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India’s suffering because it chose theatrics over governance in dealing with coronavirus

Indian Navy's Chetak helicopter drops flower petals on the staff of INHS Asvini hospital, Mumbai.
Pomp and show?
Published This article is more than 2 years old.

It was on March 31 that the government told the supreme court that there were no migrant workers on the road any more. “They have been taken to the nearest available shelter,” and 2.3 million were being fed, India’s solicitor general told the judges, who—in a now-familiar routine—took the government at its word.

It is evident that statement was anything but the truth.

In the absence of jobs, food, and transport services, thousands of stoic and weary migrant workers, who once powered India’s economy, continue epic journeys home on cycle foot, over hundreds, even 1,000 km. Parents carry children, drag luggage or balance bundles on their heads. The sick and the injured hobble along for as long as they can. Some drop dead of exhaustion or illness, either on the way or, tragically, after reaching home. One group was mowed down while sleeping on rail tracks they thought was empty of trains.

India’s 53-day lockdown, extended in varying measures, is among the world’s toughest, but while it may have slowed the count of known Covid-19 cases, it hasn’t flattened the curve, contrary to government claims, one of which said there would be no new cases by May 16. “What we are seeing is that the cases are increasing at a linear pace,” the director of India’s premier medical institution, Delhi’s All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), Randeep Guleria told business newspaper Mint on May 7. “The major problem right now is we are not seeing a declining trend (as in Italy or China).”

Just style, no substance

Indians may have lit candles, banged thalis and watched awe-struck as jets streaked overhead, bands played, and naval ships lit up in tribute to those on the frontlines, but it was hard to find the substance behind the style. The feel-good, choreographed events around the coronavirus increasingly appear to be a cover for poor planning, apathy and an opportunistic exacerbation of islamophobia and reduction of civil liberties.

A virus may not provide advance notice before striking. In this case, India did get an early warning but did not do enough. Prime minister Narendra Modi was being sparse with the truth on April 14, when he said India started checking passengers for the virus before its first known case on Jan 21. By that day, as reported, only three airports had begun screening passengers (four more started on that day), and then only travellers from Hong Kong and China, although 20 countries had reported infections.

People clap and bang utensils from their balconies in Mumbai showing support for emergency personnel and sanitation workers who are leading India’s fight against Covid-19.

Despite warnings from its top medical research body that a lockdown alone would, at best, reduce peak infections on a given day by 40%, Modi’s government ignored for a month—as journalists Nitin Sethi and Kumar Sambhav Srivastava reported on April 23 for—advice from the Indian Council of Medical Research to urgently launch other interventions. These included door-to-door supplies of food and other essentials to the poor; district-wise infection monitoring;  “fast reporting” to identify and quarantine infective clusters; mass quarantines for those in densely populated areas; and a rapid increase in hospital beds and intensive-care unit.

“This discussion has gone on for too long and no action has been taken,” Naveet Wig, member of the prime minister’s Covid-10 task force and the head of AIIMS department of medicine said in leaked proceedings of an internal meeting on March 29. “No. No. We will have to tell the truth.”

Sane voices sidelined

But the truth was never made public, and the 21-members of the task force were once again ignored when the government extended the lockdown on May 1, reported Vidya Krishnan for the Caravan magazine. “Three months into the pandemic, as India struggles to contain growing cases, the sidelining of expert advice has become a trademark of the Modi administration’s response to the novel coronavirus,” wrote Krishnan.

It is apparent that Modi’s government discarded any suggestion of meticulous planning and execution, settling on a scrambled, knee-jerk response that caused economic and social chaos. To understand what good planning, communication, and execution can achieve, Modi needs to look no further than Kerala, which reported the highest number of cases when the pandemic began. It has now destroyed the curve, with only four dead, a mortality rate of 0.79%, compared to India’s 3.4%: up to 93% of Kerala’s Covid-19 patients have recovered, compared to India’s 23%.

Instead, India currently struggles to comprehend a flurry of, often contradictory, orders and directives from Delhi, the confusion increasingly evident, as India tries to balance the imperatives of reviving a declining economy and holding down infection and death. The government’s current struggle to achieve that balance is a consequence of previous blunders, which began with a four-hour notice for a national lockdown, stranding migrant workers nationwide without jobs, money and eventually food. Despite claims made to the supreme court that a couple of million workers were being cared for, Modi outsourced moral responsibility, asking India’s people to “look after” those in need.

Prime minister Narendra Modi lights a lamp on April 5 acknowledging Indian doctors’ efforts for fighting against Covid-19.

Government missing in action

No trains or buses were organised for workers who wanted to return home but either could not or were not allowed to. The first trains started running after 40 days of pointless inaction, during which time workers in crowded accommodation risked infection, which they might carry to relatively unscathed rural India—up to 80% of positive cases are from urban areas. In Karnataka, the Bharatiya Janata Party government cancelled the trains, after real-estate companies complained there would be no workers, just when construction was about to restart. After a storm of criticism, the decision was rescinded. In some cities, bitter workers said they would not return after being spurned in their time of need. As I write this, migrant-worker unrest is rife nationwide.

Companies hoping to restart must struggle against a tide of arbitrariness that passes for governance. Many district collectors and police officials operate like local satraps, interpreting the rush of government notifications as they will. “Covid-19 notifications,” wrote Rahul Jacob, “have rained down like an unseasonal monsoon downpour.” He points to 600 notifications from Delhi and 3,500 from the states, quoting the think tank PRS Legislative Research.

Many companies, including those run by the government, say they cannot or will not obey government orders to pay workers during the lockdown. Unemployment has risen to record levels. Modi has urged employers “to be kind,” but his government has done nothing—as many countries have—to reimburse or in some way assist companies in keeping employees paid, even if partially. Nothing has been heard from a special economic task force since Modi announced one on March 19. There was silence, too, on an economic stimulus package, except the government’s chief economic advisor who said that “there is no free lunch.”

Meanwhile, Modi’s government is pushing ahead with a grandiose Rs20,000 crore ($3,000 million) project to build a new parliament building and redesign New Delhi’s Central Vista (instead, the Rajya Sabha announced spending cuts of Rs80 crore). In easier times, emotion and grand political statements may distract voters and pay handsome electoral dividends. In a crisis, they are noticeably poor substitutes for governance, subject as they are to diminishing returns and administrative anarchy.

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