India needs to brace for another lockdown

While the South Korean model of aggressive and maximum testing has proved successful; the world is also studying and appreciating the Indian model wherein a densely and an overpopulated nation with limited resources and a not very advanced health infrastructure has been able to control the exponential spread of the pandemic, writes Brig Anil Gupta for the South Asia Monitor

Brig Anil Gupta (retd) Apr 11, 2020
Image
a

Coronavirus couldn’t have hit the world at a worse time than this. When there was a global economic slowdown and most major economies of the world, including India, were struggling, emerged the worst pandemic of the century in the form of COVID-19, popularly referred to as coronavirus. Leaders like British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and US President Donald Trump would not be spared by their people and international critics for their casual handling of the crisis in their respective countries.

At the same time, the leadership of Singapore Premier Lee Hsien Loong and South Korean President Moon Jae-in will be hailed globally for instituting timely measures to prevent the spread of the deadly virus in their respective countries.

The leadership in such hours of crisis matters a lot. India is fortunate to have a dedicated and visionary leader like Narendra Modi at the helms. While the South Korean model of aggressive and maximum testing has proved successful, the world is also studying and appreciating the Indian model wherein a densely and an overpopulated nation with limited resources and a not very advanced health infrastructure has been able to control the exponential spread of the pandemic so far in comparison to the spread ratio in advanced countries like the US and West European nations.

The Indian model is based on the concept of social distancing to prevent the spread and break the chain of spread through self-isolation especially for a 14-day period for those with a history of recent foreign travel. Social distancing in a society like ours is not easy to practice. The privileged and the elite class could maintain a social distance because of the facilities they enjoy but imagine the condition of the slum dwellers or migrant labourers who often share one room to save rent.

As the days passed, they gradually started losing their jobs and wages as well since people stopped their entries to their homes. Once the World Health Organisation (WHO) announced the crisis as a pandemic on March 13 and death tally started increasing exponentially in China and certain West European nations particularly Italy, the demand for sterner measures at home began to grow. But the government maintained that the social distancing was the best option and powers were delegated under the Disaster Management Act to allow district administrators to enforce the same in their respective districts with close monitoring by an apex body appointed under the chairmanship of the Union health minister.

Subsequently, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a nation-wide 21-day lockdown beginning midnight March 24. The Ministry of Home Affairs issued extensive guidelines to maintain social distancing. Soon, the entire railway and air network were suspended followed the ban on movement via road transport as well.

The credit goes to the vast majority of the Indian populace which strictly followed the advisories issued by the government and responded together to various calls given by the prime minister. The nation is standing solidly behind him to ensure that the nation wins its fight against corona. The collective will of the people is yielding results. However, two incidents did create a challenge for the leadership but both were controlled.

The first was the outpour of migrant labourers on roads with a view to tread long distances to reach their homes - a problem that should have been anticipated beforehand. The fear of these hordes reaching the rural areas which already lacked health infrastructure forced the government to adopt strict methods to stop the exodus. The mechanisms were soon set in place and within 72 hours, the problem was contained.

The other was the unfortunate and irresponsible Tablighi Jamat episode. It is not the time now for a blame game because the crisis demands a unified national effort. However, a detailed investigation at the appropriate time would definitely identify the defaulters, and if it was deliberate. But for these two incidents, things would have been entirely different.

None the less even now India is being watched globally and the data points towards a successful India model. Overruling the naysayers, Modi has said, “Jaan hai to Jahan hai” (Health is Wealth). He did not get carried away by those who were scaring him of the impending economic recession. Not that he or his government is not worried. He is simultaneously addressing the issue while giving overriding preference to human lives.

Modi has come out with brilliant ideas both economically and socially to ensure that the chain of coronavirus is broken and the nation is spared of the horror of the pandemic entering the third stage. Various economic measures to cater for the unorganized and organised sectors have been announced by the government. The critics may term it too late, too less but the government’s response is dynamic with day-to-day monitoring and long term planning.

On the social front Modi wants the nation to fight the crisis together. Ensuring cohesion, avoiding boredom and stress due to prolonged lockdown, keeping the fear away and appreciating the Corona Warriors, has been the major focus of the Prime Minister to ensure that the nation’s resolve does not dither.

A focussed fund to supplement the monetary requirements through voluntary donation by the citizens has also been launched called Prime Minister's Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations Fund (PM CARES fund)\. Suspension of MPLAD fund for two years and voluntary cut in salaries by 30 percent of all parliamentarians are the two other major decisions which can be also viewed as “example-setting” and “trendsetting.”

As we enter the last week of the lockdown things though under control are not looking very positive. Many state administrations have instituted stricter lockdown measures like ‘total sealing’ in the designated Red Zones based on the hotspots identified by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare to prevent the rapid spread of the disease. People are not permitted to step out of their houses while their essential needs are being met through door-to-door supply.

The government has also used this period to step up the health infrastructure and build stocks of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), masks and sanitizers. Specific COVID hospitals have been designated, testing facilities increased, railway coaches modified, retired doctors and para-medicals recalled meeting the worst-case scenario. The effort, however, is to avoid reaching that stage through stricter lockdown measures and the possible extension of the lockdown period.

While our confirmed cases are nearing six thousand, active cases stand around 5,200. While the rise in the number of cases was gradual during the period 25 March-01 April, there has been a sudden spike from thereon mainly due to two reasons more testing and the Tablighi factor. The percentage of daily cases increased after the lockdown spiked till April first and has shown decline thereafter but the curve has yet to be flattened. Since the graph has been oscillating we cannot afford to take the risk of easing control which may negate all the good work done so far.  Many chief ministers have approached the PM to extend the lockdown.

The government is faced with many dilemmas. First and foremost is the harvesting season which has already been delayed followed by the sowing of Kharif crop because it would not only affect farmers’ income but also the nation’s food grain reserve stocks. Second is the impact on the economy. The third is growing unemployment and last but not the least is the concern about more than 20 percent of our population that lives below the poverty line or maybe pushed below that line due to ban on movement, the worst affected being the unorganized sector.

The PM during his teleconference with the leaders of the opposition parties has clearly laid down his priority. He has likened the situation to a "social emergency". He has also said in no uncertain words that the priority of his government is to “save each and every life.” He has given adequate hints of inability to lift the lockdown in one go. As far as economic challenges are concerned he has reiterated the commitment of his government to “overcome all challenges.” The final decision is likely to be taken on April 11, when PM will consult the state CMs and Administrators of UTs.

While the PM has admitted that India has been among the few nations to control the pace of spread, he has also sounded caution by stating that “situation keeps changing continuously and one needs to maintain vigil.” 

In such an hour of crisis, the opposition has a major role to play by keeping the government on its toes to ensure that it does not lose the focus. Unfortunately, Sonia Gandhi-led Congress is doing exactly the opposite. Not able to digest the growing popularity of Modi amidst the crisis, the Congress has resorted to oppose every action of the government without any constructive suggestions.

As responsible citizens and stakeholders in the unified fight against corona Indians need to brace themselves for another lockdown.  We have to prepare ourselves mentally and physically for stricter lockdown measures. The businessmen need to understand the need to save lives viz a viz loss of revenue and gladly support the government decision by reminding themselves, “jaan hai to jahaan hai.” The salaried class, including pensioners, need to be prepared for a temporary salary cut to meet the needs of the burgeoning expenditure to contain the pandemic. 

Apart from cutting down on our own needs, we will have to take care of the underprivileged members in our neighbourhood and local communities through sharing with them not only resources but love and compassion as well. Even at the expense of sounding alarmist one would not hesitate to warn of a “social war” between the haves and have notes. We need to show that compassion because for how long such a situation is going to prevail is difficult to predict at this stage.

(The author, an Indian Army veteran, is a political commentator and a strategic expert. He can be contacted at anil5457@gmail.com)