A unified and coherent work plan will help us triumph over the coronavirus enemy and wipe out its growing colonial empire
You must have heard of the comparison that is drawn between the current Covid-19 situation and the world war times. The global leaders and experts are calling it a global warfare against a common enemy which is severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) or popularly called coronavirus causing Covid-19 disease. The war analogy persuades people and countries to unite, however, the current pandemic needs to be looked at from a different lens. The present global crisis is not a war crisis but close to an act of colonialism by the coronavirus factory. Let us not forget that the virus ceases to survive without a host. It needs a living body to multiply and thrive. Without the annexation of the human body (or animals), the virus is powerless and ineffective. However, display of negligence and disunity at this time could invite the virus to convert the well-functioning and independent bodies into coronavirus colonies. What is required is alertness, awareness and a strong coordinated plan of action by the authorities so that we can prevent the coronavirus from spreading and multiplying its empire.
Humanity has faced various epidemics in the past and may do so in future too. Large chunks of human populations have been wiped out by pathogens and influenza since the origin of human settlements. Black death, the most terrible and one of the earliest epidemics known to mankind, killed somewhere between 30-60% of the European population. The bacterium travelled across continents and washed away 75 million to 200 million humans from the face of the earth. Others like smallpox, typhoid, tuberculosis and Spanish flu have all travelled across continents as well and killed thousands and millions. Looking at the last 10 years, epidemics like SARS, H1N1, MERS and Ebola are just a few out of many unknown to have surfaced and then controlled or eradicated.
Then, how is SARS-Cov2 different from others? Well, in terms of the genetic properties it may be similar to other viruses like SARS or H1N1 but the intensity and incidence of the coronavirus has proved to be very different from the rest. For example, unlike SARS (which also comes from the coronavirus family) the SARS-CoV-2 symptoms are not distinct from seasonal flu making detection and early containment quite challenging. The virus is less deadly but highly contagious when compared to disease like Ebola. Even though the number of global cases of Covid-19 till now is less than the H1N1 flu of 2009 the mortality rate is much higher in the case of former. To summarise, the Covid-19 like pandemic is not unknown to humanity and is less fatal than other viral diseases yet the disease has shackled this generation by infecting millions.
The delay in response and poor preparedness in even developed nations like the United States, Italy and the United Kingdom prevented nipping of the virus in the bud. The first quarter of the year has seen a rampant outbreak of coronavirus, starting from Wuhan in China. Countries with the best healthcare system and public health policies in place have crumbled in containing the virus and protecting people. The number of cases around the globe has crossed 1.4 million and is rising, not to mention the epicentre has shifted from China to Europe and the United States. The hospital capacities in cities like New York and Detroit have crossed the tipping point as the virus spread. Due to the disruption in trade and global supply chain there is an acute shortage of medical supplies like personal protective equipment (PPE) and clinical and diagnostic equipment. The challenges faced by the financial and economic system of the countries and upcoming consequences are unfathomable.
Now is about now
The only mantra to defeat coronavirus is to act now without an inch of delay. We must do everything that can be possibly done. Researchers have been working relentlessly to create a vaccine which will build an immune response in the body but till then social-distancing is the only rambaan. India’s story of Covid-19 cases has been different from trends seen in other countries. This is because the government took proactive measures before the first Covid-19 case was detected on 30th January 2020. Learning from the experience of the affected countries, India was quick in screening and quarantining international travellers. Most importantly, declaring 21 days nationwide lockdown on the 24th of March was the much needed intervention. Our healthcare system is not as resilient as the developed nations and therefore lockdown was necessary to slow down the spread of virus and reduce the burden on the hospitals and medical staff. India was relatively better prepared and implemented containment measures on time. This was also reiterated by the World Health Organization (WHO) which called India’s response as “impressive”. Having said that, as a developing country with a majority of workers in the informal sector, dependent on daily wages for livelihood, the task in front of India is simply mammoth. The Union and state governments have to work in a coordinated manner to tackle coronavirus by strengthening healthcare infrastructure and also rolling out welfare measures to minimise the economic and social impact of lockdown.
The government has started ramping up its testing facilities. It is trying to secure more testing kits so that there is a clarity obtained on the spread of virus in the country. Learning from the experience of South Korea, the focus is now on testing more people using antibodies tests which are cheaper and less time consuming. ICMR has already circulated an advisory in this direction. The state of Kerala has started a drive thru pop-up testing facilities for greater testing coverage and surveillance of both symptomatic and asymptomatic cases. This model of testing has to be expanded to cover at least the hotspot regions. Pooled testing can be carried out in less affected areas for larger coverage per million of population and cost effectiveness.
As per the national level data of the last 10 days, the number of covid-19 cases have doubled in every 4 days. Going by this trend and extensive testing results, the government needs to ramp-up the existing infrastructure, supplies and medical staff to be able to handle 10,000-15000 cases in the upcoming week. The government has been expanding the existing hospital capacity and developing additional infrastructure facilities to quarantine or treat patients with mild/non-critical symptoms. State governments have been advised to be prepared for the crisis and prevent hospitals from overwhelming. Around 51 army hospitals are being prepared to treat coronavirus infected patients. The Indian Army is also helping in transport of essential supplies across the nation. Private hospitals are being directed to earmark isolation wards for covid-19 patients. Indian Railways has taken up the target of converting 5,150 coaches into isolation wards. Ventilators are being procured in large numbers. The government is planning to source cheap ventilators from innovative tech start-ups like Nocco Robotics which has already built a prototype at less than half the usual price. The government is working aggressively to procure essential medical supplies and equipment.
Keynes, one of the greatest economists of all time once wrote, “In the long run we are all dead”. This Keynesian theory fits well today more than any other time. In the short run, the country must resort to a mix of expansionary fiscal and monetary policy to counter the economic impact of lockdown and perhaps not stress much on the long run consequences. On the fiscal front, the central government has rolled out a relief measure worth INR 1.7 trillion as a first step. In addition to the cash transfer, the package incorporates distribution of 5 kilograms of rice or wheat and 1 kilogram pulses for next three months under Pradhan Mantri Gareeb Kalyan Ann Yojana to 80 crore people from the lower income strata. In addition, the Home Ministry has approved a release of INR 11, 092 crore to all state governments under state disaster relief fund (SDRF). Subsequently, the states are allowed to utilise INR 29,000 crore under SDRF allocation for the fiscal year 2020-21 to provide food and accommodation to the migrant workers displaced due to the nationwide lockdown. The relief measures are further complemented by the food and cash allocation undertaken by various state governments. While the earlier package dealt with the poor and migrant workers targeting the informal sector, small organised firms and construction sector, healthcare, farmers and women. it is time that a more generous package is doled out for the rest of the sectors which will encourage them to spend. While it is not rational to compare India’s economic relief package to the ones by the developed and bigger economies like the U.S, the government of India must not worry about the fiscal slippage and future fiscal targets as now is about now. Policy experts Vijay Kelkar and Ajay Shah in their book ‘In Service of the Republic’ have written “…a sharp enlargement of the deficit occasionally, when the economy is faring badly, is perfectly healthy and legitimate”.
During the time of pandemic, it is critical that all state governments and UTs interact and coordinate with each other and the centre. A unified and coherent work plan will help us triumph over the coronavirus enemy and wipe out its growing colonial empire. Above all, we need leaders who stand tall and motivate administrative workers, health professionals and others in their states to fulfil their duties during the difficulties. Our Prime Minister has displayed statesmanship through his live communication and public addressal that has facilitated a constant flow of information from topmost to the bottommost echelon of the society. Not to mention, his request to bang thalis and light candles has lit a strong emotional connection between people and filled them with optimism and hope which is absolutely crucial in our fight against Covid-19.
(The author is former Young Professional at the Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister (EAC-PM))