COVID-19 pandemic has been shaking the world for about a couple of months. As known commonly, the dramatic spread of the virus caused many diseases ended with death. The virus covered almost every field of our lives, because a big percentage of the human-being population is at lockdown position at their homes, and when we open TV or news portals most of the articles are about coronavirus. Until today, there are nearly 3 millions cases all around the world so far, unfortunately, the number of casualties is about to reach 200k.
Since the whole world is under the effects of the coronavirus, the first question that comes to our mind is the attitude of the countries’ navies against the epidemic. Because, unlike other jobs or environments, the effects of COVID-19 could be lethal for the people working on a warship. While the specialists and doctors warn the people to stay at home, to be careful about the “hand hygiene” and keep “social distance” with any other person, we clearly know that it’s not possible if you work on a warship (no matter what size it is). Comparing with a regular social environment, working and living places in a warship are quite smaller. That’s why sailors cannot keep the social distance. Moreover, according to the specialists, the longest surviving environment of the coronavirus is the metal surface. This means that it is inevitable that the virus spreads quickly when it enters a ship somehow. Another issue is the ventilation system of the ships. If a person suffering from COVID-19 coughs in a room, the particles containing virus could be transferred to other parts of the ship via the ventilation system. Even one sailor with COVID-19 could mean the entire ship becomes infected.
The most shocking cases:
The first significant COVID-19 case at navies occurred on the USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier of the U.S. Navy. The symptoms of the virus were detected on the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt in March 2020 while she was at sea. Affected crew members were evacuated and the ship was ordered to Guam. The commanding officer, Brett Crozier, wanted most of the crew to be removed from the ship to prevent the spread of the disease, but his superiors baulked. After several days Crozier e-mailed three of his superior officers and seven other Navy Captains, outlining a plan for the ship to be largely evacuated because the virus could not be contained on board. The letter leaked to the press, and the next day the Navy ordered most of the crew to be taken ashore, but the captain was relieved of command by Acting Secretary. By mid-April, hundreds of crew members including ex-commander had tested positive for the virus, and one had died.
The second impact was on the French aircraft carrier Charles De Gaulle (CDG). During her deployment at the Mediterranean with the task group including frigates from other countries, about 40 crew members were beginning to show symptoms, that the carrier set sail to its homeport in Toulon earlier than planned, as reported on 8 April 2020 by the Ministry of Armed Forces. On 17 April, the numbers reported went up to more than 1,000 infected, from 2,000 tested, with 500 showing symptoms, 24 admitted to hospital and one of them to an intensive care unit. After the CDG case, some of the escort frigates reported COVID-19 incidents.
The measures against COVID-19:
For sure, these are not the only cases around the world, but the most shocking ones. Because of the reasons we emphasized at the beginning of the article, measures against the outbreak are indispensable. There are some examples of the measures taken by the navies, but the most remarkable one was the radical decision of the Turkish Navy. After the first case is reported by the Health Minister, Turkish Naval Command has ordered the combatant ships to leave the ports and deploy at sea (by anchoring, buoy mooring, sailing etc.) in order to save the crew from the virus effect and met the needs of the ships by their logistic organization. Another important measure is about quarantine of the personnel before entering the ship. If a personnel returns from leave he/she has to stay in quarantine for 14-day, before finishing the quarantine period no one is allowed to enter the ship. Since the first case is seen Turkey, no COVID-19 case has been reported by the Turkish Navy.
After the Theodore Roosevelt incident, the U.S. Navy followed the same way with Turkish Navy and ordered the USS Harry S.Truman strike group (currently at sea) not to return ports and keep deploying at sea.
After the pandemic is under control in China, the PLA (People’s Liberation Army) Navy took some measures including hygiene and tight control on the materials taken to the ships. Moreover, PLA Navy also included the virus outbreak in the exercise scenarios and made drills under contaminated environment.
NATO Maritime Command made a press release about how NATO ships manage COVID-19 risk. They outlined that the measures taken against the pandemic, in general, it’s limiting contact between ships, hand washing, disinfecting of supplies transferred, routine ship dis-infecting and, when in port for resupply, crews are not allowed to leave their ships. Our ships are essentially self-quarantined in place as units. Moreover, the German replenishment ship Berlin that recently joined Standing NATO Maritime Group Two (SNMG2) has a unique capability on board to test people for COVID-19 using polymerase chain reaction method. Ships from Standing NATO Mine Countermeasures Group Two (SNMCMG2) started implementing protective measures already from 27 February, including a wet chloramine carpet at the flagship entrance, antibacterial gel cans, masks and gloves. Because of these enhanced measures that were undertaken weeks ago, we have not seen active transmission within any of NATO’s Standing Naval Forces.
Naval Units help their countries while fighting against COVID-19:
The most important feature that distinguishes the navy from other forces is that it can be used effectively under peace conditions. As with all other disasters, the navy of the countries benefits in the COVID-19 outbreak.
The U.S. Navy ordered two hospital ship USNS Mercy and USNS Comfort to make preparations and leave the port. After the preparations were completed, USNS Mercy moved to Los Angeles, USNS Comfort to New York and began to help healthcare organizations in the area.
The Ministry of Defense of Spain has ordered the Landing Platform Dock Galicia to proceed to the port of Melilla to reinforce its hospital capacity in order to serve novel coronavirus patients in the autonomous city.
French Navy sent the amphibious assault helicopter carrier FS Tonnerre (L9014) to the island of Corsica in order to evacuate critically-ill coronavirus patients from Ajaccio and transfer them to hospitals in southern France.
The benefits provided by the navies to their country not only remain with patient evacuation. For example, The Royal Thai Navy (RTN) has decided to slash its fiscal 2020 budget by 33 percent to help the government fight COVID-19.
As can be understood from the issues we have explained above, the naval forces do not only protect themselves, as they do with any disaster, but they provide great benefits to the country.