Planning Omission

The government’s handling of the Covid-19 Pandemic threat has been piecemeal and erratic so far.

March 24, 2020: In another 8 PM address to the nation, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a nation-wide lockdown for three weeks –  starting midnight. The speech was high on emotional appeal but woefully short on details of how a nation of 130 crore people would function during this period. Those would be released later as a guideline from the Home Ministry, which was sent out to the media houses, and to different union ministries.

The speech, which was meant to reassure citizens, instead triggered off a panic reaction among those who had not stocked up groceries for a long haul. Though the Prime Minister had, in passing, mentioned that essentials would remain available, it kicked off a mad frenzy as people rushed to grocery shops that were still open in order to buy whatever they could. In many localities and shops across the country, it created exactly the kind of mad crowding that needed to be avoided to reduce the risk of community reaction.

The speech announcing the lockdown starting in four hours, and the chaos and over crowding at the grocery shops that followed in many parts of the country, was another example of the haphazard way the pandemic threat has been handled by the union government so far: some good ideas, but accompanied by lack of coordination, a lot of miscommunication and plenty of confusion all around. It also showed a complete lack of nation-state coordination with each state taking away a different interpretation of what the lockdown meant.

The chief minister of at least one state – Telengana – on television announced that people who tried to go out during the lockdown would be shot on sight. Others were more conscious of the problems citizens would face – and quickly announced their own steps to mitigate hardships including arrangement of deliveries of essential goods, income support to migrant construction workers who were left high and dry in the sudden lockdown and other such steps.

Before the Prime Minister’s 8 PM speech, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman and her deputy Anurag Thakur had held a press conference. The press conference which was meant to signal that the government was aware of the gravity of the economic crisis that was inevitable because of the pandemic. And to reassure business, bankers and employees that the government had a plan to deal with it. Instead, the press conference only reinforced the impression that the government had no real plan in place. The FM made some basic announcements about regulatory filings deadlines being extended, and a few other minor points, but shied away from announcing any concrete steps for businesses facing disaster. She made some comments about how the Economic Taskforce announced by the Prime Minister two days ago was mindful of the problem and would look for solutions.

The first case of the Coronavirus pandemic in India was reported on January 30, 2020. The full dangers of the virus, and the way it would spread was not known yet to the world in general and would become apparent only by end February with the alarm bells ringing across the globe by early March.

So the Indian government could not be faulted for not getting alarmed by a single case being reported. China itself had only reported the virus in late December 2019, though evidence is emerging that the Chinese authorities knew about it much earlier. China had woken up to the threat only in January end, when it put Wuhan and later the entire Hubei province under quarantine in a bid to stop the rampaging of the virus.

By the first week of March, the rapid spread of the disease had set off alarm bells across the globe and in India. Kerala had been quick off the blocks and had started testing and isolation as more news came in. Other states were also beginning to stir as increasingly alarming news came in from across the globe. The Union government had shown quite a lot of pro activeness in February by evacuating Indian citizens from the pandemic hotspots and keeping them under quarantine for the recommended period, but it was still acting sluggishly when it came to planning for domestic citizens. Indeed, the states were far more proactive than the centre was in many steps, especially in early March when alarming news was coming in from across the globe, especially Italy and Iran, and when WHO, belatedly, declared it a global pandemic. By this time the deaths attributed to this had already crossed recent pandemics like the SARS pandemic.

While the Indian Council of Medical Research was closely observing the situation, it did not react quickly enough to the fact that India had woefully few testing centres compared to its total population. Nor to the fact that if the pandemic spread as it had in countries such as Italy, India would run short of quarantine centres, ICUs and Ventilators. Nor the fact that doctors at the forefront of fighting the epidemic would need protective clothing and gear.

The private sector had not be pulled in, nor was there an urgency to stock up on Coronavirus testing kits that every country was facing a shortage of. Even private testing labs were not accredited initially to conduct the tests.

The complacency was largely because fewer cases were being reported in India than across the world. Whether the lower numbers were reported because fewer numbers had been tested, and a lot of people had slipped through the administrative loopholes is not clear.

At any rate, the various states seemed to be more concerned about the pandemic than the centre. Many of them had moved in the first week of March itself to order shutdowns of schools to keep children out of danger.

Mizoram had closed its international border before the Union government woke up to stop issuing visas to specific countries and stopping some international flights. Others states too seemed to be planning more than the central government was. Health is a state subject but in the cases of a Pandemic, the centre needs to take the lead. And it should have been in the forefront of advising states on what measures to take. Instead, it was the reverse that seemed to be happening.

Meanwhile, even as late mid March, union ministers  were signalling that the Coronavirus was not a major threat. When Rahul Gandhi expressed in a tweet that the Coronavirus was going to be a huge danger for Indians, several ministers went on to rubbish his sentiments. Others were talking of homeopathy and other methods to increase immunity. Where information about the dangers of the virus needed to be communicated relentlessly, the union ministers were still pretending that it was business as usual. Social distancing was more a joke for many of them as they freely partied and mingled with hundreds of people.

On 13 March, the Prime Minister held a conference with his SAARC counterparts to discuss the dangers of the pandemic and two days later, committed US $10 million for a common fund that would fight the epidemic.

He had not yet held a coordinating meeting with the chief ministers about preparedness about the pandemic till then – he would do it a couple of days after his SAARC conference.

The lack of coordination between the states and the centre would be more apparent in the following days. By the third week of March, several states were already calling for or implementing a full or partial lockdown. But it was only on March 19 that the Prime Minister, in another of his favourite 8 PM addresses, asked citizens to go for a voluntary lockdown for 14 hours on March 22 and to show their appreciation for doctors fighting the pandemic by going to their balconies at 5 PM and clapping for 5 minutes.

That address too was lost in translation – with the voluntary stay at home being observed faithfully till 5 PM, after which suddenly a lot of enthusiastic people gathered on roads, clapping and cheering and mingling, thus making a joke out of the whole concept of social distancing.

Meanwhile, even though the voluntary stay at home was supposed to be only for 14 hours on 22nd, many states had already announced a lockdown till March 31st, on their own, and people stepping out were being actively dissuaded.

Finally, when the Prime Minister announced his 21 day lockdown, again the lack of coordination between states and the centre and the general lack of preparedness came to the forefront. The guidelines of the Home Ministry clearly say that general deliveries of groceries and other essential goods would be continued. But in many states, delivery boys are being sent back by the police and chaos reigns. Almost all online players are supposed to be allowed to deliver but most of them have suspended services saying the administration is not allowing them.

There is no clarity about permits or letters to be issued by administration which would allow people who are manning essential services to show to the police who are guarding the roads.

Meanwhile, hundreds of trucks are suddenly stuck at different state borders as states enforce shutdowns without working out a mechanism for even LPG and grocery transportation between states.

Villagers growing vegetables find that they can reach the Mandis, but then the produce gets stuck there as contractors have no way of transporting them on to cities and towns.

Passenger trains, long distance buses and domestic airline services were abruptly shut down without taking into account the plight of migrant workers stuck thousands of miles away from home with no money or means of making it back home.

Nor has an economic package been announced to see that the migrant workers can get cash to buy something to eat. That has been left to individual states.

India is a large country with a huge population and some hiccups in coordination in such a massive effort is always expected. But in the case of this pandemic, it seems that the government did not plan at all – and kept reacting rather than thinking things through.




Prosenjit Datta

Prosenjit Datta is former editor of Businessworld and Business Today magazines

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