Preparations to meet the Covid-19 challenge were tardy throughout February and the first half of March
India reported its first case of coronavirus, or Covid-19, on January 30. What preventive measures were taken to ensure that the disease did not spread and rear its virulent head in the country in the 40-odd days between then and March 12, when a 76-year-old male returnee from Saudi Arabia became the first victim of the virus in the country? There are just two words for this: precious little.
On January 17, Dr Harsh Vardhan, the Union minister for health and family welfare, reviewed the government's preparedness for the first time. An official release made three primary points. One, “public health preparedness is being reviewed on a day-to-day basis and the core capacities to timely detect and manage importation of the nCoV”. Two, screening of international travellers from China was started at the airports in New Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata. A separate travel advisory was issued regarding “do’s and don’ts” for those travelling to and from China. It was restricted to responses in the event of feeling unwell. By this time, 41 cases had been reported in China, one person had died, and no treatment was in sight. But the first response of the Indian government did not display any urgency. This continued throughout and despite flagging shortcomings, these were not met.
By January 28, the Cabinet Secretariat (an extension of the Prime Minister’s office) began reviewing the situation along with the health ministry. By then, the following measures had been added to what was previously decided: First, the screening of passengers was extended to more airports, bringing the total to 20. Second, plans were made to “gear up” other laboratories, besides the only one in the National Institute of Virology in Pune (this, however, did not happen till very late). Third, plans began to be drawn up to evacuate stranded Indians in Wuhan and quarantine facilities were being set up. Despite the rising threat, the primary focus of political leaders, especially the government, was on the Union Budget, that was presented on February 1. As far as the threat from the coronavirus was concerned, the Indian government was celebrating the “heroic” return of two Air India planes carrying 647 Indian students and seven Maldivians from Wuhan. Nearly 70 Air India staff were handed over letters of appreciation duly signed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi a fortnight later and the civil aviation minister lauded the personnel for “intensive commitment”. To cut a long story short, some urgency became visible in the government’s responses and actions only after March 11, the day the World Health Organisation declared the outbreak as a “pandemic”.
An example of this is a two-day literature festival that was to be held in Mumbai on March 14-15, which was cancelled at the last minute on March 12. It was to be addressed by a galaxy of political leaders, from both the ruling side as well as the Opposition, besides several eminent writers as well as retired officials. The government, certainly in the know of the event, advised the organisers to call off the festival only late on March 11. Till then, there was no effort to enforce “social distancing” or to discourage large public events and gatherings.
While preparations to meet the Covid-19 challenge were tardy throughout February and the first half of March, energy and attention was expended on three issues -- the visit of US President Donald Trump, the communal riots in Delhi and the ongoing anti-CAA agitations across India which had riveted the nation. The last instalment of the political melodrama was yet to come, and when it began shortly before Holi as the rebellion against the Kamal Nath government in Madhya Pradesh snowballed, it was clear that the Centre was giving priority to political interests over what was necessary. By early March, there was a realisation in the top echelons of the government that the script was going awry. Evidence of this was the entire political leadership, Prime Minister Modi downwards, announcing that they would not celebrate Holi to prevent mingling with others. Citizens responded with a subdued festival, but this did not cover the policy deficit or what was not done at the action level.
Eventually, when the Prime Minister decided to steer the nation towards a complete lockdown, it was clear that the government had stirred itself without assessing the overall impact of a complete lockdown on the economy and on people’s lives. The “janata curfew” on March 22 was called dramatically and consequently the focus shifted to the “event” -- of clapping hands, ringing bells and banging thaalis. The videos which emerged were horrifying and demonstrated what a half-baked call can do to the basic objective -- social distancing and disease prevention. For much of his first address, the Prime Minister reminded citizens of their duties without specifying the plans the government had drawn up to minimise people’s hardship. The speech, as well as the next one on March 24, when he announced a complete nationwide lockdown from midnight that day, was more about political messaging and less about impressing upon people what was expected for them in return for what the government was doing.
The “reverse migration” that set in even before Prime Minister Modi’s total lockdown address indicated that the government had betrayed the people’ s trust. People walking back to their villages in lakhs for the past few days is a stark reflection of the failure of understanding the immediate impact of the closure of all commercial activity on the lives of people. The Prime Minister also seems to have forgotten that the line between raising fear and creating panic is very thin. The announcement of the lockdown was made near the end of the month, close to payday. With factories, shops and other business establishments shut, wages could not have been paid in time. Consequently, the migrants decided to return home.
The primary reason for India staring at a possible lockdown extension unless providentially the spike in the reported cases flattens dramatically, is that the government was late by several weeks in assessing the grimness of the situation. Even when it began to take steps to tackle the crisis, it failed to put together a blueprint. This is the second time after demonetisation when careful thought was not given before taking a huge plunge. The nation will pay a price, but one can only hope that it will not be a very big one.