A novel course correction

With a rapid rise in COVID-19 cases, the Government can ill-afford to either extend the lockdown or do without it. The best course of action is to opt for a gradual lifting of the curfew

Among the vast numbers of pictures starkly reflecting the reality of the utter deprivation and difficulties confronting the migrants trying to reach the safety of their own homes, there was one that truly encapsulates the tragedy. It was aptly captioned as: “Bharat meets India.” There can be no two opinions that at this time of great peril, India once again let down Bharat, the colloquial euphemism for those vast numbers who inhabit the hinterland. While the labourers may be blamed for having panicked, that would be excusable given the limited amount of information made public by Prime Minister Narendra Modi when he announced a nationwide lockdown for 21 days on March 24.

It can be debated as to who should be blamed for this avoidable tragedy but what cannot be disputed is the fact that the implementation of the Prime Minister’s directive was poorly organised with little or no cooperation among various Ministries or States. And for this, bureaucrats, who are the final arbitrators of how things should proceed, must take a major share of the blame. The situation was not helped in any way by Union Minister Prakash Javadekar’s asinine tweet about the Government’s decision to screen the Ramayana on public demand. As usual, the police were left to muddle through, which by and large they did at their incompetent best; though examples of exemplary behaviour on the part of some personnel must be appreciated.

While the scale of these heart-rending scenes is only a small fraction of what occurred, they are still reminiscent of the Partition and the refugee crisis. Most of us would be aware that the communal riots prior to the Partition left millions of people dead or homeless, forcing the minority community, from both sides of the newly demarcated borders, to migrate with what little they could salvage. However, what most of us would not be aware of is the fact that former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and MA Jinnah moved quickly to handle this tragedy and established an ad hoc Military Evacuation Organisation (MEO) in September 1947, under Maj Gen Chimni. The body functioned for just three months and did yeoman service. It was responsible for escorting Muslim refugees from India to Pakistan and Hindu refugees from Pakistan to India. Within that period, it escorted 85 lakh refugees, providing them with not just secure passage but also arranging for their transportation, food, campsites and medical support, a far cry from what we witnessed recently. This clearly shows the level to which our political leadership and administrative capabilities have sunk.

Notwithstanding the fact that a nationwide lockdown was inevitable, given our distinct set of challenges, if we were to have any hope of controlling the virus, it still required immense courage and decisiveness on the part of the Prime Minister to have gone ahead with it, at the time he did. Though, instead of just exhortations to follow his directions, it may have been more appropriate to have treated his listeners as adults and laid out the line of thought that was guiding his decision-making and the likely future course of action.

In democracies, citizens abhor autocratic behaviour and generally tend to show displeasure by exhibiting disobedience. That, unfortunately,  along with ignorance on the part of some and a complete disregard for social norms by those who should have known better, resulted in the measures being implemented as envisioned.

In this context, the action of religious groups and political leaders organising large gatherings is condemnable. In addition, one has no choice but to cater to the average citizens’ excessive reliance on fate. This has, in turn, rendered us more vulnerable to the onslaught of the virus. The fact is that even without these hiccups, the Government already has an extremely challenging task ahead. Its response to the spread of the virus is based on data. No matter how accurate it may be, it is a minimum of two weeks behind, given the lag between an individual becoming infected, the emergence of the symptom and the diagnosis finally being confirmed.

Having realised that it has not been fully effective in preventing the community spread of the virus, the Government now faces the dilemma of how to proceed ahead even as the time for the lockdown to be lifted approaches. Conventional wisdom suggests the Government can hardly afford to do so as there’s a possibility that cases may spike, Hong Kong and Singapore being recent examples. On the other hand, it also cannot afford to let the lockdown continue indefinitely given the impact such an action would have on the country’s economy. Thus, one reasonable option would be for the Government to lift the lockdown in a graduated manner, district wise. This would require identifying “hotspots,” from where the virus seems to be spreading, and keeping those areas in complete isolation while opening up activity in other areas that appear to be free of the virus. To make this happen, it is essential to scale up our testing apparatus and tracking capabilities, along with following strict isolation norms. The fact is that till now, testing has been poorly handled by the nodal agency responsible, the Indian Council of Medical Research. This needs immediate rectification.

Of course, there are some who believe that for a country which lost approximately six million people to the Spanish flu and three million to the Bengal famine, numbers mean little. We should, therefore, get back to business as usual and hope for the best, much in the manner in which Japan has been acting till recently.

There’s also the speculation that high temperatures may actually impact the spread of the virus. A case in point is Australia, which is in its summer season and where the Government has been able to control the spread of the virus  despite a disjointed effort in this direction. This suggests that if we are willing to take some risks, we could go with the gradual lifting of the lockdown, increasing the pace of opening up as ambient temperatures rise.

Whatever decisions he may take, Prime Minister Modi finds himself in an unenviable position of being damned if he does and damned if he does not. There is also no getting away from the fact that our administrative machinery is in a state of disrepair. Gross neglect and misgovernance of the past 70 years have led to the present situation. There’s a need for the present Government to greatly up its game if it is to remain in control of the outcomes.

Finally, it also stands to reason that we cannot get back to our bad old ways. The involuntary improvement in pollution levels that have occurred because of the lockdown must not be frittered away in the name of economic progress. We must give sustainable development more than just lip service. Undoubtedly, in the long term, we will also have to address the weakness in our administrative and police infrastructure to make them more effective, efficient and decentralised.

More importantly, we must look at our primary and secondary education syllabi and introduce changes that will give much more importance to developing social responsibility and character building. Without attention, how can we ever develop responsible citizens in the future?

(The writer, a military veteran is a Consultant with ORF and a Senior Visiting Fellow with The Peninsula Foundation, Chennai)

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