30 Apr 2020: The Hindu Editorial Analysis
1) Strategic shift: On home isolation of mild coronavirus cases-
On March 28, only 130 districts of India’s 736 had reported COVID-19 cases. The Health Ministry’s strategy then, after the national lockdown, was to ensure State supervision of those who manifested(shown) symptoms — as well as their high-risk contacts — and who had a travel history.
Suspected high-risk contacts or those likely to have been exposed to the infection were subjected to varying degrees of State quarantine(a state, period, or place of isolation in which people or animals that have arrived from elsewhere or been exposed to infectious or contagious disease are placed).
Those not showing signs of the disease or ‘mild’ manifestations, were put in care centres and those noticeably sicker, in hospitals. The idea always was that if the sick and their contacts were segregated(seperated) from the community long enough, the transmission chain would be broken and the disease extinguished(disappear).
As April ends, the number of affected districts stands at 401 and confirmed cases have risen by a 1,000 a day; the daily death count hovers(surrounds) between 50 and 60. In a containment strategy tweak(change), those with a mild form of the disease, or are presymptomatic(before showing symptoms), would have the option of home quarantining. But their homes ought to have self-isolation facilities, a full-time caregiver, and daily health-status reports given to the district surveillance(examining) officer.
The Health Ministry has not explained what prompted(forced) this relative relaxation. However, anecdotal(not necessarily true or reliable) evidence suggests doctors and health-care workers have been disproportionately vulnerable to the infection and a single case leads to entire hospitals being shut down.
Unlike in the U.S. and western Europe, India’s hospitals are not yet clogged(jammed) with seriously ill patients. It could be due to India’s relatively low case-count and also people not turning up fearing infection.
Allowing home quarantine could be seen as health authorities inferring(referring) that quarantining in public facilities posed more risks. India is now forced to reserve its health-care facilities for those who need it the most.
FORTIFY HEALTH WORKERS AND HOSPITALS:
The presymptomatics (mild illness) and asymptomatics (no signs) did not benefit from treatment and were potent(powerful) virus spreaders, and therefore endangered(risked) the staff and health workers. They also stretched State resources in maintenance.
The Ministry also found that among those who tested positive, there were two presymptomatics or asymptomatics for every symptomatic. The disease spread, it appears, is now beyond the ability(control) of the state to contain, by quarantine, and it was far more prudent(careful) to fortify(strengthen) health workers and hospitals with the best facilities available to handle patients.
Officially, there is no community transmission in India but at this magnitude of cases, it does not practically matter. Gujarat, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Delhi are powering the spread of cases and only consistent declines here can broach(raise) discussion on the end of the pandemic.
From a month ago, India, on paper, is equipped with better supply channels of personal protective equipment, infusion pumps (for oxygen), hospital beds, laboratories for testing and PCR kits. If the lockdown is lifted on May 3, the rationale behind the government’s containment strategy will be put to a stringent(strict) test.
2) Afghan peace and India’s elbow room-
Earlier this month, the United Nations Secretariat held a meeting of what it calls the “6+2+1” group on regional efforts to support peace in Afghanistan, a group that includes six neighbouring countries: China, Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan; global players the United States and Russia, and Afghanistan itself.
India was conspicuous(clear) by its absence from the meeting on April 16, given its historical and strategic ties with Afghanistan, but not for the first time.
LEFT OUT, BUT SOME RECOVERY:
In December 2001, for example, the Indian team led by special envoy Satinder Lambah arrived in Germany’s Petersberg hotel near Bonn, where the famous Bonn agreement was negotiated, to find no reservations had been made for them at the official venue. In January 2010, India was invited to attend the “London Conference” on Afghanistan, but left out of the room during a crucial meeting that decided on opening talks with the Taliban.
In 2020, the reason given for keeping India out of regional discussions on Afghanistan was ostensibly(clear) that it holds no “boundary” with Afghanistan; but in fact it is because New Delhi has never announced its support for the U.S.-Taliban peace process.
In both 2001 and 2010, however, India fought back its exclusion successfully. At the Bonn agreement, Ambassador Lambah was widely credited for ensuring that Northern Alliance leaders came to a consensus to accept Hamid Karzai as the Chairman of the interim arrangement that replaced the Taliban regime. After the 2010 conference, New Delhi redoubled its efforts with Kabul, and in 2011, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Afghanistan President Karzai signed the historic Strategic Partnership Agreement, which was Afghanistan’s first such agreement with any country.
The Afghan Northern Alliance, officially known as the United Islamic Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan, was a united military front that came to formation in late 1996 after the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan took over Kabul. The Northern Alliance fought a defensive war against the Taliban government. They received support from Iran, Russia, Turkey, India, Tajikistan and others, while the Taliban were backed by Pakistan. By 2001 the Northern Alliance controlled less than 10% of the country, cornered in the north-east and based in Badakhshan province. The US invaded Afghanistan, providing support to Northern Alliance troops on the ground in a two-month war against the Taliban, which they won in December 2001. With the Taliban forced from control of the country, the Northern Alliance was dissolved as members and parties joined the new establishment of the Karzai administration.)
NEW DELHI’S STAND:
As planners in South Block now consider their next steps in Afghanistan, they must fight back against the idea that any lasting solution in Afghanistan can be discussed without India in the room, while also studying the reasons for such exclusions.
To begin with, India’s resistance to publicly talking to the Taliban has made it an awkward interlocutor(a person who takes part in a dialogue or conversation) at any table. Its position that only an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned, and Afghan-controlled process can be allowed is a principled one, but has no takers.
U.S.-TALIBAN PEACE DEAL:
Kabul, or the Ashraf Ghani government does not lead, own or control the reconciliation(restoration of friendly relations) process today, comprising the U.S.-Taliban negotiation for an American troops withdrawal, and intra-Afghan talks on power sharing.
The U.S.-Taliban peace deal means that the Taliban, which has not let up on violent attacks on the Afghan Army, will become more potent(effective) as the U.S. withdraws soldiers from the country, and will hold more sway(control) in the inter-Afghan process as well, as the U.S. withdraws funding for the government in Kabul.
New Delhi’s decision to put all its eggs in the Ghani basket has had a two-fold effect: its voice in the reconciliation process has been limited, and it has weakened India’s position with other leaders of the deeply divided democratic setup in Kabul such as the former chief executive Abdullah Abdullah.
Meanwhile, India’s presence inside Afghanistan, which has been painstakingly built up since 2001, is being threatened anew by terror groups such as the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP), believed to be backed by Pakistan’s establishment.
Intercepts(act of gaining information) showed that the brutal attack, in March, that killed 25 at a gurudwara in Kabul was meant for the embassy in Kabul, and intelligence agencies had warned of suicide car bomb threats to the consulates in Jalalabad and Herat last December.
While the government has said that the novel coronavirus pandemic prompted its decision to clear out both consulates this month, the truth is that a full security reassessment is under way for them. Either way, India’s diplomatic strength in Afghanistan should not appear to be in retreat(backward) just when it is needed the most.
WHAT DENTS INDIA’S GOODWILL:
The government must also consider the damage done to the vast reservoir of goodwill India enjoys in Afghanistan because of recent events in the country, especially the controversy over the Citizenship (Amendment) Act.
The building blocks of that goodwill are India’s assistance in infrastructure projects, health care, education, trade and food security, and also in the liberal access to Afghans to study, train and work in India.
Above all, it is India’s example as a pluralistic, inclusive democracy that inspires many. Afghanistan’s majority-Muslim citizens, many of whom have treated India as a second home, have felt cut out of the move to offer fast track citizenship to only Afghan minorities, as much as they have by reports of anti-Muslim rhetoric and incidents of violence in India.
AID AND ASSISTANCE SHOULD BE BROAD-BASED:
While many of these are problems of perception, New Delhi must move swiftly to regain the upper hand in the narrative in Afghanistan. India’s assistance of more than $3 billion in projects, trade of about $1 billion, a $20 billion projected development expenditure of an alternate route through Chabahar, as well as its support to the Afghan National Army, bureaucrats, doctors and other professionals for training in India should assure it a leading position in Afghanistan’s regional formulation.
Three major projects: the Afghan Parliament, the Zaranj-Delaram Highway, and the Afghanistan-India Friendship Dam (Salma dam), along with hundreds of small development projects (of schools, hospitals and water projects) have cemented(strengthened) that position in Afghan hearts nationwide, regardless of Pakistan’s attempts to undermine that position, particularly in the South.
As a result, it would be a mistake, at this point, to tie all India’s support in only to Kabul or the Ghani government; the government must strive to endure(work) that its aid and assistance is broad-based, particularly during the novel coronavirus pandemic to centres outside the capital, even if some lie in areas held by the Taliban.
MAKING A LEAP:
India must also pursue opportunities to fulfil its role in the peace efforts in Afghanistan, starting with efforts to bridge the Ghani-Abdullah divide, and bringing together other major leaders with whom India has built ties for decades. It would be an utter tragedy(misfortune) if the Taliban were to enter the government in Kabul as the U.S. deal envisages, to find the opposing front collapse as it did in 1996.
The conversation India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar had with the U.S.’s Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad last week, where they discussed India’s “engagement” in the peace process, appears to open a window in that direction.
An understanding between Iran and the U.S. on Afghanistan is necessary for lasting peace as well, and India could play a mediatory part, as it did in order for the Chabahar project.
Finally, New Delhi should use the United Nations’s call for a pause in conflicts during the novel coronavirus pandemic, to ensure a hold on hostilities with Pakistan. This will be even more difficult than it sounds, given the abyss(depth) that bilateral relations have fallen into in the past year over Kashmir and the rise in firepower exchanged at the Line of Control.
However, if there is one lesson that the the U.S.-Taliban talks have imparted, it is that both have found it necessary to come to the table for talks on Afghanistan’s future. For India, given its abiding(following) interest in Afghanistan’s success and traditional warmth for its people, making that leap should be a bit easier.
Above all, the government must consider the appointment of a special envoy, as it has been done in the past, to deal with its efforts in Afghanistan, which need both diplomatic agility(swiftness) and a firmness of purpose at a watershed moment in that country’s history. Though sidelined from regional discussions on Afghanistan, India must still pursue(follow) the ample chances in seeking peace.
3) A greater impact on women-
Early signs are that SARS-CoV-2 poses a greater direct health risk to men, and particularly older men. But the pandemic is exposing and exploiting inequalities of all kinds, including gender inequality. In the long term, its impact on women’s health, rights and freedoms could harm us all.
Women are already suffering the deadly impact of lockdowns and quarantines. These restrictions are essential, but they increase the risk of violence towards women trapped with abusive(cruel, offensive) partners.
EXPANDING DOMESTIC VIOLENCE SHELTERS:
Recent weeks have seen an alarming global surge(increase) in domestic violence; the largest support organisation in the U.K. reported a 700% increase in calls. At the same time, support services for women at risk face cuts and closures(termination).
This was the background to my recent appeal for peace in homes around the world. Since then, more than 143 governments have committed to supporting women and girls at risk of violence during the pandemic. Every country can take action by moving services online, expanding domestic violence shelters and designating them as essential, and increasing support to front line organisations.
The United Nations’ partnership with the European Union, the Spotlight Initiative, is working with governments in more than 25 countries on these and similar measures, and stands ready to expand its support.
But the threat to women’s rights and freedoms posed by COVID-19 goes far beyond physical violence. The deep economic downturn accompanying the pandemic is likely to have a distinctly female face.
UNFAIR, UNEQUAL TREATMENT:
The unfair and unequal treatment of working women is one reason why I went into politics. In the late 1960s, as a student volunteer doing social work in poor areas of Lisbon, I saw women in very difficult situations, doing menial(unskilled) jobs and carrying the weight of their extended families.
I knew this had to change – and I have seen important change in my lifetime. But decades later, COVID-19 threatens to bring back these conditions and worse, for many women around the world. Women are disproportionately represented in poorly paid jobs without benefits, as domestic workers, casual labourers, street vendors, and in small-scale services like hairdressing.
The International Labour Organization estimates that nearly 200 million jobs will be lost in the next three months alone – many of them in exactly these sectors. And just as they are losing their paid employment, many women face a huge increase in care work due to school closures, overwhelmed health systems, and the increased needs of older people. And let’s not forget the girls who have had their education cut short.
In some villages in Sierra Leone, school enrolment rates for teenage girls fell from 50% to 34% after the Ebola epidemic, with lifelong implications for their well-being and that of their communities and societies.
BASIC SOCIAL PROTECTIONS:
Many men, too, are facing job losses and conflicting demands. But even at the best of times, women do three times as much domestic work as men. That means they are more likely to be called on to look after children if businesses open while schools remain closed, delaying their return to the paid labour force.
Entrenched(firmly established and difficult or unlikely to change) inequality also means that while women make up 70% of healthcare workers, they are vastly outnumbered by men in healthcare management, and comprise just one in every 10 political leaders worldwide – which harms us all. We need women at the table when decisions are taken on this pandemic, to prevent worst-case scenarios like a second spike(increase) in infections, labour shortages, and even social unrest.
Women in insecure jobs urgently need basic social protections, from health insurance to paid sick leave, childcare, income protection and unemployment benefits. Looking ahead, measures to stimulate(push) the economy, like cash transfers, credits, loans and bailouts, must be targeted at women – whether they are working full-time in the formal economy, as part-time or seasonal workers in the informal economy, or as entrepreneurs and business owners.
INCLUSIVE ECONOMIC MODELS:
The COVID-19 pandemic has made it clearer than ever that women’s unpaid domestic labour is subsidising(lessening) both public services and private profits. This work must be included in economic metrics and decision-making. We will all gain from working arrangements that recognise people’s caring responsibilities, and from inclusive economic models that value work at home.
This pandemic is not only challenging global health systems, but our commitment to equality and human dignity. With women’s interests and rights front and centre, we can get through this pandemic faster, and build more equal and resilient communities and societies that benefit everyone.
(António Guterres is the Secretary-General of the United Nations)