mitigating the spread of the virus in the South African military community.”