1) Short end of the stick: on assistance to migrant workers
It has been nearly a week since the Centre’s lockdown measures to slow down the spread of SARS-CoV-2 came into force.
But what was done as a means to address a public health challenge has now transformed itself into a humanitarian crisis for many among the poorer segments of India’s urban population.
The most affected section has been the inter-State migrant worker community, thousands of whom have been leaving cities such as Delhi, even on foot, for their towns in Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar and elsewhere.
Their plight was not unexpected. With a lockdown, migrant workers dependent upon casual and daily wage labour, unorganised retail and other such jobs, were severely affected.
They sought the comfort of the social net in their towns over the uncertainty of employment, and therefore of money and resources to fend for themselves over the 21 days.
Physical distancing in a country where most people are involved in unorganised labour, and who are dependent upon fragile livelihoods defined in daily and even hourly wage earnings, was always going to be problematic.
That the Central government announced the lockdown on March 24, with just a four-hour notice, made it even harder for these people to figure out ways to weather the challenge.
Their exodus, by foot along highways finally compelled some authorities to start bus services, but these were abruptly halted.
The Home Ministry issued notices to States to open highway relief camps while observing physical distancing norms.
Later on Sunday, the Ministry directed State and Union Territory governments to enforce the lockdown strictly and prevent migrants from leaving cities; instead, there are to be temporary shelters with essentials for the stranded poor.
These belated steps can only work if implemented in a humane manner. Herding the families of the migrant workers into ill-equipped quarantine camps will only incentivise others to leave for their native States.
Governments must use schools and college hostels for the migrants to stay and also utilise the Public Distribution System to provide food.
All said, the suffering of the migrant worker is an indictment of the unpreparedness of governments to deal with the COVID-19 crisis.
The first infected Indian in the country was detected in late January. The severity of the disease as it spread outside China and affected countries such as Italy was evident a little later, but there was enough time for the government to be prepared for the impending spread in India.
Better coordination with the States and a more transparent approach would have helped people prepare for the lockdown.
As infections have slowly begun to rise, there is little time to be lost in addressing both the public health problem and the lockdown’s economic impact.
Much could have been done better, but the focus now must be on what can be done.
Migrant workers, who simply cannot fend for themselves, need urgent state assistance.
2) Unusually inept: On US surpassing China in coronavirus cases
The U.S. has surpassed mainland China as the country with the most number of novel coronavirus cases. On March 27, it recorded 85,486 infections; On March 30, it had nearly 75% (1,43,527) more cases than China (82,198).
Even as Italy and Spain have reported large numbers, the daily increase in new cases has slowed down in Europe even while accelerating in America, thus shifting the pandemic epicentre to the U.S.
However, unlike in China and a few other countries, America is yet to institute large-scale mitigation measures such as shutting down the three major hotspots —New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.
On Saturday, U.S. President Trump backtracked on the possibility of imposing travel quarantine in these hotspots after a pushback from the New York Governor. New York has the most number of cases in the country — over 53,000, as on March 29.
According to the CDC, residents in these hotspots are now “urged” to refrain from non-essential travel for the next 14 days.
It is true that Singapore, Hong Kong and South Korea managed to contain the spread without having to undertake stringent measures such as those seen in China, Italy, and even India.
That is because these countries acted early, enforcing strong containment measures together with large-scale testing; this is not the case with America.
Though South Korea and the U.S. reported their first case on January 20, it was only by end-February that the U.S. had a reliable test kit, unlike South Korea, which had the tests by February first week.
While South Korea was testing thousands each day after the wave of cases came up in a hospital and among members of a religious sect, the U.S. began large-scale testing only in early March.
AMERICA REMAIN OBLIVIOUS:
America thus remained largely oblivious to the looming threat. There were just about 100 tests done each day till end-February.
If the tests developed by the CDC were faulty, the testing criteria remained narrow and there was little surveillance for community spread.
The FDA’s public health emergency, on January 31, did not make things easy for labs wanting to develop tests.
Independent labs and hospitals could start testing using tests developed by private players only by February 27.
As on March 28, hardly 1,22,000 tests had been done in the U.S. Instead of decisive actions, Mr. Trump made the situation worse with his dismissive attitude, this despite knowing that the virus was crippling China’s health-care system and had killed a few thousands.
If agencies such as CDC, which are known to act swiftly especially in the face of a pandemic, were found wanting this time, the government’s priorities too were misplaced.
The deadly combination is now playing out. But knowing how the U.S. can act, there is still hope of virus control. Tough steps need to be in place soon.
The U.S. can still pull itself out of the virus crisis, but not without tougher steps.
3) The deep void in global leadership
The coronavirus’s flight across the world at lightning speed, has exposed the total void in collective leadership at the global level.
Three months into the catastrophic war declared by an invisible, almost invincible virus, that is rapidly gobbling up human lives, regardless of citizenship and race, and contemptuously ravaging economies across continents, there is as yet no comprehensive, concerted plan of action, orchestrated by global leaders, to combat this terror.
The G20 has just had a virtual meeting, we understand, at the prodding of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
It is encouraging to learn that the G20 leaders have agreed to inject $5-trillion into the world economy to partially counter the devastating economic impact of the pandemic.
This is indeed good news. But taking collective ownership to fight a global war against the virus will require a lot more than writing cheques.
GOOD WAR, BAD ENEMY:
World leaders are obviously overwhelmed with their own national challenges and do not appear inclined to view the pandemic as a common enemy against mankind, which it is.
China delayed reporting the virus to the World Health Organisation (WHO), and perhaps, in the process, contributed to the exacerbation of the spread of the virus across the globe.
It was reported that the Trump administration did not even inform the European Union before it shut off flights from Europe.
It must be acknowledged that the initiative taken by Mr. Modi in the early days to convene a meeting of South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation countries stands out in contrast to the pusillanimous leadership around the world.
There is no evidence that, at the global level, the pandemic has abated yet and would be brought under control soon.
To imagine that nations would be able to tame the virus soon with massive shutdowns might be just wishful thinking.
National shutdowns and physical distancing have been a challenge not only in the United States and some European countries, it would be more so in populous countries such as India.
At any rate, such lockouts come at enormous economic and social costs.
As long as the virus is alive in some corner of the world, it would resume its travel across the world the moment international travel restrictions are relaxed.
Is it realistic to imagine that international travel will remain suspended until the last virus alive on this planet is extinguished?
Epidemiologists point out that unless herd immunity develops — which will take long and come at the cost of at least half the population being infected — the virus will remain alive and strike whenever there is a lowering of guard.
This millennium has already suffered three pandemics and COVID-19 will certainly not be the last.
This is a war. A good war against a bad enemy, and a common enemy, that respects no borders. If this global challenge is not a battle to be fought by a collective global leadership, nothing else is.
And yet, the typical response by all affected nations, has been to impose ‘National distancing’ by closing borders.
While this is no doubt, a most appropriate response, there is a much bigger and emergent need for leaders of nations to come together for collective global action.
SEEDS OF INDIFFERENCE:
Two developments in the global polity in the last few years have contributed to the indifference towards collective global action.
One, the swing towards right-wing nationalism, as a guiding political ideology, in large swathes of the world, particularly in the U.S.
This ideology posits ‘global good’ being in conflict with and inimical to national interests. The dramatic announcement by U.S. President Trump, in June 2017, that the U.S. will cease involvement from the Paris Accord on climate change, preparatory to full withdrawal after the mandatory period, on the ground that the accord will ‘undermine U.S. economic interest’ is a classic demonstration of narrow nationalism trumping global interests.
There is no issue more global than climate change, and yet the U.S. Administration chose to look at it from the prism of national, short-term economic interest.
Two, the atrophy of multilateral institutions. The United Nations was the outcome of the shared vision of the world leaders after World War II, that collective action is the only way forward to prevent the occurrence of another war.
That institution has notoriously failed to live up to its expectations to maintain peace among nations in the nearly 80 years since its formation.
Its affiliate organisations have, in several ways, failed to deliver on their lofty missions. In particular, WHO, which has as its objective ‘to be the directing and coordinating authority among member countries in health emergencies’, has proven to be too lethargic in reacting to pandemics in the past.
Its responses to COVID-19, has come under the scanner, not merely for incompetence, but also for lack of intellectual integrity.
G20 OFFERS HOPE:
If the world leaders realise the relevance and critical importance of collective global action in the context of the present pandemic, it is not difficult to contrive an appropriate mechanism quickly to get into war.
A nimble outfit, not burdened with bureaucracy, is required to manage a global crisis of the nature that we are confronted with, today. The G20, with co-option of other affected countries, itself might serve the purpose for the present.
What is important is for the global leaders to acknowledge what every foot soldier knows: winning a war would require the right strategy, rapid mobilisation of relevant resources and, most importantly, timely action.
In facing the present challenge, the following actions should come out of such a collective.
First, the collective should ensure that shortages of drugs, medical equipment and protective gear do not come in the way of any nation’s capacity to contain or fight the pandemic.
It is very likely that some nations that have succeeded in bringing the pandemic under control, such as China, Japan or South Korea, might have the capability to step up production at short notice to meet the increasing demand from other countries which are behind the curve.
This would typically involve urgent development of an information exchange on global production capacity, present and potential, demand and supply.
This is not to mean that there should be centralised management, which is not only infeasible, but counterproductive, as the attendant bureaucracy will impede quick action.
A common information exchange could restrain the richer countries from predatory contracting of global capacities.
Second, protocols might need to be put in place among participating countries to ensure seamless logistics for the supply chain for essential goods and services to function efficiently.
This might be particularly necessary in the context of controls on international traffic and national shutdowns. There would need to be concomitant accord to eliminate all kinds of tariff and non tariff barriers.
INFORMATION EXCHANGE IS VITAL:
Third, there needs to be instantaneous exchange of authenticated information on what clinical solutions have succeeded and what has not.
A classic example is the issue relating to hydroxychloroquine, which is being used experimentally, bypassing the rigours of randomised clinical trials.
While there is no substitute to classic clinical proof, the more field-level information is shared within the medical community, the better will be the success rates of such experimentation.
Fourth, this is a time to have cross-country collaboration on laboratory trials and clinical validation for vaccines and anti-viral drugs.
It must be acknowledged that WHO has already moved on this issue, although, perhaps, belatedly. The world can ill-afford delays, as the pandemic is predicted to stage a comeback once the shutdowns are gradually relaxed.
The best way to ensure speedy research is to pool global resources. Any effort at reinventing the wheel will only delay the outcomes.
This attempt to collaborate might also bring in its wake an acceptable commercial solution that adequately incentivises private research, while ensuring benefits being available to the entire world at affordable costs.
Such a framework might be necessary for sustained collaborations for future challenges.
Fifth, there is a need to facilitate easy movement of trained health professionals across the world to train others and augment resources wherever there are shortages.
In other words, nations should come together to organise a global army to fight the pandemic, equipped with the best weapons and tools.
Sixth, we must anticipate food shortages occurring sooner or later, in some part of the world, consequent to the national shutdowns.
Ironically, while we might have saved lives from the assault of the novel coronavirus, we might run the risk of losing lives to starvation and malnutrition, somewhere in the world if we do not take adequate precautions.
This requires not only coordinated global action; it would also turn out to be the test of global concern for mankind in general.
Eventually, there is no doubt that human talent will triumph over the microscopic virus. It may be some months before we declare our win.
But the economic devastation, that would have been caused as a result will be no less than the aftermath of a world war.
Economies of the world are inexorably intertwined.
An orderly reconstruction of the global economy, which is equitable and inclusive, will eventually involve renegotiating terms of trade among key trading blocs, concerted action among central bankers to stabilise currencies, and a responsible way to regulate and manage global commodity markets.
Does India have the power to awaken the conscience of the Superpowers and catalyse collective global action?
Remember, historically, it is always the weakling or the oppressed, who have caused transformational changes in the world order.
4) The hunt for a cure begins with telling the truth
Staring into the unblinking eyes of a global pandemic, many of us are re-discovering the importance of truth. Indians who travelled abroad in recent weeks hid their travel histories.
Some went to the extent of taking paracetamol to lower their body temperature, thereby bypassing tests at airports.
We were shocked that bureaucrats, even doctors, helped relatives evade quarantine. Now things are at a pass that journalists are being threatened for revealing the truth about how ill-equipped doctors and health workers are, or how ill-organised the state response is.
We fret about the dishonesty — of individuals and of governments — since our lives are at stake. Yet, what were we expecting? An overnight transformation of the nation’s soul?
A RECEDING OF TRUTH:
Truth is often mocked as an inconvenience, as the domain of fools or saints. ‘Mahatma’ Gandhi finds few takers. We use his tools, demonstrations, fasts, marches, but we shun his core principles.
Gandhiji called for ‘Satyagrah’, for resistance via truth, and for truth-telling itself becoming an article of faith.
After Gandhiji’s assassination, however, truth began to recede from public discourse. Eventually, it became entirely dispensable.
Matters have come to such a pass now that politicians can shrug off falsehoods uttered in public as ‘chunaavi jumla’, a tale told to win elections.
Thus, elections have been degraded to a tall tale telling contest.
Meanwhile, peace activists are labelled terrorists. Doctors are imprisoned for months, despite having devoted themselves to the care of some of the most vulnerable among us.
Businessmen form shell companies to take loans from banks. Forest and environmental clearances are a different kind of brazen lie.
When was the last time there was a massive public uproar about our leaders concealing truth, or flip-flopping on facts presented in court, or lying in Parliament?
Assuming falsehoods were based on faulty information, when was the last time our leaders apologised for misleading us?
INURED TO FALSEHOOD:
Far from seeing it as a ‘sin’, as a symptom of moral degradation with life-and-death consequences for us, we have grown inured to falsehood.
I have lost count of the number of times I have heard admiration in the voices of fellow citizens when they comment upon politicians’ penchant for endlessly, inventively, lying to the nation.
How then, in the middle of a terrifying pandemic, do we suddenly expect honesty?
The building of public character takes generations. It requires leaders who uphold the principle of honesty, who urge us to re-examine our intimate and perceived reality.
Here is one such nugget of reality: India spends only 1.28% of its GDP on health. Here is another: over 55 million Indians were pushed below the poverty line in 2011-12 because of out-of-pocket health expenses.
And another: in 2014-15, the government led by Prime Minister Modi slashed an already pitiful health budget by 20%.
And this: despite warnings from the World Health Organization, despite COVID-19 deaths being reported in China and Italy, India continued to export protective medical equipment.
There are many more truths to confront. Sanitation workers are not given any protective equipment but are not allowed to stay home.
They are expected to handle infected masks with their bare hands. Nor are they given soap and water on the spot. Do we really believe that the government intends to control the pandemic?
ON THE LOCKDOWN:
A lockdown is useless unless all citizens are guaranteed food and shelter and medical aid on call. A government that announces a lockdown without making arrangements for the poor, the elderly, the already ailing, is simply adding to the body count.
That is another truth. The spectre of a miserable, lonely death confronts us. But for us to resist such deaths, we must reject all the lies and obfuscations that lead up to it. There have been concerted attempts to deflect responsibility there.
Listening to certain media commentators, one would imagine that the current Prime Minister is a composite of Jawaharlal Nehru, Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi, rather than the incumbent Narendra Modi.
The crisis staring us in the face requires quick, empathetic, creative decision-making. Health workers are begging the government for adequate protective equipment.
LACK OF ORGANISATION:
Diverting existing factories and resources to this cause could have been an overnight decision two weeks ago. The Prime Minister’s relief fund had thousands of crores of rupees sitting in it.
Food, transport and sanitation for migrant workers could have been organised. It should have taken two minutes to issue an order. We still do not know if and when the order was issued.
The argument that governments can only do so much has collapsed. Truth is, we do expect the government to pull out all the stops when our own lives are threatened. It is also clear that highly subsidised universities are necessary.
We need doctors, scientists, social scientists, gender researchers, and journalists working in collaboration.
We all need health care, water, electricity, Internet access. We do not need detention centres. We certainly do not need to spend one paisa on refashioning the Parliament building.
Those of us who have access to diverse news outlets have watched the way Kerala, Cuba and South Korea responded to the pandemic.
The simple truth is, systems work best when they work for all. It is also clear that we can have such systems, but the first necessary step is to surrender caste, class and religious biases.
We must decide now whether we want to pull together into a universal safety net, or be devoured by the virus of falsehood.