Resolve and Restrain: Fighting COVID-19 in India
Sankalp and Sanyam: Prime Minister Modi’s address to the nation on Thursday evening, amidst the worsening coronavirus pandemic highlighted the need to exercise resolve and restraint in the face of the spread of the virus. The PM’s address also underscored the need for social distancing and maintaining good hygiene practices while reassuring the citizens of the continuity in supply lines as well as warning consumers against panic buying. Two key takeaways from the PM’s address were the ‘Janta Curfew’—self-imposed isolation of all Indians (except certain professionals engaged in essential services) on Sunday, March 22nd between 7 am and 9 pm—and the formation of an Economic Task Force under the Finance Minister to address the economic challenges offset by this pandemic.
The first case of the novel coronavirus was reported in China’s Wuhan Province in November 2019 but it was not until February of this year that much was known about the new virus (named SARS-CoV-2) and the disease it causes, named COVID-19 by the World Health Organisation. As China battled the aggressive spread of the virus over the last three months, since the beginning of March, over 100 countries have found themselves facing the intensifying pandemic.
Situation in India
India’s first confirmed case of the coronavirus was reported on January 30th. The patient is a student of Wuhan University who had returned to Kerala since the epidemic broke. Through February, the virus was restricted to Kerala. On 2nd March, however, a fresh case was confirmed in Delhi in a 45 year old man who had returned from a trip to Italy—a country that was then emerging as the new virus epicentre and has now logged more number of deaths than China. As of 20th March, India has reported over 223 confirmed cases and 5 deaths, inclusive of foreign nationals. The number of Indians overseas (mainly Iran and the UAE) who have been confirmed as positive for the virus remains over 276.
The rapidly spreading virus is of growing concern not just for the health authorities and the government, but also the citizenry. Numerous unanswered questions have fuelled fear and panic further compounded by concerns over diminishing commodities and a general aversion to getting tested and self-isolate. Indeed, many quarantined patients have been known to flee the quarantine facilities and have had to be traced and brought back. In this situation, the PM’s address was a welcome reassurance of adequate supply of essentials that also served as a reminder of the severity of the situation and the need to remain indoors.
In his address, PM Modi spoke at length of a ‘Janta Curfew’ to be observed on Sunday, wherein everyone other than providers of essential services (medical professionals, government officials etc) would have to remain indoors. While the curfew would be self-imposed, the PM also said that various agencies such as the NCC and other paramilitary groups would patrol and encourage people to remain indoors. Recognising that a blanket ban on movement is nearly impossible to impose in a population of 130 crore people, a self-imposed curfew has been regarded as a more positive and successful method of containing the virus.
At the outset of his speech, the PM requested all Indians “to lend him [the PM] the coming few weeks of their lives” to effectively combat the virus. While the Janta Curfew is scheduled for one day only, its success could determine whether a longer period of curfew could later be declared by the government. Indeed, the PM also said that the collective self-isolation would not only be testament to the collective struggle against the pandemic but would also boost community morale to fight any challenge India faces in the future. Drawing comparison to war times, the PM urged Indians of all ages, but children and senior citizens in particular, to not leave their homes. Already, most metro cities have declared closures of large public places and companies have encouraged employees to work from home but only a total shutdown encouraged (and perhaps maintained) by the government will be successful in curbing the virus.
Economic Task Force
The other notable announcement by the PM was the formation of an economic task force under the leadership of Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman. The Task Force will be in touch with key stakeholders, incorporate relevant feedback and in the near future take steps to avert the worst of the economic crisis brought on by the pandemic. This announcement would have come as a relief to many sectors that have already taken a beating because of the novel coronavirus. The airline industry is an obvious example—with strict imposition of travel bans in many countries significantly reducing air travel. Talks of a Rs 11,900 crore government bailout for the aviation industry are already underway.
But, a temporary relief on taxes for sectors majorly affected by the virus may not be a sufficient step. Economies across the world will have to recalibrate after the immediate fear of the pandemic subsides. Among the many important questions facing us are whether highly specialised supply chains and a globalised division of labour are sustainable. Indeed, the very nature of globalisation has also been called into question, especially since countries find themselves in acute shortages of medical supplies such as masks, gloves and ventilators that they do not produce. The over-reliance on China has proven to be a challenge since Chinese factories had been brought to a near halt in the recent months meaning that inventories of these essentials overseas was running low. Now, as China recovers from the pandemic, it is in a unique position to steer the global health response to the outbreak. Already, the Chinese government has displayed leadership by offering to sell to Iran and Italy the equipment they need to meet their growing challenges.
India, too, has been a regional leader in calling an emergency SAARC meeting on collectively battling the virus. Media reports suggest that Prime Minister Modi may also request a G-20 meeting to chart a collective plan of action. This collective leadership can ensure sharing of key resources and movement of medical professionals to areas where they are in acute need. Learning from this, Indians would be wise to heed the word of the Prime Minister and refrain from rumour mongering, choosing instead to remain indoors to stay safe and healthy. “World is healthy when we are healthy” is an especially relevant lesson today.
This blog is authored by Aarushi Aggarwal.