PM Modi has been able to motivate majority of the population to practice safe conduct. But the challenge facing him as he works round the clock to ensure that India recovers from Corona outbreak, is to jolt the governance system to provide a policy ecosystem needed for double digit growth
The world is facing a double shock of World War proportions, to both the health of the population as well as its economic prospects. Entire sectors of the economy have been shut down in an effort to save what could be millions of lives. Almost every family has been affected by the Covid-19 earthquake that first began in the final six weeks of 2019 in Wuhan, a city in China of 11 million people.
The tragedy is not simply the disease and the outbreak followed by epidemic followed by pandemic that has occurred since its appearance in a "live animals for food" market in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province. The tragedy is not simply that it took six weeks for authorities in the province to accept the view of a few perceptive doctors and researchers there that the new disease that they were treating could develop into a catastrophe of unimaginable proportions unless contained early.
Instead of heeding the whistleblowers, they were condemned as "anti-national" and the most perceptive, Wenliang Li, was forced by the police to recant in 2020, the way Pope Urban VIII forced Galileo Galilei in 1663 to recant his discovery that the earth revolved around the sun rather than the other way around. Those in Wuhan who acted against the doctor rather than the virus at a time when it could have been contained within a small perimeter are guilty of the mass murder of at least 15,000 victims of Covid-19 ( a figure that could reach into the millions) and the shutdown of the global economy consequent to the emergence of the pandemic.
Throughout January, when it was clear that the highly infectious killer novel coronavirus was on the loose, not even in China was the alarm sounded with sufficient force. Searches for the virus on Baidu were muted until January 23, 2020, soon after Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping assumed direct control of the fightback and sealed off Wuhan from the rest of the country. Interestingly, although searches on Baidu ( mostly within China) were low in number throughout the period leading up to the lockdown, Google searches from the rest of the world were rising.
Another reason why Covid-19 formed and subsequently grew into a pandemic was the fact that markets offering live birds,animals, mammals and sea species of different kinds continued to function throughout China despite the 2003 SARS epidemic demonstrating the danger of allowing such retail commerce. Several studies conducted by Chinese experts warned of the risk to public health caused by such trade, but the extensive machinery of the Communist Party and the state run by it failed to pay heed and bring such activities to a halt. This led towards the close of 2019 to the global calamity that emerged in the winter of last year from the "live food" market in Wuhan
In the absence of a clear indication of the extreme seriousness of the situation from either the Chinese government or the World Health Organisation, governments across the world hesitated to take action. In the UK or Italy, for example, flights from and to Wuhan were allowed to land and take off even while India had shut its airports to all traffic from and to China. The impression even within the US was that the outbreak would be contained even within China, and that the risk to the rest of the world was negligible, a misreading of the situation that shows the incompetence of US agencies in ascertaining what the factual conditions in China actually were. The major powers believed that Chinese authorities would rapidly bring the situation under control and not allow it to spread. Such action finally took place during the second half of January, but not until CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping directly intervened to lead the fight against a virus that by that stage threatened to drag China into an economic quagmire and a public health nightmare.
Once the crisis became obvious, among the first of world leaders to act was Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who barred entry of visitors from China, following the examples of Taiwan and Singapore. Should India escape an elevated curve for community transmission or Stage III of the Covid-19 outbreak, the credit will go to Modi for his unprecedented action in first blocking access to India from China and thereafter wisely extending visa cancellations to Europe, at a time when it was not yet certain that the European Union had become the epicentre of a health emergency that was coming under control in China.
Subsequently, the rest of the world was cut off from India. On March 19, Prime Minister Modi gave a historic call for an all-day "Janata Curfew" a few days later, a measure designed to break the chain of human-to-human transmission of the novel coronavirus. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, assisted by External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar and Heath Minister Harsh Vardhan have initiated multiple steps to protect the 1.29 billion people of India from going the Iran or Italy way during the present pandemic. If only authorities in Hubei had heeded Dr Wenliang Li rather than persecuted him, both China as well as the rest of the world would have been spared the situation that is now deluging the world. If only the rest of the world had been alerted to the immensity of the crisis by January 1, 2020 rather than only after the sealing off of Wuhan was announced on January 23, the global economy would not have been as close to the ICU that it is now, and countless may have been saved.
The Covid-19 pandemic shows the importance of transmitting bad news up the administrative ladder at speed, especially in governance systems where only good news gets moved upwards while bad news gets suppressed, as the novel coronavirus outbreak in Hubei initially was for six precious weeks after its toxicity and incurable nature was accepted by Hubei authorities in mid-November, reaching the highest levels of the Chinese system residing in Beijing only by 27 December, 2019. It took a further three weeks before President Xi decided to directly intervene and order unprecedented steps which jolted the world out of its complacency. Nine weeks that have shaken the world. Nine weeks during which action could have been taken to ensure that the deep,dark pit that first China,then Europe, and now the US and others in the global community have fallen into could have been avoided
The contrasting examples of China in 2019 and India in 2018 show what a difference a quick and effective response to a disease makes. Like Covid-19, the Nipah virus that struck Kerala on May 2,2018 originated in the bat population. In coordination with the National Institute of Virology in Pune and the Manipal Institute of Virology, the Kerala state government immediately placed more than 2300 individuals in the districts of Malappuram and Kozhikode in quarantine, and imported a drug from Australia that had not yet completed testing for general use. After confirming that the outbreak was a potential health hazard, the state government issued an advisory on May 23 and joined hands with the central government to access what knowledge about the disease (which is fatal in almost 90% of cases) was available globally. Useful information was secured from Malaysia, especially relating to treatment, that ensured the saving of a two patients, while 17 died. The Nipah outbreak was officially declared over on 10 June, less than six weeks after the first case was identified in the Government Medical College, Kozhikode.
A disease which could have killed tens of thousands was eliminated in a short time because of close coordination between the central and state government, as well as the work done on detection and containment by the National Institute of Virology at Pune and the Manipal Institute of Virology. The difference six weeks can make is readily seen in the case of the Covid-19 pandemic that is sweeping the globe. Had the authorities in Hubei province in the Peoples Republic of China responded in the manner that was seen in India when the Nipah outbreak occurred, Covid-19 could have been contained within a few locations in the province and considerable death and suffering avoided.
As mentioned, when a doctor in Wuhan warned that a new virus was on the loose and needed to be eliminated quickly, rather than act upon his suggestion, the provincial authorities labelled him as "anti-state" and forced him to write a confession that he was nothing but an alarmist. This while the novel coronavirus was spreading like a blaze among the people during the final weeks of 2019. It was only in the very close of that year when provincial authorities conveyed the depth of the problem to the leadership in Beijing. By that time, several million people had left Hubei and gone to other parts of China as well as abroad. Several of them were carriers, many rendered more deadly because they themselves had no symptoms of the disease that they were passing on to any individual who came in contact with them or with any surface touched by them.
Unlike the case of Kerala government which alerted the central government as soon as the first case of Nipah was detected, Chinese provincial authorities continued to believe that the infection could be localised, and that they could handle it o their own. By their hesitation in conveying bad news to a higher - indeed, the highest - level of the Chinese governance system, these officials have caused a global disaster. After getting information of the outbreak of this new disease, it took a further three weeks for the central authorities to sound the alarm globally. Only by the close of January 2020, after President Xi Jinping took the unprecedented step of closing off an entire city of 11 million and a province from the rest of the country did governments across the world realize that they were facing a public health disaster. Some responded swiftly - including India and Singapore - while others such as Italy and France failed to understand the danger to their own public.
First Singapore and then India under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi shut the entry door to visitors from China. Later, when it became clear that Europe was badly infected with Covid-19, visitors from across Europe were blocked from coming to India. Unfortunately, several foreign tourists were already in the country, while later on, Indian citizens who had been visiting Europe returned. Some within these two groups brought with them the novel coronavirus. Coordinated action by the PMO, the Ministry of External Affairs and the Health Ministry ensured that community spread was prevented, at least till the time of writing this report. Should India escape the ravages of Stage III ( community spread) or have a very shallow curve of such infections, it would go as mentioned earlier to the credit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has been assisted by External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar and Union Health Minister Harshvardhan.
From the start, they understood the depth of the calamity that could befall India were the most extreme action not taken, action that they ( with the assistance of the Indian Council for Medical Research) took from the very start of the period when they first were made aware of the depths of the crisis through the Wuhan lockdown. Avoiding the worst would also go to the credit of the people of India, for Covid-19 can only be eliminated by a community effort involving every citizen. Just as a single thread can unravel a fabric, a single individual can put to naught efforts at containing Covid-19. The call for social distancing given by the Prime Minister on March 19 needs to be obeyed by the entire population, so that India escapes the ravages of the disease in a manner that Italy or Iran have been unable to do because social distancing was not taken seriously by their populations in time.
By contrast, in India Prime Minister Modi has been able to motivate the overwhelming majority of the population to practice safe conduct, although there remain a few citizens who are irresponsible enough to risk calamity for other citizens and the economy through flouting the few simple rules needed to protect both themselves as well as the nation from the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic
That the Government of India has had to rely even during the Covid-19 epidemic on a law that was first brought into effect in 1897 shows the need to ensure that the overwhelmingly colonial-era system of laws and regulations still faithfully adhered to by the governance mechanism needs to change. The Indian Penal Code has to reflect not 19th century but 21st century values and needs. The new structure should reflect the importance of involving Civil Society in the processes of governance through formal methods of consultation and monitoring, rather than concentrating such authority solely in the Civil Service.
Freedoms taken away by the addition of the First Amendment to the Constitution of India should be restored, while the legal system needs to deliver transparent justice ( including through live streaming of all court proceedings) that takes decreed within a time frame that is closer to that of other major economies. An audit needs to be conducted by an independent authority of the economic and financial effects of court judgments, many of which lead to substantial consequences,including the shutting down of several industrial units. Such an audit is also called for where the National Green Tribunal is concerned. India must certainly be as green and as filled with sustainability as possible, but this must be in a manner that takes into account the needs of the human population for income and employment, the foundation for a good life.
Several NGOs recommend measures that assume that human beings have no right to rights and that decisions should be taken irrespective of the human cost, as for example in the forced closing of large units rather than making them adopt clean technologies and continue operations. A table showing the number of cases as well as the time taken for disposal by each member of the Bench needs to be prepared for courts and placed online. The country has been waiting for decades for a Chief Justice of the Supreme Court who would ensure that the judicial reforms needed for transparency and accountability within this very powerful Estate of the State get carried out, and hopefully such reforms will not long remain unfulfilled. India has an exceptionally qualified judiciary, and as such it is reasonable to believe that such necessary reforms are not an impossibility but can become a reality that reinforces public confidence in the judiciary.
While the public health effects of the Covid-19 epidemic are being energetically tackled by the Modi government, what is as important is the health of the economy. A three month moratorium on loan repayments and interest payments both in the case of private moneylender loans and those of the banking system need to be enforced, so as to ensure that a flood of NPAs and bankruptcies do not get caused by circumstances beyond the control of the financial and economic victims of the 2020 public health emergency.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak of the UK has put in place a scheme to ensure that 80% of the salaries of workers get paid by the state, so that layoffs are minimised. Retraining workers and restarting businesses from scratch are very difficult, and a similar scheme needs to be carried out in India for workers and employees. Compensation can be paid for salaries upto a maximum of Rs 10 lakhs per person annualised, so that businesses do not retrench citizens during these months of Covid-19 stress. Former Finance Minister P Chdambaram has evidently never travelled to Europe in his life, for he kept on telling taxpayers that the rate of tax was the same as in several countries in the EU. Chidambaram was clearly unaware of the many benefits that citizens in those parts of the world get from the state. In India, even the poor pawn their gold jewellery to avoid public hospitals and schools, not to talk of the average taxpayer. Chidambaram clearly believes that government schools, hospitals and other services are at the same level as in the EU, and may be they are for a VVIP like him, but not for 99.9 per cent of the citizens of India.
There has long been need for direct and indirect tax reform as well as an overhaul of a regulatory structure that strangulates industry and trade while doing nothing to end endemic corruption, as for example through using corrupt officials to hound innovators in India so that alternatives to what they have discovered may get imported. It is not an accident that India is dependent on imports for so many critical items, and the answer lies in the obstacles placed on domestic producers in order to clear the way for imports. The Covid-19 epidemic is a crisis that needs to jolt the governance system into making itself such as to give the people of India the policy ecosystem needed for double digit growth. That is the challenge facing Prime Minister Narendra Modi as he works round the clock to ensure that India recovers from a fever that has travelled from Wuhan to all parts of the world.
(The author is Professor of Geopolitics at Manipal Academy of Higher Education)