[Carona curfew-bound economic capital Mumbai’s deserted sealink at peak traffic time!]
Two days ago Prime Minister Narendra Modi said something that was manifestly foolish when teleconferencing with his Varanasi constituents. “The war in Mahabharat continued for 18 days, we have to win this war [against the carona virus] in 21 days”, he said. Then, perhaps, realizing he had stepped out on a limb, added more soberly that “The entire country has come together to fight against the threat of Coronavirus and we will definitely win this war.” (https://www.livemint.com/news/india/we-have-to-win-war-against-coronavirus-in-21-days-says-pm-modi-11585141633488.html)
In terms of “yeh karenge, woh karenge” sort of declamations that Indian politicians now and again spout, it wasn’t exceptional. Except it was pregnant with promise that a solution would, in fact, be found for the corona pandemic inside of three weeks. Is the target of 21 days anywhere near achievable considering that the finest doctors and researchers the world over believe that a genuine vaccine is some 10-18 months away. Given that the PM has great confidence in Indians who have attained professional success in America, may be he should heed the words of Dr. Ashish Jha, Director of the Harvard Global Health Institute. Jha told CNN (Prime Time, March 26) that “We can bend this curve but not by giving people false hope.”
If Modi had evoked the Kurukshetra battle — the centrepiece of the Hindu epic Mahabharata — solely to rouse the country and the masses into preparing meaningfully for an epic battle against a particularly difficult adversary — a virus!, which may have been his objective, then he would have been deserving of huge praise. The enormity of the challenge would have by this means been brilliantly communicated to, and immediately connected with, millions of people living in population-wise bulging metros and urban areas generally and in the vast countryside who are better versed in Hindu epics than informed about the efforts underway globally and in the country to find an antidote. It’d have been an inspired use of quasi-religious imagery on the same level of significance as Bangladesh’s successful use of the Koran and the Muslim clergy to propagate the idea of small families and lessen the rate of population growth.
Instead, Modi, in effect, presented himself to the people as a fully armed Arjun in his war chariot racing to fell the enemy and declare victory when, actually, he is grossly under-armed for the fray ahead. His arsenal features a disastrous Indian public sector in the health field with poorly run public hospitals that spread diseases more than they contain them, and an enterprising but un-utilized private sector, and nary any evidence anywhere that the government has mounted, or is thinking of mounting, a concerted multi-pronged public-private effort. Such effort simultaneously to increase testing for the c-virus on a massive basis, sequester those affected in numerous, widely located, quarantine camps, and on a warfooting deploying all the assets and resources of the state in a desperate race to find an antivirus solution, is nowhere in evidence.
In the event, the 21 days is at most an “aspirational” target, of a type like US President Donald Trump’s recent declaration that a carona virus antidote would become available by Easter (April 12). But three weeks of social distancing may not cut it, even though Modi — if taken at his word — expects the nation to return to normal, and industry and social and financial services sectors, back to business as usual. There will be shortages of ventilators in particular — an item in great demand in all affected countries. In that case, there will be a slugfest between countries to buy as many of these units as can be cornered from any source anywhere in the world. In a contest India may not be in a position to win with richer countries willing to pay much higher unit prices than India can afford. A National Task Force set up only today will be coming in fairly late in the game and, for a start, will be preoccupied with acquiring ventilators and other personal protection equipment. The 30,000-40,000 ventilators the Health Secretary says the government is indenting for will meet only a miniscule demand should the pandemic assume daunting proportions. Is there indigenous industrial capability that can urgently kick in to make up the deficit in ventilators? Doubtful, considering it will take 9-14 months for companies to get the manufacturing jigs, etc., and assuming a standard design (from wherever it is secured) can be readily accessed by these Indian firms.
Sure, GOI cannot close down India indefinitely. But being unrealistic about resolution timelines only pushes everything into the realm of quackery and fake anti-corona medicines peddled on the Net while leaving the deeper dilemmas of economic shutdown unaddressed. And all this even as cities are emptying of contract/daily wage labourers, who are streaming back to their distant villages, with those staying on along with their families being left without livelihood and wondering where their next meal is coming from. In this situation for the Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman to announce the capitalisation of a spate of welfare schemes and direct transfer programmes of money, etc. is very good. But such policy diversions assume that the bulk of the population is so covered, which clearly is not the case. So even as the government and industry struggle to come up with large-scale economic remedies for the “wretched of the earth” (Franz Fanon’s phrase for the abjectly poor) that deliver in the short term, problems of the here and now still demand immediate answers.
In the prevailing circumstances, the Army seems to be the only organized entity that can act as saviour, and in its “aid to the civil” role produce outcomes no other government agency remotely can. The Chief of the Army Staff General MM Naravane said as much in his interview published in today’s Indian Express (https://indianexpress.com/article/coronavirus/india-army-chief-general-mm-naravane-fighting-covid-19-6333188/). “The Indian Army”, he said, “has certain inherent capability to rise up to various emergency situations by virtue of organisational structure and training. And in keeping with that, the Indian Army is planning and preparing to fight COVID-19.” In contrast, moreover, to Modi’s characteristically religion-tinted riff on the pandemic, the COAS did some plainspeak. “Speaking in military language, I would say”, the General averred, “that at present COVID-19 is in the preparatory stage of impact in India and we are making concerted efforts to prevent COVID-19 from establishing a firm base.”
Further, anticipating that the Army will be called on to shoulder the anti-carona operations, he revealed his instructions to Command headquarters to (1) increase the capacity for surveillance/isolation of the carona-affected at military hospitals at various levels, (2) be “ready to set up a 45-bed isolation facility and create 10 bed ICU facility exclusively for COVID-19 at six hours’ notice”, (3) keep 30% of field hospitals “on standby for constructing COVID hospitals in COVID hotspots”, and (4) mobilize “Responsive and agile Quick Reaction Medical Teams (QRMTs)” at “six hours’ notice to meet the requirements of the hospitals/ civil administration.”
Such preparations to meet a probable an onrushing medical catastrophe is as it should be for a national army. Its shining record of effectively and efficiently tackling all manner of natural and man-made disasters (hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, major accidents) when juxtaposed against the usually floundering civilian apparatus of state should infuse the citizenry with confidence that army will get things done even in the worst-case when government gives up.
Hence, my suggestion: Why not task the army to run, in western parlance, “soup kitchens” for the poor and the hungry in cities and towns under curfew (predictably foolishly and mindlessly implemented by the lathi-happy local police)? Reaching prepared food to the poorest and the hungriest people particularly in urban areas is priority, and army will be found to be more than up to this task. Unit kitchens feed hundreds of troops at a time. Of course, the governments at every level will have to ensure a steady supply of grains and vegetables and cooking oil to the army cooks to make this feeding mission a success. Isn’t this a far better solution to keep the bellies full of the people that find themselves suddenly unemployed in cities and towns, or is Sitharaman’s allocation of 5 free additional kilos of grain and one additional kilo of pulses to each of those registered in various government schemes, better?
This is a jag from the carona topic, but a long term and sustainable solution to eliminate hunger in the nation is a necessity, especially as a buffer to those most vulnerable in pandemics like the one we find ourselves in. A proven, tested and operating model is provided by the enormously popular and successful “Amma’s canteens” in Tamil Nadu that the late chief minister, Jayalalitha, founded and is still remembered for. It offers good food for a pittance. The pittance here equals self-respect because even the poorest can proudly claim they paid for the food they consumed. What’s necessary is national scaling of this “kitchen” model.
But for the corona crisis at hand, army-run kitchens are best.
Sure, India will somehow manage, live through this pandemic in the manner it has always weathered crises. But one wishes for some show of efficiency by government agencies. This in no way absolves Modi of his inapt use of the Mahabharat metaphor for the country’s troubles with the c-virus because it ill prepares the people for the possibly humungous health crisis and tragedy ahead.
Meanwhile, how is China, our main foe, coping? Very well, apparently. Having let the C-virus as an out-of-control biological weapon or a genuinely natural mutation, who knows, first take hold in Wuhan in mid-2019, which Beijing deliberately misreported to the UN World Health Organization as simple flu, it used its well oiled system to coerce its 1.3 billion people into a quarantine, even as it sought a solution in its labs. This three-pronged approach worked. The virus has plateaued out at a very low level of virus activity, Chinese labs are in the forefront of patenting a vaccine, and it has enabled China to get back on its feet and off and running once again.
Ever attentive to its strategic interests, the Xi Jinping regime is now on the offensive, meaning to turn the C-virus to its advantage. At the UN Security Council, China vetoed an Estonian initiative to discuss the carona virus pandemic, because one of its talking points was the need for all members to strictly observe “transparency” which China did not do by misleading the world about the virus that was afoot. Next, at the virtual G-20 summit (March 26), rather than mouth banalities about the need for international cooperation, etc., Xi demanded that to get the global economy going once again that all countries lower tariffs which, incidentally, will, in the present situation, almost exclusively drive up Chinese exports and benefit Chinese industry.
Then there’s India. The one great opportunity Modi created to fetch strategic dividend misfired for the reasons apprehended in an earlier post — insufficient monies (just $10 million) deployed by Delhi to help out our neighbours, forcing them to look to China for financial succour. Also, the Indian government, not wanting to miss a chance to lower Pakistan a peg or two, fell promptly into the Kashmir hole thoughtfully dug for it by Islamabad at the video summit of SAARC countries called by Modi. Wouldn’t India’s larger interests have been better served if Delhi had simply ignored the predictable Pakistani demand to ease up conditions in J&K and offered the Imran Khan government medical help and cooperation to defeat the corona virus as part of a collective South Asian campaign?