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By Shilajit Kar Bhowmick
The gladiatorial battle against Corona is yet to be over and the long wait for human civilisation’s ultimate victory is now exhausting most of us. There is no alternative to inoculation and that is cliché. Nevertheless, India could’ve overcome the pandemic if the crisis was dealt with pragmatism and preparedness. Definitely, the lockdown is welcome. It is also a fact that the people were finding it difficult to be cocooned and confined. There are students who are familiar with stepping out of their residences for schools, colleges and universities. There are also professionals of multifarious hues who need to step out for earning a livelihood. But should we wish to live happily and healthily, sacrifices have to be made as per the exigencies of the situation. Again on a lighter note, everybody should not be expected to do a Greta Garbo; the Hollywood diva who retired into seclusion at the peak of her career and isolated herself from public view for more than 50 years. However, the lockdown shouldn’t have been enforced overnight with sheer impetuosity.
This writer took up the issue with some administrators who enlightened him with their insightful experiences. They feel Modi is always encircled by grovelling loyalists who lack the hardihood to gainsay him. Instead, they parrot his policies and principles, even if it bodes ill for the welfare of the nation. In extraordinary situations such as this, consultations and discussions within the cabinet and with bureaucrats should be given paramount importance. And space should be allotted to contrary opinions as well.
The Labour Ministry has a department which is assigned to deal with the migrant labourers ever since the Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act came into effect in 1979. But the Department is yet to be visible and voluble during this crisis.
Certainly, Modi is good at implementing decisions which reflects his determination to get things done. But prior to implementation, the decision should’ve been given several rounds of thought especially when it shall affect the lives of millions of people.
He should have taken a month’s preparation before the first phase of lockdown was enforced at the end of March. The migrant labourers should have been sent back to their respective places. Because as soon as they started moving, the virus registered an unprecedented growth. Take the example of Tripura. Till April 5, the state was revelling under an illusion that it has succeeded in blocking the passage of Corona. But as soon as labourers and students from other states; who are originally inhabitants of this state started pouring in, Tripura woke up from its gleeful reverie. The state emerged out of the illusion that it is impregnable for the pandemic.
On the other hand, the Centre should have suspended domestic and international flights. Owing to the domestic ones, infected passengers started pouring in from one state to the other. And the international flights brought scores of infected patients from abroad.
According to some doctors, the government should have taken preparatory steps and subsequently enforced the lockdown when the pandemic began to spread in Kerala at the end of January. And it goes without saying that the lockdown was not a success as suggested by the rising graph of infections. It would been otherwise if the lockdown was enforced much earlier. This is true of Vietnam, Thailand, Bhutan and Kerala. Kerala Health Minister K K Shailaja was on the alert as early as January 18. The state was ready with tests, contact tracing, isolation and support much before many European countries. But the Modi government took Corona on a serious note when scary events from Italy and Spain became the talk of the globe. Apart from thermal screening of visitors from China, inconsequential steps were taken.
Besides, on April 24, Vinod Paul, member, NITI Aayog and chairperson of the national task force constituted to advise the Modi government on Corona, presented a mathematical model at a press briefing where he claimed in all his confidence that there would be no cases linked with the virus in India from May 16. But soon we realised that we were building castles in the air. Clearly, the government shouldn’t have taken decisions by sitting in an ivory tower. On the other hand, the decision to unlock was equally absurd because according to scientific advice, you can unlock only when there is sustained decrease in the daily number of fresh cases.
The doctors also said that the government was not taking any concrete steps to resolve the migrant labourers’ conundrum. They suffered without money and job for two months. Ultimately, they were left to their fate and a majority of them were by now infected. They went out of urban red zones of the country and carried the infection into green rural India.
On the social perspective, the lockdown wasn’t able to be enforced on much of the population. To be precise, we have people living in crowded crawls, slums and distant villages. We also have people who were allowed to travel for essential services and people allowed to move around for seasonal harvest. This phenomenon is naturally antagonistic to social distancing. In such situations, preventing the hoi polloi from mingling is a tall order.
On the other hand, there is a huge section of irresponsible people who showed complete disdain for the lockdown and social-distancing norms. Let’s take the example of Gollala Mamidada, a village in Andhra Pradesh’s East Godavari district. There was a birthday party, a cricket match, a wedding and an engagement party with all fanfare. As a result, over 208 cases have been reported in the aforesaid village by June 18.
The Kerala model should’ve been adopted to tackle Corona because the methods of the state government are a testimony to its pragmatism. To be precise, it started preparing in January itself. It is interesting to note that on January 18, WHO declared that a potential virus is there in Wuhan, China. At that point of time, it did not declare the virus as a pandemic. But when Kerala’s Health Department heard about the novel virus as a new member from the SARS family, the Minister and her officials started giving the matter serious thought.
Kerala also did the best of contact tracing. The Modi government’s contact tracing strategy is devised through a smart-phone app in a country where a majority of the population is yet to access a smart-phone.
As expected, the virus came to Kerala. On January 30, the state’s first positive case was reported, and in the first week of February, two other cases were reported. But when the samples were tested, all the three infected persons were in the hospital’s isolation wards. And thus, no contact and no transmission occurred. At the end of February, people from abroad started coming to Kerala. The surveillance team at the state’s airport was solidly alert and they were examining all the returnees.
During the March-April lockdown, fortune smiled on Kerala’s efforts. This proves that Modi should have taken a leaf out of the state’s book.
But instead he took a lot of vacuous decisions. The lockdown was lifted, air travel was restarted and surface travel was also restarted. People from other parts of the country and the world as well started pouring in and the phenomenon contributed to the rise in cases.
Besides, Modi chose to opt for some PR activities by addressing the nation and asking us to clap for frontline workers or to light candles to dispel the darkness caused by the pandemic. He also claimed to have done this for the sake of morale boosting. But he would’ve done a far better job if he scaled up testing facilities at the most opportune moment. We had also Whatsapp forwards which propagated the superstition that lighting the candles at a particular hour could help kill the virus. Are we actually living in the 21st century? Quo Vadis; Modern India?
(The writer can be contacted at [email protected])