Lock-down has become a two-edged sword in India, the political class must get out of the way

Right now, all that the Union government and all its concerned institutions are doing is playing catch up and playing catch up always precludes poor if not negative results. The hope now rests entirely on the individual state bureaucracy and their administrative and management acumen. The political class should help the cause by getting out […]

Right now, all that the Union government and all its concerned institutions are doing is playing catch up and playing catch up always precludes poor if not negative results. The hope now rests entirely on the individual state bureaucracy and their administrative and management acumen. The political class should help the cause by getting out of the way and refrain from trying to gain cheap political mileage even in a rapidly unfolding tragedy.

– Oliver D’Souza

A national lock-down to curtail the spread of the COVID-19 in India was inevitable, but following the government’s revelation in the Supreme Court in connection with a petition filed to protect the interest of migrant workers, that 3 out of 10 people moving to the rural areas from cities could be virus laden, it is clear that it has become a two edged sword: on one hand, while it will slow down the spread of the virus, on the other, it has become a vehicle for transmission of the virus and the cause for a looming humanitarian crisis.

Even as a universal vaccine against the virus is over a year away, with no specific line of treatment for the infection as yet, extensive testing for early detection, social distancing, segregation and symptomatic treatment of the infected and lock down, seems to be the only comprehensive low casualty method to manage COVID-19.  This has been successfully demonstrated in several countries, including Germany, which, although having over 84,794 infections, along with reducing number of new cases, has seen only a 0.8 per cent casualty rated as compared to the global average of 3%.

Explaining the reasons for this, Christian Drosten, director of the Institute of Virology at Berlin’s Charité hospital, speaking to National Public Radio said, “I believe that we are just testing much more than in other countries, and we are detecting our outbreak early.”

Germany also has over 5 times more hospital beds than other European nations with high death tolls from the virus, like Italy and Spain; an extremely robust healthcare system and an aggressive testing policy. Similar dynamics are at work in other countries too that have substantially contained the virus.

At the same time, countries that responded early, such as Germany, Singapore and S Korea have been able to keep the death toll low and the number of infections under manageable levels.  Countries like the US that did not do so despite having the infrastructure have seen large number of deaths and infections. Likewise, countries where lock down was initiated late in the day despite early reports of an alarming number of infections, as in Italy, Spain and US, saw the infections spread rapidly before the lock downs. This caused a breakdown in the health system, particularly in Italy and Spain.

Further, the COVID-19 crisis is not merely about dealing with the virus: it is also but dealing with the inevitable economic and humanitarian fallout cause by the pandemic. Germany, US, France, UK, Canada, Australia, among other nations, also quickly put in place huge financial packages to bolster their already strong health infrastructures and to support their economies which like other economies, are hit hard by the pandemic and kept their supply chains open while minimizing the areas locked-down. This has prevented panic and social chaos.

The Indian story of handling COVID-19, where we’ve already had 2567 infections and 72 deaths, on the other hand, is not only shameful, but also scary. We have done all the right things at the wrong time and in the wrong way, with very little application of mind. As a result, unlike the West, where the scare is only about the infection reaching unmanageable levels and thus leading to more deaths, people in India are genuinely scared of death due to the virus. And they have other good reasons to be afraid.

To begin with the government was in denial till March 13, with the Union Health Ministry saying that day that COVID-19 is ‘not a national health emergency’ despite over 145,000 infections and 5428 deaths occurring worldwide by then. The fact is, as emphatically pointed out by Dr T. Jacob John, former head of the Indian Council for Medical Research’s Centre for Advanced Research in Virology and professor emeritus at Christian Medical College (CMC) Vellore, to Hindustan Times, India entered the community transmission stage in mid-February itself, which meant that by early February, local transmission was taking place. This opinion was given further traction by the Union Cabinet Secretary, Rajiv Gauba.

In a letter to Chief Secretaries of all States and Union Territories published in various dailies, Gauba said “As you are aware, we initiated screening of international incoming passengers at the airports with effect from January 18, 2020. I have been informed that up to March 23, 2020, cumulatively, Bureau of Immigration has shared details of more than 15 lakh incoming international passengers with the States/UTs for monitoring for COVID-19.”

“However, there appears to be a gap between the number of international passengers who need to be monitored by the States/UTs and the actual number of passengers being monitored,” Gauba said.

The ineffectiveness of screening at airports with thermal devices and questionnaires for detecting virus infection in incoming travellers at international or domestic airports has been established as early as 2005. The US’s National Centre for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) in a 2005 study titled “Border Screening for SARS” found that thermal screening did not serve the purpose largely because the thermal scanning equipment was non-SARS specific, which is also precisely the case with COVID-19. Besides, such equipment does not detect asymptomatic carriers of the virus.

This was confirmed by a CNN investigation reported on February 20, 2020, saying that “While the US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has screened more than 30,000 passengers in the past month (February, 2020), not a single US corona virus case has been caught by airport temperature checks”.

Dr Ben Cowling, an epidemiologist at the University of Hong Kong, and others in the profession says that airport screening is largely nothing but a charade. Speaking to ScienceMag, Dr Cowling says that “screening is often instituted to show that a government is taking action, even if the impact is marginal.” The only benefit from screening done on arrival at the destination airport is it enables the government an opportunity to gather contact information for follow-up, provided it is actually implemented to the letter.

In India, apart from the anomalies pointed out by Gauba, and the ineffectiveness of thermal scanning, the screening process at best was pathetic. There are numerous reports of people walking through airport terminals without being thermally screened, without having answered questionnaires. In a majority of the detected 2032 infection cases and 50 deaths in India (April 2), the infected persons had either travelled abroad or have been in contact with someone who has done so. None of those who brought the virus from abroad were detected during screening at the incoming airports.

Considering that there was pre-existing knowledge about the ineffectiveness of airport screening to weed out infected travellers, the big blunder was to put all eggs in that basket. This is something the Union Health Minister and his officials should have known by virtue of their job. It should have caused them to focus on other effective measures mandated by the WHO to deal with the onslaught of the virus.

It was not only denial and government negligence that has helped the COVID-19 along in India. The government also had its priorities all wrong. While by the end of January the whole world was focused on containing the virus, the entire Union cabinet and other ministers, along with CMs from BJP states were busy with Delhi elections. After losing the elections, till the end of February, the government was further embroiled in the Delhi riots. Thereafter, the attention of the ruling leadership and its resources were busy with illegally toppling a democratically elected government in Madhya Pradesh, which was accomplished by March 15.

At the same time, the government ignored all warnings and caution. The first case of COVID-19 infection was reported in India on January 30; on the same Day the WHO informed all nations about the spread of the virus, specifically asking them to prepare for containment, including active surveillance, early detection, isolation and case management, contact tracing and prevention of onward spread of 2019-nCoVinfection.

Beginning early February, Congress MP, Rahul Gandhi, and other concerned opposition leaders and health specialists, besides writing to the PM, had put out repeated tweets and messages through TV channels asking the government to quickly start testing. This was not only ignored by the government but the warnings were ridiculed by the government and its trolls, which is its standard response to anything which exposes its inefficiency, failure and incompetency. The government wantonly and completely disregarded the warnings of the WHO and the opposition, neglecting the welfare of the Indian population.

Between January 30 and the announcement of the ‘Janata Curfew’ on March 22, which is when the Union government finally got into the act, – over 6 weeks-, the government had plenty of time to strengthen the health infrastructure, build quarantine centres, procure or manufacture equipment and other essentials necessary for testing, while also preparing to keep the economy going during a needed lock down.

The only governments that took the outbreak seriously and acted early and comprehensively as needed and required, addressing all connected issues, are Maharashtra and Kerala state governments which put in place nearly 6 weeks earlier the same measures that the Union government later attempted nationally. Whereas in states like UP, Karnataka and MP, among others, the Chief Ministers and MLAs were themselves openly violating social distancing mandated by the Union government. You had Yogi leading religious rituals in Ayodhya with a lot of people in tow, Yediyurappa attending a marriage attended by over 2000 people and Shivraj Chouhan strutting about with MLAs and others all over the place, ignoring all social-distancing requirements. Similar reports have come in of other political leaders flouting the requirement by attending large events. Ironically, right now the BJP is targeting a Muslim group that flouted social-distancing laws and is using it to divert attention from its complete mishandling and neglect of the COVID-19 threat. Yet, the same government has done nothing about its own CM’s and other of its own politicians who grossly violated the same. Their states are now reporting large number of cases of infection.

After all its preceding failures and negligence in responding to COVID-19, which ensured that it went into community transmission – stage 3  -, out of the blue, from March 24, we have a sudden and unorganized, unilateral and thoughtless 21-day lock down, which unlike the lock-downs in other countries, as per the government’s own admission to the SC, has resulted in the transmission jumping to stage 5- pandemic due to the displacement it caused of migrant workers in all states, 30% of whom the government has said could be carrying the virus.

And now that the thoughtless lock-down has not only become a vehicle for further transmission of the virus, but also created a huge humanitarian crisis, the government is trying to shift the blame for it onto the states. The fact is the states reportedly had no role in the decision that caused it all though the claim is made that all CM’s were consulted before the decision was made. (It is only now, on April 2, that the government is consulting the CMs of the states). To date, not a single CM has attested the claim, while the fact remains that no CM in his right mind would agree to a total national lock-down with 4 hours notice. For any such extended lock-down, every state needs time to get various aspects, particularly food supplies and emergency services, organized for the lock-down to achieve its desired goals.  It is also common knowledge that every state in the country has a large number of migrant workers and daily wagers who would be severely affected by it. Most of the migrant workers, numbering in the millions, are employed in the construction industry, in hotels and hospitality services and in menial jobs. Most of them are dependent for accommodation on their employers, while others pay exorbitant rents out of meager earnings, which are impossible to sustain without income. Most of them are also daily or weekly wage earners, living hand-to-mouth and most have been sacked by their employers after the lock-down.

The thoughtless 8 pm announcement, which is at the root of the current chaos in the country, aimed at getting most eyeballs for PR purposes, triggered panic and fear among these workers because it did not include even a rudimentary plan to tackle the economic fallout. Not only did the migrant workers now not have jobs, income and accommodation, they also had no clue how long this was to continue. Panic and fear, therefore, was a natural reaction. As many of them have said, they would prefer to die of the disease in their homes, where they would at least have shelter and food than starve and die in the streets elsewhere. Millions of them in Delhi and other cities, in the absence of public transportation, set on foot to their homes hundreds of kilometers away in rural areas. Blaming the states for this migration is a cheap attempt by the government to cover its own monumental failures. A state may be required to follow directives from the Union government, but India is no dictatorship. This is not how you run the Indian Federation of States.

That such a devastating national lock-down would occur was inevitable because firstly, there is very little concerning the masses that this government has done right. Starting with demonetization right up to the Citizenship Amendment Bill 2019 (CAA) the government has done it all wrong. Having failed to do extensive testing, the government had no data on hand to make a plan for limited lock-down in hot-spots, which is what has been done in the countries where it has been ordered. As has been typical of the decisions made by this government, the entire population is reaping the consequences of its outright incompetence.

Secondly, from the frantic, chaotic and incoherent steps the government is now taking to cope with the virus, it is apparent the government realized too late in the day that it had failed to act in time, that it had wasted the window of opportunity it got between January end and mid-March, in the process helping COVID-19 along. Visibly bereft of a strategy to deal with the pandemic, seeing that other nations were imposing lock downs which were helping slow down the spread of the virus, it just  merely followed suit without any of the required thinking and planning which other nations did before announcing lock-downs. That is why though there has been panic buying in some countries by certain sections of the population, overall the population in those countries is not in distress and panic as in India.

All of the problems other than the virus itself that the nation is now facing are a creation of the government. Alternatively, in active consultations and collaboration with each state, it could have come up with a comprehensive plan to prevent the displacement that we are now seeing across India, thereby preventing the pandemic spread of the virus which is now happening.  The government has no clue what it is doing. On one hand it orders a lock-down to prevent the spread of the virus, while on the other, the manner in which it went about the lock-down results in spreading the virus far and wide. This is the work of charlatans, not that of competent and responsible leaders.

As a result of the lock-down, over 450 million daily wagers around the country too are severely affected. These people work during the day, receive their wages in the evening and buy food in the evening for the ensuing day. The lock-down has meant that none of them has a source of income, creating a massive humanitarian crisis. The government may have announced a financial package for these sections but when you analyze the package, it is mostly another sleight of hand rather than any real and effective measure typical of this government.

Professor Jayahthi Gosh, JNU, put it very well when he told The Wire, “In macroeconomic terms, the total amount mentioned (Rs 1.7 lakh crore) is only around 0.8% of estimated GDP,  and therefore as a fiscal stimulus it is tiny and will do little to counter the absolute declines in income resulting from the lock-down. In any case, this total is also the result of window-dressing, since existing schemes like PM-KISAN have been included even though amounts have not been increased. It suggests that the central government has no idea of the depth of the unfolding economic collapse. More measures and much larger amounts will certainly be required for the target groups mentioned, and also for other sectors.”

We are now not only facing a COVID-19 crisis, but also a simultaneous massive humanitarian crisis along with an unprecedented economic collapse. As someone has said, if India survives all this and comes out intact, it is going to be “entirely due to the effort of the states and despite the Union government”.

Serious questions also arise about the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA). This body has done commendable work in many post-disaster situations such as floods and earthquakes in the past, but disaster management is not only about post-disaster relief. It includes foreseeing disasters, including health disasters, and preparing for them in advance. The NDMA has failed to do this. In fact, it is not even visible in the unfolding humanitarian disaster in the country. It should have been ready with all sorts of plans for migrant workers stranded in the streets, by lanes and highways with no food and water.

Right now, all that the Union government and all its concerned institutions are doing is playing catch up and playing catch up always precludes poor if not negative results. The hope now rests entirely on the individual state bureaucracy and their administrative and management acumen. The political class, if it cannot help constructively, should help the cause by getting out of the way and refrain from trying to gain cheap political mileage even in a rapidly unfolding tragedy.

– All figures quoted are those of April 3, 2020

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