7 July 2020: The Hindu Editorial Analysis
1) What about WHO? on failures of containment of COVID-19-
- In a bid to cover up his own failures in COVID-19 containment and limit the number of deaths in the country, U.S. President has been accusing China of “secrecy, deception and cover-up” in the outbreak and the WHO of being “China-centric”.
- Mr. Trump could not have known it, but there is now evidence that WHO had not been fully transparent during the early stages of the outbreak in Wuhan.
LACK OF TRANSPARENCY:
- If WHO gave an impression that on December 31 China had alerted it, the June 29 revised timeline of the world body clarifies the facts to a great degree.
- WHO’s country office in China had apparently been alerted by a media statement by the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission about cases of viral pneumonia.
- It got the same news from another independent source too.
- China confirmed to WHO of the cluster of cases of ‘viral pneumonia of unknown cause’ on January 3 only after the global body twice reached out to the Chinese authorities on January 1-2.
- Following the confirmation, WHO on January 4 tweeted to say, “China has reported to the WHO a cluster of pneumonia cases, with no deaths, in Wuhan, Hubei Province.…”
- Also, if the earlier timeline had mentioned that on December 31 a “novel coronavirus was eventually identified” as the cause of pneumonia cases, the revised information posted on the WHO website mentions that the cause of illness was not known till January 2.
- And China did not confirm novel coronavirus as the cause even on January 3 when it confirmed a cluster of pneumonia cases.
COMPLICIT WITH CHINA:
- At least on three occasions, including on January 30 when the health emergency of international concern was declared, WHO had publicly praised China for its commitment to transparency.
- WHO said China was “setting a new standard for outbreak response” and called the quick sharing of whole genome sequence data of the virus as “very impressive”
- But independent investigation revealed a different situation — China was not very forthcoming.
- The world knew of human-to-human transmission in China only on January 20, and the global body was often kept in the dark.
- Scientific evidence strongly suggests that the outbreak began at least by early November.
- Apparently, WHO had to keep praising China so that it shared information.
- Surely, powerful nations cannot be allowed to endanger lives around the world by shirking responsibility.
- China has evidently refused to learn lessons from the disastrous handling of the 2002 SARS outbreak.
- The current pandemic continues to infect millions, killing more than 5,30,000, and destroying livelihoods and the world economy.
- At least some of the impact could have been lessened by more proactive action on the part of China, and by less reverential(obeying) attitude on the part of WHO.
- WHO seems to be at the mercy of powerful nations while obtaining relevant information.
2) Rolling back the induced livelihood shock-
- As the “unlocking” begins, it is becoming increasingly apparent how the Indian state had chosen its sides and revealed its elitist bias(partiality) during one of the most stringently enforced lockdowns worldwide.
- Several news reports and surveys on the plight(poor state) of India’s less-privileged workforce during the lockdown have highlighted the massive scale of falling incomes and loss of means of livelihood.
- Many have been pushed into various depths of poverty depending on how vulnerable their occupations were.
- Most recent workforce survey data on India helps to estimate what the lockdown-induced livelihood shock might have meant economically for different categories of workers.
- We suggest some potential policy measures to prevent the shocks from further snowballing(increasing) into chronic poverty.
- India’s poverty line has been a matter of contention(worry) for long for its unrealistically low thresholds leading to conservative poverty numbers.
- Irregular updating of official poverty lines and unavailability of data on consumption expenditure from National Sample Surveys in recent years have added to the ambiguity(confusion) around poverty estimation in India.
- According to the household consumption expenditure reported in the Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS), about 42% or around 56 crore people were ‘officially’ poor before the lockdown was announced.
- Highlighting how closely packed people are towards the lower half of the consumption expenditure distribution, another 20 crore people were within a narrow band 20% above the poverty line.
- In most parts of the country, this amounts to a few hundred rupees over the poverty line threshold.
- A modest dip in earnings — and hence a fall in consumption spending — would push a majority of them into the vortex(zone) of poverty and hunger.
A POVERTY DEEPENING:
- Our estimates from the PLFS data extrapolated for the year 2020 suggest that about an additional 40 crore people were pushed below the poverty line due to the lockdown.
- Around 12 crore of this lockdown-induced newly poor are in urban areas and another 28 crore people in rural areas.
- Those who were already poor are going to suffer a further worsening in their quality of life, a phenomenon known as poverty deepening.
- Before the lockdown, around 16% of the population had per capita consumption expenditure of about a third of the poverty line, managing their daily expenses with ₹30 per day or less.
- After the lockdown this could swell to more than 62 crore (47%) people pushed to such extreme poverty.
- A shock of such a scale to an overwhelming majority of Indians is unprecedented(never happened before) in the nation’s living memory.
INADEQUATE STATE RESPONSES:
- At such a juncture, formal responses of the state have been mostly inadequate and poorly conceived.
- The second economic stimulus package announced by the Finance Minister exposes the class nature of the current political dispensation more than ever.
- A token increase of National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) wage by ₹20 (₹182 to ₹202) seems like a joke in the light of the overall magnitude of the crisis.
- Undoubtedly, a revamped, expanded NREGA needs to be made the fulcrum of the rural recharge.
- The demand for work is anticipated to increase by 25% with reverse migration-fuelled increase in rural labour supply.
- The revamped scheme would require providing 90 million workers guaranteed employment of 20 days of work/month for at least the next six months.
- This means an additional financial stimulus of ₹1.6-lakh crore.
UNIVERSALISATION OF THE PDS:
- Universalisation of the Public Distribution System has been widely talked about but needs better equity focus in implementation.
- Recent experience of expanding food coupons to non-ration card holders in Delhi suggests that such measures are likely to exclude marginalised communities including Dalits and Muslims at the lowest strata of the work hierarchy.
- At the local level, this would mean identification of the most vulnerable and including them into the programme before expanding it to the relatively better-off.
- The exclusion errors of IT-based attempts to coverage have huge social costs in the form of accentuated(emphacised) hunger.
STABILISING URBAN ECONOMY:
- Massive reverse migration flows out of the urban informal sector will force grinding halts and hiccups for the economy limping back towards normalcy in the post-lockdown scenarios.
- Given the magnitude of the destabilisation, an urban employment guarantee programme becomes a dire(urgent) necessity to stabilise the urban economy.
- A ‘direct’ employment programme implemented through municipal corporations could be introduced to guarantee 20 days of work.
- This can be used to develop key social infrastructure in urban areas including slum development, drinking water supply, toilet construction, parks and common areas, urban afforestation and social forestry.
- Such facelift public works programmes can make a major difference in both the condition of public utilities and absorbing the spurt in demand for work in district towns and smaller cities.
- The wages could be fixed with 30% premium over prevalent MNREGA benchmark average wage in the State.
- An ‘indirect’ branch of this programme can be used to encourage a revival of small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in the most prominent clusters.
- This could include employer-contractor facilitated programmes to provide wage subsidy of an equivalent amount as in the direct programme to employers of urban SMEs.
- The neo-liberal growth that we have experienced since the 1990s has been largely through breaking the back of the labouring class.
- The economy grew by paying less and less to workers and allowing surplus to accumulate in the hands of the owners of the means of production, with the expectation that this would be reinvested.
- The state worked systematically to let this model flourish.
If we do not alter(change) the course of economic progress and reorient development programmes, the implications could be severe with increasing hunger-related deaths and destitution, leading to social unrest and crime.
3) No more Sattankulams-
- The dust is slowly settling on the controversy surrounding the alleged torture of a father-son duo in police custody in Sattankulam, Thoothukudi district.
- The two men died in hospital. The case is being investigated by the Crime Branch-Criminal Investigation Department (CB-CID).
- The Tamil Nadu Chief Minister and the Director General of Police did not delay the decision to hand over the probe to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI).
- This means that the state has nothing to hide from the families of the deceased or the general public.
- The Madras High Court has shown remarkable sensitivity as it should in such horrific incidents.
- It was an innovative move by the court to ask revenue authorities to take control of the Sattankulam police station lest crucial evidence be destroyed or damaged.
- Of course, some may believe that the High Court’s action was unwarranted and will demoralise the police force.
- The revenue authorities have since withdrawn, and the investigation is wholly with the CB-CID.
POLICE BRUTALITY IS UNIVERSAL:
- Coming so soon after the George Floyd incident in the U.S., the Sattankulam episode should shock our conscience.
- Police brutality is universal and internal cover-ups are common.
- There is informal trade unionism and a code of silence among the police, as in other professions, that militates against objective inquiries into police conduct.
- There is evidence of this in Sattankulam.
- In a report, the Judicial Magistrate of Kovilpatti submitted to the court that the Sattankulam police did not cooperate during the inquiry.
- The CCTV footage at the police station has been erased.
- There is no assurance that evidence has not already been tampered(manipulated) with.
- There is obvious discomfort among some policemen over a CBI probe. This should not degenerate(spill into) into culpable obstruction of the investigation.
- This is a danger that can be averted(prevented) if the police leadership demonstrates its resolve to punish even the slightest act of sabotage intended to help a few criminals masquerading(hiding) as the police.
- The CBI will also not permit any police licentiousness. It is a welcome development that a few arrests have already been made in the case, including of the Inspector.
- If necessary, a few more may be effected to ferret(search) out the truth.
- If it’s ultimately proved that the two victims were in fact tortured to death, attention then shifts to unraveling the motive.
- Any vendetta(revenge) will have to be confirmed by the CBI when it takes over the investigation.
- If no motive is established, the case against the policemen will weaken.
- However, if there is clear evidence of the beatings of the victims, that evidence will speak for itself.
- Post-mortem reports reveal the injuries inflicted and the weapons used.
- Some unscrupulous policemen have the expertise to resort to bodily violence without leaving a trace of the methods/weapons used.
- Doctors conducting the post-mortem are often intimidated(fear) into giving false reports.
- The intensity of public furore(anger) in this incident is a guarantee against such unethical behaviour.
REDUCING INCIDENCE OF POLICE VIOLENCE:
- We will continue to witness random policemen misbehaviour.
- These are men who are inclined to indulge in brutality at the drop of a hat.
- The suggestion that every recruit should be subjected to a psychology test has little relevance as such a test may not always identify men with a disturbed mind.
- Many recruits become perpetrators after a few years in the field.
- Work pressure and unfair treatment by supervisors lead to gross misconduct and assaults on the unarmed and unprotected.
- Technology can help a little but its utility cannot be exaggerated.
- Body cameras, such as the ones used in the U.S. and the U.K., on beat policeman can ensure police restraint. India could experiment with such devices.
- The police culture of each country is different.
- A democratic government is no guarantee that the police will act in a civilised manner.
- India cannot afford any more Sattankulams.
- We may not be able put a complete end to police violence, but we can reduce its incidence.
- A lot will depend on the leadership, which has a sacred duty to foster(develop) a culture of obedience to the law.
- The media has its work cut out to identify and isolate a leader who himself preaches unethical conduct.