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Coronavirus Tests India’s Tenacity

Coronavirus Tests India’s Tenacity

We are in the midst of watching history as never before. We never had so many question marks dancing in our head. We never felt so helpless. We never dreamt our lives would change so dramatically. We never had so many fears. Our perception of life has changed. 

COVID-19 has upturned our world. Forever.

We helplessly wring our hands as we see economies collapse. As the rich and famous die. As doctors and health workers die as they tend the sick. We are seeing hotels and churches turn into hospitals. Some are turned away as there is no space for treatment or shelter. Basic essentials for living vanish from the stores. The richest nations in the world grapple with a crisis it struggles to understand.

It is not just our lives that are changing in the last few weeks.  The politics of the world will change. So will international relations. Geopolitical changes are imminent. Powerful rich countries will try and dominate in desperation to survive and stay relevant. Developing countries like India will see the logic of how important it is to stand on its feet and not depend on others.

Already, companies in Italy and Spain on the brink of collapse are getting offers to opt for selling it away at low prices to Chinese companies. Partaking in these attempts at designing distress sales are state-run companies from China.  Both Italy and Spain who are grappling with managing the crisis caused by the virus has hurriedly enacted laws to prevent distress sales. The new laws specify that if any foreign investment which was more than 10 per cent came in, it would have to be first cleared by the government.

In all likelihood after the pandemic dies down, India will try and once again focus on its manufacturing capacities that in the last few decades were on a decline as cheaper goods from China had flooded the market making it impossible for Indian made goods to survive. We will soon be hearing cries for economic protectionism of Indian goods.

As China bounces back quickly buying companies in economies that are collapsing, there is a great lesson to learn. India needs to stand on its own feet if it ever wants to continue chasing a dream of being one of the major economies of the world.  When liberalisation happened, we thought we would be a major contender by 2020. But, today, we are nowhere close. COVID-19 will put India back by a few years.

India will also have to reprioritise many policies. One of them is investing heavily in healthcare. In the last budget, only one per cent of the GDP was allocated to healthcare!   Investments in health will now become imperative. It has to become a governance priority. Today, the stark reality of having underfunded healthcare is staring at us in the face.

India will have to boost medical education, improve its hospitals, ramp up dominance in healthcare from the private sector and ensure that governments are evaluated on the basis of the healthcare it provides.  The centre has the Delhi government and the Kerala government as examples that can be replicated. 

Kerala stood out for the way it handled the pandemic despite having such a large number of cases. It strictly implemented the lockdown, innovatively spread awareness, and saved numerous lives as it was aided by a robust health system. The death rate in Kerala was minimal. Even 80 year-olds have been cured and sent home.

Kerala’s Finance Minister Thomas Issac who is a respected economist has raised concerns about how the central government was holding back funds during this crucial time and not even paying up what it is supposed to like the Goods and Services Tax compensation cess. This was to make up for any loss of revenue due to GST that was enacted three years ago. The only way out, Issac said, is to approach the Supreme Court to get the centre to pay what is due to the state as per law. 

To fight the virus, the centre has granted Kerala Rs. 1,276 crore but it is not even a fraction of what the state has set aside to deal with the crisis:  Over 20,000 crore. It is more than any other state has allocated. Kerala has ordered equipment worth Rs. 600 crore to meet the challenge. Treatment for COVID-19 patients is free even if they are provided with ventilators.

One major challenge will be joblessness. The International Labour Organisation has estimated that only 22 per cent in India are into salaried jobs while the remaining 78 per cent would struggle will any kind of money coming in during this health emergency. India’s workforce mainly comprises daily wagers and those in the unorganised sector.

The Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy in a survey last month shows that  urban joblessness is at 31 per cent and rural is at 20 per cent.  Almost all the states have an unemployment rate of over 10 per cent. Even after the COVID-19 nightmare is over, this is going to be a major problem.

The ILO says that 400 million Indians run the risk of being pushed into poverty because of the epidemic. Obviously, there is going to be serious economic damage that will have long-reaching consequences. India will have to think of social security now like all developed economies. The poor have to be insured against such calamities and it is only a social capital that can ensure that and also lessen the pain.

However, no state government is in a position today to worry about the future as the present is so challenging. Cases and deaths of patients rise every day. Given India’s dense population, it is not going to be easy to contain it.

Social distancing is the only way. But as we have seen in the last few weeks, it is being violated every day even by the most educated. One can understand the panic with which thousands of migrants moved out after the lockdown walking to their homes hundreds of kilometres away. They had no choice as there was no money to continue paying rent or buying food. Everything came to a standstill and there was no way to earn a daily wage that keeps them going. They did not fear COID-19. They feared they would die of hunger.

All over the world social distancing was being practiced to avoid falling prey to the virus transmitted through droplets when an affected person coughs. How then can one explain the incongruity of a religious congregation at Delhi where the Tablighi Jamaat where over 3,400 preachers had gathered when there was worldwide panic of the virus spreading. This was between March 10 and 13 when India too was threatened. It was a criminal act, to say the least. The attendees then dispersed to various states in India spreading the virus. The administrative machinery in the country got busy tracing each one of them and also tracing all those they came into contact.  Suddenly, there was a spiral of cases all over India due to the Tablighi Jamaat followers.

Apart from these, there were other meetings and gatherings which included political meets and celebrations. One was the birthday of a ruling party member. There were  gau-mutra parties where it was propagated that the consumption of cow urine would ensure that the virus would not affect them. All this goes to show how little we care about science.  Hopefully, science may get a new respectability after the virus disappears as we would gear up to avoid such eventualities in the future. 

There have been numerous instances all over India of how people were willingly violating the lockdown and not respecting rules and regulations. Unless there is strict implementation, lockdowns are pointless. Just one case is enough to spread it to hundreds in a matter of days. We have seen numerous instances of how the infection has galloped with one infected person moving around.

More shocking is to see how doctors, nurses and health workers have had to battle hostility from those who are not even sick. Shows us what all wars we have to fight apart from the epidemic. There has been attacks of a communal nature too and it has been so widespread that even the secular liberals have been affected. While we have seen some of the best examples of human nature erupt in this crisis, we have also seen the worst.

Media houses and journalists have been under pressure if they report inconvenient facts. Whistleblowers who have exposed the fact that doctors and others dealing with patients do not have basic safety equipment have been pulled up. The government approached the Supreme Court pleading that curbs be placed on the media as they argued that fake news and social media posts were creating panic. Fortunately, the apex court did not comply. 

Unless the media has the freedom to analyse the deficiencies of the system, how will policymakers and the public know?  It will make the public less safe if they are not informed properly and will make the wrong choices. 

It is not a healthy sign if the government expects journalists to become cheerleaders of whatever it does or says. Especially, in a pandemic where everyone is at risk. Trusted facts can beat any rumour. 

Sadanand Dhume, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington says that when you silence the media, you silence the noise that leads to problems getting fixed.

We need to seize the opportunity to fix larger problems using the pandemic as an opportunity that has woken us up. We must use this opportunity to strengthen the economy, build its health care infrastructure and build an ecosystem that takes care of the vulnerable. This will need a new political culture both at the centre and the states.

(Published on 13th April 2020, Volume XXXII, Issue 16)