COVID -19 is a pandemic that has international ramifications. Spread across 187 nations of the globe, it would not only leave massive fatalities and illness in its wake but, would also transform the economic and geopolitical realities of the world. Within nations, it has the potential to create unprecedented political upheavals. Indeed, it is interesting to note that some of the responses to COVID -19 are dictated by future electoral prospects. The US example readily comes to one’s mind.
Different nations across the globe have responded to the COVID -19 challenges in different ways. Authoritarian regimes have imposed severe restrictions without bothering about individual liberties, to ensure compliance of directions. Democracies, especially in the West, have been shackled in their response by the need to respect individual privacy and liberties. In some cases, the response has been dictated by the availability of resources to fight the menace. In others, inability of the masses to comprehend the problem has tailored the methodology of response. In yet others, size and literacy of the target population has dictated the response with varying degrees of success.
Democratic governments also tend to indulge in populist measures for political gains even in times of emergencies, with limited appetite for hard and unpalatable decisions. Vastness of the country and its cultural, ethnic, geographical, and communal diversity create further issues in uniform application of policies and rules.
India ranks second in the world with a population of 1.3 billion. A vast section of the population suffers from poverty, illiteracy, unemployment and religious bigotry, forcing it to travel to urban conglomerates in search of employment to eke out a living. Being a developing country, health facilities and resources in India are extremely limited. For the populace, there is a thin line dividing the need to survive from poverty or illness.
COVID -19 literally descended on India and the world like a bolt from the blue. Initial Chinese attempts to hide and suppress it clandestinely failed miserably. Internet is full of unconfirmed tales of massive Chinese extermination of affected individuals including doctors who first reported it in order to suppress the news. It appears they were able to do it for more than a month before it spun out of control and was revealed to the world. The totalitarian regime’s drastic measures including total clamp down on media, while enabling it to totally isolate the affected region from the rest of the country and controlling the spread, did however prove extremely costly for the rest of the world in terms of precious time lost in facing the onslaught of the dreaded virus. In hindsight, all this is obvious now. How else can one explain that while Wuhan was totally devastated with thousands of deaths, Beijing and Shanghai only suffered five and eight deaths respectively! The wave of death and destruction across the globe is a clear indication of how much of it could have been avoided had the news of the scourge been divulged in time.
Thus, today we have a situation across the globe wherein almost all the advanced countries of the world are striving to control exploding death rates and affected populations. Projections indicate that worse is still to come with President Trump, and the White House predicting in next few weeks between 100000 to 240000 deaths in the US alone, the most prosperous and wealthy country of the world. Europe may closely follow suit. Vulnerability of the rest of the world except China is yet to be fully understood by the global community. Through this mayhem, news is percolating that China has totally controlled spread of the virus and is recommencing its economic juggernaut. Do we smell a sinister design here?
Getting back to India, its vulnerability to the deadly virus has been a major concern to the entire country. The possibility that numbers involved would be huge in such an eventuality is indeed unsettling. Limited resources, poor health care system, a substandard medical infrastructure to combat such an outbreak, rampant poverty and ignorant masses vulnerable to rumour mongering further aggravate the problem.
On 20 March 2020, Prime Minister Modi, in a nationwide broadcast made an appeal to the country that we observe a Janta curfew on Sunday the 22nd of March which would culminate with display of appreciation at 5 PM the same day for all medical workers fighting COVID -19 and taking care of the patients afflicted with it. With cases affected by COVID -19 mounting, on 24 March 2020, the PM again in a nationwide broadcast, declared a 21 day lockdown of the entire countrywide with effect from 25 March 2020 up to 14 April 2020, in order to halt the spread of the dreaded virus.
As is usual, any new initiative invariably has to put up with initial glitches before getting effectively implemented. Population has to also mentally adjust to changed realities before physically accepting them. On 25 March 2020, those who were ignorant or were not yet ready to face the reality were suddenly jolted out of their comfort zone when law enforcement agencies started questioning them for violation of the laid down orders. While implications gradually started sinking in, the fear among casual and migrant workers that they may be condemned to starvation and death away from their homes led to massive rumour mongering. A scramble of crowds towards railway and bus stations of metropolitan cities like Mumbai and Delhi commenced to get back to their villages. This further raised the risks of the virus flaring up and culminating in a community spread.
Commencement of community spread would indeed have caused mass scale death and a huge spike in infected individuals exposing the vulnerability of our efforts to fight the virus. However, administrations both at the central and state levels handled the situation well to ensure it did not get out of hand. Additional transport was arranged quickly to ferry passengers to their homes or to camps established to take care of them.
Thus, as we enter Day 16 of the lockdown, we have close to 5734 persons who tested positive to the virus and 149 deaths. Across the rest of the globe, with possible exception of China, which claims to have overcome the pandemic, most countries led by the US are reeling under the alarming spread of the pandemic with death rates skyrocketing on a daily basis. The situation is hardly likely to improve in the coming weeks unless an antidote to the deadly virus is found quickly enough. The resultant damage to global economy will perhaps take years to recoup.
This period of ongoing lockdown when all of us were constrained to stay confined to our homes and hearths, has given everyone ample time to reflect on the Indian government’s response to COVID- 19 and assess its effectiveness. In a democracy, there would always be divergent views on every aspect of a problem. The opposition must find ways and means to pick holes in the incumbent government’s policies for its own political survival. The advantage of hindsight is adroitly exploited to occupy high moral ground and point to flaws in governance. Of course, constructive criticism also leads to better and more nuanced handling of the issues in the future.
An objective assessment of handling of the COVID -19 crisis by the present dispensation led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi is in order. While it may be too premature to pass a judgment since the crisis is still ongoing, the actions so far need to be assessed in order to evolve a future line of action since the virus is not going to be vanishing in a hurry.
Different nations across the globe have adopted different approaches to tackle the virus threat. In view of the limitations of the Indian state, which were outlined earlier and in view of the threats and dangers involved of massive death and destruction, the actions taken so far have been logical. The execution of a well thought out game plan meticulously has further invited accolades from the international community. Precious time has been gained by imposing a timely lockdown, while in the meanwhile building up resources and efforts to combat a more severe onslaught of the virus. The human factor has also been kept in mind while executing hard decisions and ensuring least inconvenience especially to the poor people. Sustained efforts have been undertaken to avoid the dreaded community spread.
Gradual consciousness of importance of social distancing appears to be emerging. However, the very methodology of living in cloistered ghettos by the underprivileged for ages due to poverty cannot be either wished away or changed overnight. There has to be a different solution keeping our circumstances in mind. At this stage, one can only hope that an antidote to the virus is found quickly enough.
Lockdown for prolonged period may reduce the ultimate extent of damage but this aspect has to be weighed keeping the economic cost to the nation in mind. Can we allow the standing wheat crop to wither away without harvesting it if we have to prolong the lockdown? Without commencing some industrial activity enabling workers to earn their livelihood, is the nation in a position to feed its teeming millions by providing doles? If so, for how long? As the period of 21-day lockdown approaches its end on 14 April, the government is grappling with all such issues to find a viable strategy post this date.
Ultimately, the final choice may include locking down of the identified hotspots, selective relaxation of the lockdown in least affected areas and opening up of agricultural and limited industrial activity in phases depending on the ability to control and contain the spread of the virus. It would not be easy to manage all these areas simultaneously in the next few weeks and come through unscathed, but our options are indeed limited. Hopefully, intensified heat conditions in the country may possibly turn out to be another source of relief in fighting COVID -19.
 Berkeley Lovelace Jr. and Dan Mangan, White House predicts 100,000 to 240,000 will die in US from coronavirus, CNBC, MAR 31, 2020,