While there is no reason to panic at this stage, there is reason for worry

Written by P Chidambaram

Updated: March 8, 2020 8:37:24 am

As the Prime Minister said a few days ago, we must prepare, not panic. (File Photo)

On February 26, Dr Nancy Messonnier, a director at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, United States, warned about the spread of coronavirus and said, “It is not so much a question of if this will happen anymore, but rather more a question of exactly when this will happen and how many people in this country will have severe illness.”

It is 10 weeks since the virus broke out in China. China is a tightly controlled and monitored society. Its government can, if it chooses, exercise an iron grip over its residents. The initial response of China was tardy but once it realised the gravity of the situation, China acted quickly on all fronts — closing down cities, banning internal movement, creating beds for coronavirus patients, building two new hospitals, and mobilising doctors, nurses, paramedics and equipment. Countries with ‘disciplined’ civic life, such as Russia and Japan, seem to have done better than others. Italy and Iran have done poorly.

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State of Preparedness

India has cause to worry. As the Prime Minister said a few days ago, we must prepare, not panic. Very true, but how prepared is the country? More pertinently, how prepared is each state of the country? There are international airports in all states, except a handful, and flights arrive every day. Domestic travel involves hundreds of thousands of people every day. Most people live in densely populated neighbourhoods, housing is cramped, there is garbage everywhere, and towns and cities are unhygienic. Given this reality, how prepared is the country?

The Prime Minister took his first review meeting on March 3. The Health Minister made a statement on March 5. There has been no meeting yet of state chief ministers or health ministers. The National Institute of Virology, Pune, and 15 laboratories are stated to be equipped to test clinical samples; we need many more urgently. The lesson from other countries is that once the virus is detected in an individual, the number affected gallops by the day. In India, it has spurted from one to two to six to 30 in a matter of three days.

While there is no reason to panic at this stage, there is reason for worry and pessimism. A massive communication and outreach programme should have been launched weeks ago. On the contrary, the government was pre-occupied with Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), National Population Register (NPR) and welcoming President Donald Trump. Even now, its priorities seem to be different.

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Reality Check

Meanwhile, the communal virus will have an impact on the fight against coronavirus. We may not like to admit it, but the fact is minorities live in ghettoes. How will health workers reach them unless relations between communities are cordial? How can the police force be deployed to isolate affected persons and evacuate them to hospitals? The first task in the nationwide battle against a dreaded disease is to maintain social harmony and peace. What is the government doing to put the recent bitterness behind us and involve all communities in combating the disease? Precious little; there are not even overtures to those living in fear or fleeing their homes.Besides, why react when some countries point to our shortcomings? Has India not commented on colonialism (1950s) or racial discrimination (apartheid) or human rights violations (Rohingya migration) or genocide (many African countries)? We should take criticism in our stride.

More than ever before, we need friends and trading partners. Our economy has slowed down sharply — from 8 per cent to 4.7 per cent in just seven quarters. Estimate of world economic growth in 2020 has been revised from 2.9 per cent to 2.4 per cent and may decline further if coronavirus disrupts more production and supply lines.

Some Suggestions

There are some steps that the government could take, though some may be unpalatable to the BJP and RSS.

1. The Prime Minister should address the nation immediately, and then every week, appealing to the people to set aside the differences and cooperate with the Central and state governments in tackling a potential national crisis.

2. Announce that the NPR exercise will be deferred indefinitely.

3. Suspend the operation of the CAA and, consequently, request the Supreme Court to adjourn the hearing of the cases challenging the amendment Act.

4. Appoint an independent Commission of Enquiry to enquire into the genesis, course and consequences of the recent Delhi riots.

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5. Constitute a National Emergency Committee consisting of representatives of the Central and state governments to deal with COVID-19.

6. Suspend expenditure on grandiose or wasteful projects and allocate the funds to rapidly expand the facilities for testing and treatment of persons exposed to coronavirus. Co-opt private hospitals in the efforts with generous grants.

7. Since reports indicate that old persons are more vulnerable to coronavirus, support public and private hospitals to create separate facilities in their geriatric wards.

8. Encourage the pharmaceutical industry to rapidly increase their capacity to manufacture masks, gloves, protective clothing, sanitisers, and the drugs that may be useful according to the WHO protocol.

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9. Suspend all inessential travel from India to the affected countries and stop visas to persons from those countries. Withdraw from all international conferences.

10. Provide tax relief and incentives to the sectors that will be affected by curtailment of travel such as tourism, airlines, hotel and hospitality, imports and exports, etc.

On your part, wash your hands and keep your fingers crossed.

This article first appeared in the print edition on March 8, 2020 under the title ‘Across the aisle: Preventing a calamity’.

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