Love (for gimmicks) in the times of Corona Virus

By Anuradha Bhasin Jamwal. Dated: 3/22/2020 2:59:10 AM


Thus spake the prime minister of the biggest democracy in the world on the Corona Virus pandemic:
l Give me your two weeks during which avoid going out
l Economic package will be worked out (no time-line given)
l Do not crowd hospitals
l Do not go for panic buying
l Observe civil curfew on Sunday and after a siren bang plates and clap hands for 5 minutes
This virtually means: Ask not what your prime minister can do for you. Ask what you can do for the prime minister.
A gullible section of the country went ecstatic after the announcement and hit the social media with the heightened pride of "showing to the world how united the country was in the times of this crisis" by observing a one day token curfew and creating the noise pollution of banging plates. This may not have sounded so frivolous if this announcement for display of unity was also accompanied by an announcement of a concrete plan to bring down the Corona Virus threat and for stabilising economy that will be impacted. For that, the Indians may have to wait - if that time comes at all.
Crisis is a time for leaders to come forward and talk about the concrete action they are taking to instill confidence in the public. As the nation hooked on to the televised address of the Indian prime minister on Thursday, there were expectations of the same. The public, by and large, was already willing to give him not only two weeks but more than that in the face of the global paranoia and dread of the disease sprouting into uncontrollable multiples. He thus started well, calling for unity, patience and endurance and convincing people that this had to be a collective effort of the government and the public, thus making everyone a stakeholder in this battle against an exponential pandemic. That was good. But then few minutes into his half an hour sermon he forgot to put on the plate what government had to offer.
Leaders all over the world, after all, were re-assuring public with economic bail-outs to address the economic fall-out of the Corona Virus as well as about strengthening mechanisms to beat the Corona Virus threat, gearing up medical infrastructure and effective maintenance of self-isolation. The United States announced $ 1.2 trillion economic stimulus package to reach out to those rendered jobless or income-less due to prolonged lockdown and self-quarantines. Canada announced 87 billion dollar package, France 45 billion, United Kingdom 39 billion, Italy 28 billion and South Korea 10 billion. In Canada, prime minister Justin Trudeau asked people to shut down their work temporarily or work from home, assuring that a whole range of measures will be taken to protect jobs and economy from new rules of employment insurance to financing for businesses, from paying wages to giving subsidies to small businesses. Taking cue from this, Kerala's chief minister Vijayan Pinarayi announced a Rs 20,000 crore package, health package of Rs 500 crores, two months welfare pension in advance, loan assistance, free food grains, subsidized meals and tax relief. West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee assured distribution of free rations to the BPL groups.
But the Indian prime minister stuffed the vacuum with empty promises instead of an action-plan. He said his government will form a panel to deal with economic challenges posed by the virus outbreak. "The Covid-19 economic response task force will be led by Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman," he said. No time-line was given on when the government would be able to assess the extent of economic distress and think of how government can step in to support people facing economic hardships. This callousness, if not heartlessness, in a country where lack of money in a situation of lockdown can mean days of starvation and hunger for millions. Strangely, while the priorities of the ruling party were shifted to breaking the Madhya Pradesh government and that of the government to continuation of the controversial census and National Population Register enumeration (door to door exercise of which is underway in many parts of the country, despite the risk it poses to the health and well-being of many citizens in the face of the pandemic's exponential threat), the prime minister spoke only about seeking public co-operation. Not a word on something that would instill public confidence.
Though he rightly asked the people to desist from panic buying, and assured that chemist and provision stores would be kept open, he didn't think it was important to tell them how the government was planning to meet the challenge of delivering essentials to those who are unable to visit markets in view of frail health, lack of money or other reasons. He also rightly spoke about the necessity to ensure that hospitals shouldn't be kept over-crowded but offered no blue-print of how people suffering from severe ailments, patients on cancer therapies or dialysis will be offered medical support from the government for making their experience in infection ridden hospitals easy and make them less vulnerable.
As for enhancing the medical exigencies in the battle against coronavirus, despite widespread concerns about the extremely and disproportionately low testing levels, which may have concealed the actual number of coronavirus affected population, the government has not spelt out whether there is a plan to enhance these. Meanwhile, the affected cases within the country have begun to blow up. Enhancing the testing facilities is crucial to know the levels the community level transmissions have gone, to isolate the affected people timely and to improve the quarantine facilities in terms of quality and quantity that comply with basic norms of hygiene and as well as to improve health-care facilities including more beds at hospitals, stocking of drugs and ventilators.
The prime focus of the prime minister's address on the Sunday 'Janta-curfew' and the 5-minute clapping event, instead, diluted the seriousness of the call for the lockdown which was mentioned in passing, other than the emphasis on extra-precautions for the people below 10 and above 65 years of age. And what was the need to unleash youth volunteers to add to the risk? The speech was packed with more fluff and lacked substance, unfortunately at a time when the country, without an action plan and a battle formation, is likely to slip into an uncontrollable danger zone. All because the leader of the country preferred political gimmickry to action.
Politics in the times of Coronavirus may not be unique to India. Several other world leaders have already betrayed their penchant for the same. For instance, US president Donald Trump's shameful anti-Chinese slurs and his efforts to poach for German scientists who are reported to be close to discovering an anti-coronavirus vaccine. Or, Chinese premier Xi Jinpeng who has accused the U.S of "unleashing this bio-chemical war". But while others have compensated for their glib-talk with economic and medical action, Indian actions are still too meagre to cope up with a crisis which may soon become gigantic.
China, where corona-virus started in December last, has been criticised world-wide for keeping the deadly virus under the wraps for quite some-time. That may be true. But while China was caught unaware and research on the contagion had not discovered its horrifying and over-reaching extent, India has had plenty of time to learn from the lessons world-wide. But it is foolishly choosing to look the other way. Stringent lockdown and enhanced testing protocols should have been in place in the first week of March when it became evident that the number of cases is likely to rise and suddenly blow-up if left unchecked. That opportunity was lost.
The prime minister lost another good opportunity. If we still continue to take the challenge casually, the country should well be prepared for doomsday.



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