COVID-19: What went wrong?

Part 2 of 2: Reviewing India's response to the novel coronavirus

Economic losses are yet to be calculated but they are going to be huge: that is the trend across the world. All major economies have paid a big homage to COVID-19 and India shall be no exception - Modi or no Modi. Billions of man-days were wasted without a realistic estimate of whether the lockdown was stopping the spread of the virus. Columnist Gursharan Das was the first to warn that the lockdown might cut like a double-edged sword - the virus would continue to spread and the economy would lose irrecoverably.

Sometime in April, Narayan Murthy emphasized the need to wake up to the harsh reality-the Covid-19 would not go away soon and we needed to brace ourselves to live with it while ensuring minimum damage to the economy. But their voices were drowned in the cacophony of ‘we locked down early and at the right time, the number of cases would have been staggering had the Government not done so.’ Yet another false belief which went out of the window the moment lockdown was partly relaxed.

The migrant labourers were the worst hit and they started walking home. Their plight was not helped by the state governments’ squabbling over where to drop them. Stories of their travails ensured a field-day for the cheap sentimentalizing media. A goods’ train crushed exhausted walkers in Maharashtra. Railway woke up too late and there were insufferable delays due to sudden congestion. Passengers died on trains. The home-reaching workers found that they were not exactly in paradise: being looked at as COVID-19 carriers. They also realized that the much-neglected agriculture sector could not accommodate them, and sooner or later, they would have to trudge back to the metros and cities they had left.

The small entrepreneurs always get crushed when economic policies go haywire. Here, there was no policy - just stoppages. Their staying power is small; yet put together, they employ a large number of skilled and semi-skilled. Auto and taxi drivers, petrol vendors, service providers, roadside vendors, menders and entertainers, automobile repairers, hairdressers - the list is endless. They generally pay the employees daily/weekly; but now it was no work, no pay- only homestay. 

The print media was brave initially but they too fell for ‘Jaan Bachi to Lakho Paaye’ eventually. Tourism, hospitality, wedding, and other community event managers and their helpers on a contract made total losses in their peak season. Restaurants all over the country sank with their staff. Domestic help and maid-servants survived if their employers were kind. The lowest of the low, coolies at railway stations, bus stands, and wholesale markets probably were forced to live on charity. 

Even wrong policies throw up beneficiaries - grocers, vegetable and milk vendors, chemists, state and central employs, stable job holders in established private undertakings, teachers and students as there were no exams, senior citizens finding themselves cared for all of a sudden, elected politicians who had no houses to attend...

Modi and his cabinet were the biggest gainers: they bull-dozed their erratic policies - mostly by crook and a little by hook. Since Parliament could not be convened whatever they did, there would be no questions to answer, no criticism to face. Nobody even thought of the constitutionality of their decisions. This was a PM declared war - so whatever he did was fair?

At the state level, it was a case of ‘Bade Miya to Bade Miya; Chhote Miya Subhan Allah!’ Maharashtra and Delhi were initially the worst hit and even now lead the numbers of tested, found +ve, under treatment, and dead. Both have non-BJP governments and as such a love-hate relationship with Modi & Co. The wound in Maharashtra was still bleeding and Sharad Pawar was doing back-seat driving all the time. Both Thakare and Kejariwal had to fall in line and yet look different. Kejariwal’s spat with private hospitals in Delhi, and Uddhav’s uncalled-for decision to cancel exams - while students, teachers, institutes, and now even the Governor want some sort of exams to be held - provide enough evidence of absolute power leading to policy-blunders! West Bengal and Tamil Nadu also have been riding two bikes - central government ordnances and separate state identity. With democratic decision-making processes in complete suspension, policymakers enjoy total immunity against review and possible criticism.

Was all this avoidable? Consider this……….

In defense parlance, three phrases are commonly used when something like COVID-19 hits a society: perceived threat, estimated threat, and real threat. Policymaking has to be based on real threats.

In our case, policies were based on the multiplication of perceived threat with imagined threat; they were bound to create enormous confusion! Instead of unwanted brave talk, we should have taken the following steps:

  1. Take people into confidence on the basis of available facts; don’t give them false hopes and unrealistic assurances. Tell them that difficult times are impending and they should brace themselves for a sustained community effort to contain the virus. Recall Churchill’s ‘Blood, sweat, tears, and toil’ speech?
  2. Set up a National Committee of Doctors, Virologists, Health Workers to arrive at an idea of estimated real threat and ask the Home and Health ministries to work with them.
  3. A cursory glance and the situation in Europe and the United States would have pointed out the most vulnerable locations - big Metros and westernized localities; focus initial efforts there.
  4. Form diligent survey agencies at all levels and ask them to submit reports speedily so that a country-wide estimate would emerge.
  5. Forewarn the people - especially the migrant labour -  that the government was considering a total lockdown as the final measure and those who wanted to leave could do so; ask the railways to make the necessary arrangements.
  6. Don’t close down the economy by suffocating production, manufacturing, and service. Ask them to cut their targets for the 1st quarter by half so that only half man-power would be needed.
  7. Ask educational institutions to wind up their academic year and conduct rapid exams.
  8. Social distancing is fine; allow those offices and firms-both state and private-to function who have enough working space: have flying squads to check.
  9. Ask the other socializing centers - restaurants, gymnasiums, clubs, etc. to follow social distancing norms strictly and allow them to function. Allow only a limited number of people at a time at places of worship and religious observances.
  10. Ask public transport to take half passengers than they normally take during the summer. In big metros allow buses and private vehicles to ply with social distancing.
  11. Ask tourist establishments to reduce capacity by half and observe social distancing strictly
  12. Don’t overburden the police and health workers; the story goes that the Bombay police started praying for infection so as to earn two-week rest.

All this and more could have been done instead of the first knee-jerk 3-week lockdown between March 25 and April 15. Agreeably, these are not ’brilliant’ ideas; they will invoke no poetry the PM and the media are so sold on. This is mostly common sense!

But we know common sense is not so common!

Further, India is not a machine to be switched on and off - both processes are lengthy and tedious and unnecessary. Had we collected nationwide information, we would have realized that the virus had not hit the country as a whole, and had yet to reach far off corners. It has to be conceded that the parts spared by COVID-19 don’t contribute significantly to the country’s economy, and could have been low-priority areas. This would reduce the burden on the administration, and the law and order agencies. Even within states favored by the virus, there were parts left alone by it. Had this been recognized initially, whole metros would not have been held ransom due to certain ‘red’ zones. In Poona, such parts were only 3% of the whole!

In other words, timely estimates of real threat would have saved a lot of stress on the state machinery and would have made it possible for the economy to function in parts.

The question needs to be asked would things have been done differently by a non-BJP government. Unfortunately, the answer is a big NO! The incumbent governments at the center and in the states are not drastically different. Once in power, they have no respect for the knowledgeable: they suddenly start feeling omniscient. Elective merit is the norm for public life and the infallibility of the elected is the order of the day. Our leaders just refuse to listen.

Not that the non-BJP camp had any practical, feasible solutions to suggest: everybody was totally at sea! They were probably relieved that for once Modi & Co were finding the seat too hot. Sharad Pawar - maker and breaker of many a (political?) disaster, and P Chidambaram - no small frays - both urged the people to co-operate fully with the government when the first hasty lockdown was thrust upon the country. Sonia and Rahul too were dumb; Mamata’s occasional adamant stances were not based on a different perception on the pandemic.

It was only after the migrant labourers' exodus that the opposition woke up and started asking questions. What were the professionals-lawyers, doctors, engineers, architects and development philosophers, town planners, economists, sociologists, management gurus, media seniors, writers, etc doing? It is a sad fact that this cream of the Indian society belongs to the Birbal tradition, wherein even common sense needs to be garbed in entertainment to convince the Emperor! They may be great achievers in their respective fields - and some of them truly are - but they develop cold feet before those in power. This was so under Nehru, continued under Indira and Rajeev, and seems unstoppable under a megalomaniac like Modi. They fall to the cruel predator-prey logic of the jungle and not only submit to the blunders of the State but also get busy in finding logical justifications.

The timing and nature of the lockdown is now emerging as a topic for assessment. Back in April almost everybody who matters was in total support of the brave policy decision and graffiti in support was plentiful: those sickening texts on cell phones, the all too silly boast of ‘Corona Harega, India Jitega’, the euphoria over replacing handshake with Namaste should suffice. We hand over our future unconditionally; the State wants us to obey; we surrender totally.

This willing suspension of disbelief in state policy that has plagued the Indian intelligentsia leads to double losses. On the one hand, it bolsters the ego of the State, and on the other hand, stops the generation of creative solutions to the people’s problems. We are more worried about vague notions like freedom of expression and never have any remedies to suggest where the shoe really bites. Censorship is a sin no doubt but handing over our future to self-serving, ill-informed autocrats is a greater threat to all freedom!

So, what can and should we do to get the country out of this State-created trap?

-Vinay Hardikar

(The writer has been working in the public sphere of Maharashtra for the last five decades. His versatile personality has several dimensions, but the primary ones remain to be that of an established writer, journalist, editor, critic, activist, and teacher.)

Part 1 of this article can be read here.

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Excellent analysis, Suggestion.

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