Government's response to the pandemic

Symbolism vs substance

Print edition : April 24, 2020

Prime Minister Narendra Modi lights a lamp as he appeals to the people to show a gesture of unity in the fight against COVID-19, in New Delhi on April 5. Photo: ANI

People clanging utensils to show gratitude to helpers and medical practitioners fighting the coronavirus, in New Delhi on March 22. Photo: PTI

On the way to buy milk during the lockdown, in New Delhi. Photo: Getty Images

The Prime Minister’s histrionics do not make up for his government’s failure to respond effectively and in time to the COVID-19 crisis.

WHEN Prime Minister Narendra Modi indicated on the evening of April 2, after a video conference with the Chief Ministers of various States, that his next COVID-19-related address to the nation would be at 9 in the morning instead of the usual television prime time of 8 p.m., sizable segments of the political class, the bureaucracy and the media in the national capital sought to interpret it as a sign of course correction. . A key point that came up repeatedly in the discussions within and between these groups was that the Prime Minister and his team had learnt their lesson from the mayhem that broke out after his second COVID-19-related address to the nation, delivered at 8 p.m. on March 24, 2020, and had grasped the massive humanitarian and economic cost of that late evening pronouncement.

The announcement of a 21-day lockdown from the midnight of March 24 in that address allowed the people just four hours to prepare for the lockdown. This narrow window defeated the very purpose of the lockdown as lakhs of people, mainly migrant workers, started thronging public transport facilities and took to highways in order to somehow make their way back home. If the professed aim of the lockdown was to strengthen social distancing, that objective lay in tatters as people started moving across the country in huge numbers.

Many senior officers in certain key Union Ministries whom Frontline interacted with admitted that the situation was “hideous” and “grotesque”. The Prime Minister, in his radio programme Mann Ki Baat, later apologised to the people for the difficulties caused by the lockdown but asserted that he had no other choice in the matter. Sections of the bureaucracy and the political class, including leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its allies in the National Democratic Alliance perceived this qualified apology and the April 2 video conference with Chief Ministers, where he sought their suggestions on planning a “staggered unlockdown”, as pointers to an emerging course correction. Modi’s choice of 9 a.m. for his address to the nation was understood as an indication that he now wanted to give more time for the people to adapt to any tough measures that might be necessary in handling this crisis.

When the address actually happened, however, it was clear that the change of timing had nothing to do with either a “course correction” or with any consideration of allowing the country more time to adjust itself to tough measures. In form and content, the “morning show” was very much like the two earlier addresses. Bereft of any detail and information on what the government was planning in order to meet the COVID-19 challenge, all three addresses relied heavily on histrionics supplemented by exhortations to the people to make symbolic gestures ostensibly aimed at underscoring national unity. None of the addresses had anything concrete on how to tackle the pandemic and lessen its medical, social and economic costs for the people.

An economic package of Rs.1.7 lakh crore was indeed announced, but there were early signs, from the way it was rolled out on the ground, that it would turn out to be a tardy and ineffective measure. Several observers of economic policy have pointed out that the package is essentially a rehash of several other welfare projects announced in the past and contains nothing that specifically addresses the conditions created by the pandemic.

The 9 a.m. “morning show” of April 3 turned out to be an appeal to the people to switch off their lights at 9 p.m. for nine minutes on Sunday, April 5, and light lamps at their doors or balconies. “You are not alone, no one is alone in the fight against Coronavirus. The light from the lamps will show that we are together in this battle,” Modi said. This was indeed of a piece with what the Prime Minister had come up with in his first address on March 19, in which he announced a “janata curfew” on March 22 and asked people to clap, ring bells or clang utensils to show appreciation for the health workers battling the virus at great personal peril.

At their core, all the three addresses reflect the policy paralysis, in conception and practice, that the Modi government has displayed right from the early days of the pandemic, with Its piecemeal measures and knee-jerk responses. The histrionics underscored the government’s, and particularly the Prime Minister’s, penchant for using theatrics to gloss over and cover up governance mismanagement and its consequences. Each one of these performances revived memories of the demonetisation move of 2016 and the rhetoric that Modi used to justify it—one of the claims being that it was drive to eradicate black money.

Communal mask

Meanwhile, the Sangh Parivar led by the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), the ideological apparatus that guides the Modi government, has been pushing a communal campaign. Its object is clear—to cover up for the government’s failures in combating the pandemic. A blatantly anti-Muslim communal propaganda on social media blames the minority community for the spread of the virus. The alarming spread of the virus following the Tablighi Jamaat congregation at Nizamuddin in Delhi, over the second and third weeks of March, is central to this campaign. The campaign carefully omits to mention that the Union Home Ministry had given permission for the congregation. It is also silent on the fact that the Union government was, right from January, in possession of the warnings on the COVID-19 threat that the World Health Organisation (WHO) had been issuing and yet allowed the congregation. The campaign is silent, too, on the Maharashtra government’s exemplary intervention in the same period to the cancel permission granted for a similar Tablighi Jamaat event in Vasai, barely 50 kilometres from Mumbai. A similar action in Delhi could have prevented the spreading of the contagion.

The Modi regime’s governance failures and administrative mismanagement in countering the pandemic are in fact being increasingly exposed. Official records and the ruling party’s proclamations show that the government ignored early warnings. It became apparent as early as December 2019 that the novel coronavirus spreads faster much more lethal than viruses that trigger ordinary flu, which warrants quick action to contain it. All that the Indian government did in January was issue a travel advisory for only Wuhan, the province in China where the virus first appeared. This, despite India and China sharing a long border and close business and trade relations that necessitate constant interaction between the people of the two countries. The government sent Air India flights to evacuate Indian students stuck in Wuhan, but it did not close its borders or cancel travel between the two countries. It only issued instructions for thermal screening of passengers coming from China at seven international airports. Failing to realise that international travellers coming in from other countries could also have been possibly infected, given China’s global footprint, India continued to allow international travel from other countries without any meaningful monitoring.

India’s first case of novel coronavirus infection was reported on January 30, the day the WHO declared COVID-19 as a Public Health Emergency of International Concern. Yet, the entire month of February was wasted in frenzied debates and communal campaigns around the protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, leading to unprecedented riots in Delhi. Amidst all this, the Modi government hosted United States President Donald Trump. The entire government machinery in February was engaged in the perception battle on social identities and with holding banquets for the U.S. First Family. By then, the virus had taken hold in Iran, Italy and South Korea, people were already dying in large numbers, and health-care systems were collapsing.

It was only in March that the government came up with some action. On March 3, the government suspended issuing visas and cancelled those already issued to people from Italy, Iran, South Korea and Japan. On the next day, it made thermal screening compulsory for passengers in all international airports. As late as March 13, when the country had already seen 81 positive Coronavirus cases (among the affected were a Canadian tourist and a group of 16 Italian tourists), the government was still claiming naively that there was no community transmission and that the cases were sporadic and limited to people in contact with international travellers. Luv Agrawal, Joint Secretary in the Health Ministry, claimed in his daily briefing to the media on that day that it was not a public health emergency at all.

Meanwhile, the political apparatus of the ruling dispensation, especially a team led by Home Minister Amit Shah, was engaged in plotting the downfall of the Kamal Nath-led Congress government in Madhya Pradesh. Jyotiraditya Scindia was weaned away from the Congress, along with 22 legislators loyal to him, making it impossible for the government to survive. A protracted operation culminated in the formation of a BJP government, with Shivraj Singh Chauhan in again as the Chief Minister.

As these political games were played out, the government showed the first signs of waking up to a medical emergency and issued an advisory for social distancing until March 31. An announcement on setting up an economic task force was also made, apparently to monitor the economic fallout of the crisis. The government put all its Central armed police forces on standby in battle mode and closed all educational institutions and prohibited mass gatherings of any type.

Lack of planning

But as lakhs of migrant labourers spilled out on the roads in a desperate attempt to head back home in distant parts of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal and Odisha, it was clear that there was little or no planning behind the lockdown decision.. In contrast to the Indian government’s failure to anticipate a panic-driven mass exodus, South Africa, with a population size much smaller than India’s, had given 72 hours’ notice to its people to move around and settle before the lockdown. It was also evident that the Centre had not taken the State governments into confidence about the decision ahead of the Prime Minister’s television prime time announcement.

Social activist and Swaraj Abhiyan president Yogendra Yadav pointed out that the COVID-19 situation was not exactly like an earthquake where the response is necessarily post facto. “India announced a nationwide lockdown a full eight weeks after China did it in Wuhan, four weeks after Italy enforced it in some regions, and two weeks after the countrywide lockdown in Italy. That is a lot of time to think and plan,” he said. He added that the failure to include agricultural equipment and farm operations in the first list of exceptions during the lockdown, which came during a harvesting season, showed that there was no plan of action for labourers in the unorganised sector.”

Piecemeal strategy

The lack of planning was visible on other fronts, too. In a series of desperate measures, the government asked automobile manufacturers to start producing ventilators, prodded the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) to produce protective personal equipment (PPE) for health-care professionals, and hurriedly converted train coaches into isolation wards for Corona patients. As late as March 24, the government hurriedly picked eight vendors for producing testing kits. Out of these eight, only two are functional at present.

One consequence of the government’s not having acted in time is that health-care workers are forced to work without proper protective gear. Doctors, nurses and other health-care personnel are forced to wear raincoats and sunglasses in order to protect themselves from infection. This has created widespread outrage among health-care workers across India. Doctors have started protesting in Srinagar, Punjab and Delhi. In Delhi’s Hindu Rao Hospital, several doctors and nurses have resigned in protest and a panic-stricken government, instead of listening to their concerns, has issued orders for disciplinary action against them.

Now that the government has finally woken up to the need for better policymaking and planning in the health-care sector, especially at the level of production and distribution of medical devices, drugs, protective equipment and manpower training, it has asked the NITI Aayog to prepare a road map. The NITI Aayog has reportedly started working on one for the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industry. It has started looking at ways to enhance India’s relative performance vis-à-vis the world’s and is also listing measures that can create a conducive R&D environment to foster development of innovative drugs, promote genomics and suggest changes for restructuring the current regulatory mechanism.

The government has also asked the NITI Aayog to suggest high potential segments in the medical devices sector, and suggest ways for augmenting investment in R&D. It has asked the planning body to suggest ways to ensure that the number of students studying chemistry, biotechnology, and genetics can be increased in premier institutions such as the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) by at least three times in the next three years so that trained manpower is available in these sectors. The NITI Aayog has been asked to submit these papers within three months. But given the pace at which government systems work, it is anybody’s guess how long the process will take to reach the implementation stage.

The opposition’s role

Opposition parties have generally been responsible in their reactions to the crisis. The overall reaction to the Prime Minister’s March 19 appeal was positive, with almost all political and social organisations supporting the idea of the “janata curfew”, essentially in solidarity with the idea of social distancing. However, the April 3 “morning show “ drew criticism in both political and social platforms. Political parties drew attention to the fact that Modi had failed to address the social and economic concerns that had emerged as a consequence of the lockdown and the immense human cost that it entailed.

The five Left parties— the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Communist Party of India, the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist)-Liberation, the Revolutionary Socialist Party and the All India Forward Bloc—issued a statement demanding that the government “attend to people’s concerns on a war-footing”. The statement pointed out that many of the problems caused by the lockdown should have been anticipated and that the government had failed to put in place remedial action before the announcement of the lockdown. It added that crores of people had lost livelihoods and that the exodus of migrant workers from urban centres had shown the impact of the sudden lockdown on livelihoods. It also emphasised the need for arresting widespread hunger and malnutrition, which would make people susceptible to infection during an epidemic.

The Left leaders also demanded that the harvesting of agrarian produce should be facilitated and sought liberal financial assistance to State governments which were in the front line of relief activities. The statement underlined that most of the State governments were facing financial crunch. The signatories to the statement were Sitaram Yechury, CPI(M) general secretary, D. Raja, CPI general secretary, Dipankar Bhattacharya, CPIML general secretary, Debabrata Biswas, All India Forward Bloc general secretary, and Manoj Bhattarcharya of the RSP.

Former Finance Minister and Congress leader P. Chidambaram reminded the Prime Minister that "serious thought to ideas and measures" was as important as symbolism. “Every working man and woman, from business person to daily wage earner, also expected you to announce steps to arrest the economic slide and re-start the engines of economic growth. The people are disappointed on both counts.” His colleague Shashi Tharoor called Modi a “Photo-Op PrimeMinister”. “Listened to the Pradhan Showman. Nothing about how to ease people’s pain, their burdens, their financial anxieties. No vision of the future or sharing the issues he is weighing in deciding about the post-lockdown. Just a feel-good moment curated by India’s Photo-Op PrimeMinister!” he tweeted.

Trinamool Congress leader Mahua Mitra told the media that Modi’s address was both “callous and criminal”. She pointed out that a fiscal package to protect poor workers should have preceded the symbolism of switching off electric lights and lighting lamps. “We can have all the symbolism that you want after taking care of people’s hunger and lack of access to basic resources,” she said.

Reports from the ground underscore the importance of urgent economic initiatives to stave off hunger and starvation. In several districts of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Jharkhand, Frontline found that the Rs.5,000 promised as part of the relief package to Jandhan account holders, below-poverty-line and unorganised workers had not been transferred even by the first week of April. Shortage of foodgrains and lack of access to proper health care facilities have started taking a toll on migrant and unorganized-sector workers who have travelled from various parts of the country towards their home town. Effective and hygienic quarantine facilities are also lacking in many States.

Amid the rising impact of the pandemic, these gross deficiencies in terms of policy, programmes and practical implementation add to the potential medical, social and economic perils India is facing. Indeed, India has not reached that stage of pandemic in which developed countries like the U.S., Italy and Spain find themselves in. Yet the fact remains that the Modi government’s misplaced priorities have made India lose precious time in which it could have geared itself to face the crisis with a fair degree of success.

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