India has been fortunate compared to countries like China, Italy, Spain, the UK and the US in the onslaught of Covid-19. The number of infections and deaths is not alarming, considering our population, our lack of preparedness and our general laxity in civic commitment. Kerala has been particularly effective in locating, containing and even healing infections. Many agencies, the media and organizations spoke once again about the ‘Kerala Model.’ with appreciation.
Among the many decisions taken by Kerala, only two were patently wrong. The first was not postponing the school and University examinations at a time of social distancing, putting at risk thousands of teachers and students. This has now been rectified. The second is keeping the bars open, primarily because of fear of loss of revenue. Hopefully, this will also be corrected. Concerns about revenue should not be the first consideration in times of crisis. An appeal to the religious leaders to restrain and restrict worshippers in places of worship was timely, though it was not fully complied with. A new revival Kerala package of Rs.20,000 crore has been particularly impressive, though it is not clear as to where the funds will come from.
Although things appeared manageable, the fear of community infections loomed large and it seemed that more drastic steps were necessary. The announcement that the Prime Minister would address the nation on March 19, raised great hopes of a strategy which would discipline the whole country to deal with the pandemic. It appeared that the much-needed lockdown, which worked in Wuhan would be announced. But something seemed to hold the PM back from taking drastic decisions.
Linking the whole situation to the Navratri, PM Modi announced the following decisions:
1. Every Indian should remain alert and aware. Don't step out unless absolutely necessary.
2. Those above 65 years old should stay inside their homes.
3. Follow Janata curfew from 7 am to 9 pm on March 22.
4. Thank service providers by clapping for five minutes at 5 pm on March 22.
5. Avoid going to hospitals for routine check-ups. Postpone elective surgeries.
6. Ask the Finance Minister to take all necessary action under the Economic Response Task Force.
7. Appeal business, high-income groups to not cut salaries of their employees.
8. Citizens should not indulge in hoarding, panic buying.
9. Don't believe rumours or unverified news
These measures, while vital in themselves, fell far short of what was necessary and expected from a decisive and daring Prime Minister, who does not shy away from taking drastic steps when necessary. The list above is sensible and most of it is already in practice. The new things like “Janata Curfew” on March 22 and clapping in appreciation of the medical personnel were symbolic acts. When most of the countries have announced massive packages for the people, only the composition of an Economic Task Force under the Finance Minister could be announced.
Perhaps the PM did not want to create panic by locking down the whole country. He adopted a scientific approach to the whole crisis, educating rather than enforcing. Taking smaller steps might add up into a wave. But the population at large appears to have read the speech of the PM as reassuring and not as a warning.
If only the PM had announced a complete lockdown even for a few days, the developments of March 20 could have been avoided. The Parliament and even the President is in danger on account of a Member of Parliament attending a party hosted by a singer who returned from London, who was infected, but smuggled herself into the country. Nothing could be more serious than that. There is now a demand for the Parliament to close down, which should be considered.
I believe the “Janata Curfew” suggested by the PM on “Amavasya” has scientific as well as astrological logic. Perhaps, a total absence of human activity for one day might detox the earth. But one day may not have the benefit of a complete lock down for a longer period. I trust this will come after a day’s experience.
All of us have watched the spontaneous music, dance and applause from the balconies of enclosed apartment complexes in Italy and Spain. The same idea has been suggested by the PM for us to applaud health workers and others who have been grappling the virus. A scientific explanation given for this suggested activity is that, like in the temples where the bells and conch shells are sounded to purify the atmosphere, five minutes of clapping and banging of metal by a billion people in harmony will create a cleansing effect. In any case, there is no expense involved and no harm will be done even if it creates a cacophony rather than symphony.
But in my experience of people around the world, Indians are very self-conscious people who are reluctant to accept willing suspension of disbelief to engage in such activities. Our people will remain silent, wondering what others will think if we did such “unnatural” things. We should not only applaud, but also pray for the health workers by offering them a package of benefits and compensation for their hard work and sacrifice.
The obvious way to fight the pandemic is to look back at the experience of other countries. China is an enigma wrapped up in a mystery and there are serious doubts about the origin of the virus. If it was indeed a biological weapon accidentally released in Wuhan, it should be logical to think that China may have already devised an antidote or a vaccine in advance. But if it was a genuine effort of dealing with the virus by stringent measures, the lock down at the early stages was the most effective remedy. Italy, Spain, France, the UK and the US failed to take action thinking that this was a yellow man’s burden. Though they have enormous resources, the pandemic is spreading because of lack of decisive action. Democracy is not always a blessing in fighting a pandemic.
The time has come, in fact passed, for us to be made of sterner stuff and impose a lock down even if it means hardship to the people, But when the choice is between destruction and hardship, the choice should be the latter. We have a Prime Minister who has overcome the dogmas of the past and confronted the hesitations of history in domestic and external policies. We expect him to do that at this critical time in history.
The facts and views expressed in the article are those of the writer.