Thursday, March 12, 2020

Help Singapore Armed Forces SAF overseas training detachments gear up to fight COVID-19

The Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) has a global footprint thanks to friends and partners who have helped Singapore's military raise and sustain overseas training detachments. One phrase that aptly describes the SAF's training tempo is that training takes place around the world and round the clock.

With COVID-19 declared a pandemic by the World Health Organisation yesterday, the SAF will have to deal with challenges around the world and round the clock as training detachments in countries from Australia, France, the United States and several more places gear up to face this global health crisis.

The issue is relevant and urgent. Yesterday, Singapore's Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) reported that four Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) regular servicemen who tested positive for the coronavirus after returning from France have been hospitalised, while another two were placed on home quarantine as they were close contacts. The six RSAF personnel were on the same official overseas duty trip from Feb 15 to March 7.

The MINDEF statement added: "The SAF had already reduced its overseas training deployments and exercises in view of the COVID-19 outbreak, and will continue to adjust such activities where necessary depending on the conditions within the host country. All SAF personnel, both locally and abroad, have been instructed to take precautionary measures which include social distancing to mitigate the risk of infection."

From what we've seen in the media, there is a clear asymmetry in the readiness and success of countries worldwide when it comes to dealing with COVID-19. Especially for larger countries, healthcare coverage can be patchy - excellent in big cities with the scope and scale of medical capabilities trickling downhill as one moves into the hinterland.

This hinterland, far from populated areas, is where many of our SAF detachments reside. We need to embrace SAF overseas training detachments and their supporting communities as wider stakeholders, as Singapore hunkers down for a protracted struggle with this new virus.

There are hundreds of SAF personnel and their families now overseas. Mind you, military service is NOT the kind of job that offers a work from home option. Our men and women in uniform overseas who concurrently juggle their SAF duties with their role as head of household do not have the time to prepare their homes against the pandemic. The Singapore homefront must therefore lend a hand and be prepared to do so quickly:

Surgical masks: Open the national stockpile to SAF overseas detachments. You've read about panic buying in large cities from Australia to the US? Imagine the situation in small mom-and-pop convenience stores in outlying areas like Cazaux in France or the outskirts of Mountain Home in Idaho where bigger stores may be many miles away. The isolation of military air bases and camps is now their source of vulnerability as such places are at the fringe of their local supply chains. Even the US Navy facility in Yokosuka, Japan, has reported a run on essential items. In short, airfreight masks and in large quantities and have them delivered to SAF detachments overseas.

SAF personnel who fly the flag overseas have always embraced their counterparts in the same base as their wider family. We need to sustain that goodwill. We have done so in the past with socio-civic projects and need to consider doing so now. This means that mask manifest will have to be a little longer to cover not just the headcount for SAF regulars, NSFs and their dependents but also some of their base counterparts. We cannot save the whole of Bordeaux, Queensland or Western Austalia, but should consider a goodwill quantity for units in the same base that fly and work alongside the SAF in foreign countries.

Information: You may have heard how Singapore has been praised for its handling of COVID-19. Sooner or later, it will become a talking point overseas. Now we don't expect SAF personnel, especially non doctors, to give chapter and verse on Singapore's virus containment/mitigation measures. And our chaps must also know when and how to disengage. One useful way is to point to a fact sheet that summarises what's been done in simple Q&A and infographics (or even a short video clip). This can be fact checked for accuracy, made as a PDF and sent to every corner of the globe which has an SAF presence to keep everybody up to date.

Specialised support: Singapore may be able to keep the pandemic in check on home ground. Things may be swell in Paris or Washington D.C. But does anyone know how the medical infrastructure in outlying foreign regions will cope? In a worst-case scenario where a community with a sizeable number of Singaporean families is affected, we need to think about how Singapore can lend a hand to the host nation at a time when that particular outlying area may not be top priority for foreign crisis planners.

Keep such places on the radar even as Singapore's whole of government approach focuses its firepower on the home front. Their well-being is very important too.

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