Will India be able to sail through the COVID-19 crisis?

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Just like in any other part of the world, even in India the havoc wrought by the coronavirus pandemic is continuously hitting headlines. The usual socio-political and economic issues were all put on the back burner, and the governments – both union and state – are placing all the resources at their disposal to combat the disease. Though India’s position is far better compared to the US and Europe, the continuous increase in the positive cases is worrying everybody.

Early Lockdown: India is one of those countries which imposed lockdown early. The concern that India’s distressingly poor public health infrastructure may not be able to withstand a community spread, led the government to impose an early lockdown. To start with, Prime Minister Modi called for a one-day Janata Curfew, a self-imposed civil curfew, which received an overwhelming response from the people. Following the Janata Curfew, a complete lockdown was announced across India to combat the spread of the virus.

Novel Challenges: The emergence of novel coronavirus disease threw a novel challenge to both governments and people. Normally, in the event of a crisis – whether it is a terror attack, border clash or an economic crisis – the political leadership tries to boost the confidence of the people by asking them to go about their usual lives. But this time, the Prime Minister tried to induce fear among the minds of the people about the virulence of the disease to persuade them to stay indoors. Even the people were initially reluctant to accept the limits on civil liberties and kept moving around ignoring the lockdown and need for social distancing. The government agencies, media and civil society organizations did a great work in bringing about awareness among the people on the need for social distancing. People, after realizing the gravity of the situation, slowly started complying with the government directives.

Widespread Unanimity: In India, there is widespread unanimity about the imposition of the lockdown. An overwhelming majority feel that it is a timely, though painful, decision. After the imposition of the lockdown, the usually bustling Indian cities descended into eerie silence. Only those establishments that deal in essential commodities and services remained open.

Humanitarian Challenges: The Indian economy, which was on a downward spiral for some time and governmental efforts not bearing much fruit, the emergence of coronavirus came as a bolt from the blue. The virus outbreak further accentuated the problems of the migrant workers and triggered their mass exodus. Though the union and state governments instructed all the people to stay where they are and maintain social distance during the lockdown period, thousands of migrant laborers left the cities and started returning to their native villages. Many of them walked for hundreds of kilometers to reach their destination, which sparked national outrage. Considering the enormity of the situation some state governments plunged into action and provided food and transport to mitigate their suffering.

Slow Testing: As per the latest reports around 6500 people tested positive for coronavirus and 200 fatalities are reported. Many medical experts suspect that India’s coronavirus numbers are low due to slow testing and advocated rapid and wide-spread testing to aggressively combat its spread. However, the limited availability and the expensive nature of the testing kits are proving to be a roadblock on the path of rapid testing.

Temporary Socialism: Everyone is a socialist in a crisis. All the world over governments are announcing coronavirus relief packages and India is no exception. The Indian government announced a Rs.1.70 lakh crore relief package in the form of food grains and cash transfers for the poor and the vulnerable to mitigate the hardships caused by the lockdown. There are reports stating that another round of relief package to revive the flagging economy is in the offing. Even the state governments came up with their own relief measures.

Though there is a criticism that these measures are highly inadequate, there is no other go considering the fact that the tax compliance in India is very poor and the governments are facing an acute fund crunch. The very fact that the governments, which are usually obsessed with attracting foreign investments and extending corporate bailouts, focused their attention on mitigating the suffering of the poor and downtrodden during these testing times itself is a welcome change.

Tablighi Jamaat Hotspot: After the imposition of the lockdown, at some point of time, it appeared that the situation was improving, and India would be able to sail through the crisis. But suddenly the news about a gathering organized by an organization called Tablighi Jamaat (TJ), came as a huge setback to the governmental efforts to contain the spread of the virus. The Jamaat event, which was attended by many foreign delegates, emerged as a virus hotspot. Governments, which pressed the panic button after the TJ event saw the light, launched a massive operation to find the TJ followers who attended the religious gathering and quarantined a large number of the attendees and their family members.

Crisis Induced Innovation: Problems aside, this crisis is also bringing the best among the innovators in India. Mylab Discovery, a Pune based molecular diagnostic company, developed the first indigenous COVID-19 testing kit. A low-cost, toaster-sized ventilator called AgVa, which was developed by a neurosurgeon and a robotic scientist, is proving to be extremely helpful in bridging the ventilator shortage.

The Fightback: People, after initial reluctance to practice social distance, are paying heed to it with increased intensity. Traders and shopkeepers are drawing circles in front of their shops to enable their customers to maintain social distance. People are appreciative of the efforts put in by the healthcare professionals, law enforcement agencies and sanitation workers who are part of the herculean efforts being made to bring the crisis under control. They gave a standing ovation to all those who are toiling to combat the coronavirus crisis on the day of Janata Curfew. Prime Minister Modi also gave a call to the people to express their unity and solidarity by lighting lamps in their front yards on 5th April, which was followed with a lot of enthusiasm. Though many observers felt that it was unnecessary symbolism, many others felt that such a display of unity and solidarity in a crisis situation goes a long way in bringing about much-needed confidence and optimism.

Seemingly Arduous Fight: Though the situation appears to be getting grimmer day by day, there is an optimism among the people that India will be able to sail through the crisis and revive their fortunes. Efforts are being made to expand the health infrastructure. New makeshift hospitals and quarantine centers are made ready to meet the impending rush as many observers suspect that the community transmission has already set in. As per the latest reports, the Indian government is contemplating the idea of extending the lockdown for some more weeks as the positive cases and mortalities show no signs of abating.

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