[ A massive crowd of out-of-state daily wagers and contract workers in the National Capital Region waiting in Ghaziabad for buses to take them to their homes in UP, Bihar, Jarkhand, etc.]
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has set up a secret task force of experts that media has so far not gotten wind of to advise him on the ways and means of dealing with the corona virus and of riding out the looming country-wide health crisis. In its last meeting the task force is understood to have conveyed the unvarnished truth to Modi, about the oncoming calamitous spread of the virus, courtesy the herd or community contagion that has now taken hold. Current trend-tracking suggests a doubling of corona infectees every three days.
The task force’s bleak assessment is because of two reasons. Firstly, because the central and state governments made no preparations whatsoever to enforce the 3-week lock down before Modi announced it Tuesday, March 26. With no social safety net — no free food public kitchens, and no provision for weekly subsistence payments in the Modi regime’s $23 billion economic package disclosed by Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman last week, millions of daily wagers and contract workers making up the bulk of the country’s labour force in the large metropolitan areas, such as Delhi, decided to hightail it back to their hometowns and villages mostly in BIMARU (Bihar, Madhya Pradedsh, Rajasthan, UP) states. They took to the road because the government had done nothing to induce them to stay back in the cities or to forcefully prevent them from doing so.
Obviously, not anticipating this inevitable reverse migration, no countermeasures were at hand to prevent such mass movement. This has pretty much defeated the purpose of the national lock down. Because the C-virus will now be carried by the virus infected and asymptomatic masses of people from the cities to the countryside, which had so far escaped the contagion. Desperate actions were indeed taken by certain state governments suddenly waking up to the dangers, such as the UP government officials hosing down the migrants on the highways (as if they were so much cattle). This was akin to shutting the stable door after the horses had bolted, and will do little to stem the geometric rate of spread of the virus.
In the emerging conditions, it is inevitable that the Prime Minister will be compelled to extend the lock down in the country by several more weeks, even months. The economic impact of this is hard to imagine. May be Modi should begin replacing his rhetoric about defeating the virus in a short (3-week) war by soberly advising his fellow countrymen to gird themselves for the really long fight ahead.
The other possible reason for the task force’s dim view of the virus spreading is because of the obvious infrastructure deficiencies in the health sector that cannot quickly be made up especially as regards available hospital beds and, importantly, ventilators. Just how big these deficits are may be gleaned from the statistics in a short but telling Brookings India report — ‘COVID-19: Is India’s health infrastructure equipped to handle an epidemic?’, dated March 24 by Prachi Singh, Shamika Ravi and Sikim Chakraborty. (https://www.brookings.edu/blog/up-front/2020/03/24/is-indias-health-infrastructure-equipped-to-handle-an-epidemic/)
It shows the extent of the country’s unpreparedness in dealing with the C-virus. For instance, per National Health Profile–2019 that the report quotes, there are some 7,13,986 total government hospital beds in the country presently, amounting to 0.55 beds per 1000 population. Beds available for the vulnerable elderly population (aged 60 years plus) is 5.18 beds per 1000 population.
Many states, the report says, feature fewer beds per 1000 population than the national average. Among them are Bihar, Jharkhand, Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Haryana, Maharashtra, Odisha, Assam and Manipur — 12 states accounting for 70% of India’s total population in India with Bihar being the worst in this respect with only 0.11 beds available per 1000 population. Some states are better — West Bengal (2.25 government beds per 1000), Sikkim (2.34 government beds per 1000), Delhi (1.05 beds per 1000 population), Kerala (1.05 beds per 1000) and Tamil Nadu (1.1 beds per 1000). Peninsular states also do better with regard to bed availability for the elderly population — Kerala (7.4), Tamil Nadu (7.8), Karnataka (8.6), even as the BIMARU states, as usual, are the laggards.
How do India’s numbers re: hospital beds, for instance, compare with those in other countries? Predictably, not at all well. Using data from Stat News (at (https://www.statnews.com/2020/03/10/simple-math-alarming-answers-covid-19/) India’s 0.55 beds per 1000 people compares with 2.8 beds per 1000 people in the US, 4.3 beds in China, and a very satisfactory 12 beds per 1000 in South Korea and Japan, the reason why the last two countries have all but stamped out the virus.
Regarding ventilators, with 5%-10% of total patients estimated to require critical care with ventilator support, some 110,000-220,000 ventilators will be needed if the worst case is realized of 2.2 million Corona patients. Of the total 7,13,986 government beds, some 5%-8% or 35,699-57,119 are ICU beds. The report assumes that if 50% of these ICU beds have ventilators, the actual number of ventilators in the country may be between 17,850 to 25,556 ventilators. If all ICU beds are assumed to be equipped with ventilators that makes for a maximum of some 57,000 ventilators.
It is a pity there’s no law in India like the Defence Production Act in the US empowering the President of the day to order industrial companies to drop whatever they are doing and diverting their production processes and lines to rolling out the specialized equipments, such as ventilators, required in crises. Thus, President Trump has instructed General Electric to begin mass producing them. Without any such prompt from the Indian government, many large Indian firms, such as Mahindra, have taken the initiative to join forces with smaller health equipment manufacturers, to gear up its factories to output 10,000 ventilator units per week. Other companies too should now be encouraged by the Modi government to follow suit with promise to buy all units so manufactured, because the demand for them is likely soon to spike and continue to remain at a high level. Unless the Indian industry in the private sector takes the lead, the C-virus will fell more Indians than any war or natural and manmade disaster the country has to-date faced, perhaps on the scale of 2 to 3 million dead in the Great Bengal Famine so heartlessly engineered by the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in 1943.
To expect the public sector units, directly under Modi, in this situation to show the get-go drive to manufacture such equipments on a mass scale and on a war footing may be to expect the impossible. Is that why Modi has so far desisted from calling on the PSUs do do their bit?