Covid-19: Govt's response has been panic, with political leadership absent

The unfolding coronavirus crisis could be the toughest test yet for Prime Minister Narendra Modi. His government failed to recognise the potentially devastating consequences of the pandemic early enough, its actions have been desperate and its learning curve slow.

Panic has been evident from the suddenness of the three-week national lockdown, to the overnight reversal of an export ban on Hydroxychloroquine (promoted as the magic-bullet for killing the coronavirus by US President Donald Trump) and in sending the National Security Advisor to evacuate a Delhi mosque instead of local policemen. With no apparent systems in place, anxiety and nervousness have ruled.

There was lack of preparation, inadequate expert consultations, unclear public communication, no collaboration outside the government, no empowering of elected leaders, no learning from the best practices of the states and no attempt to restore public faith in the government.

To be fair most governments globally were unprepared to deal with the sudden pandemic. But once aware of it, they acted with alacrity. The Indian government continued to ignore the threat even after China’s devastation by Covid-19 and the detection of the first Indian patient on January 30.  

Up until March 22, Prime Minister Modi did not take the pandemic seriously. His decision to lockdown for three weeks on March 24 lagged behind that of other countries. China had locked down Wuhan on January 23, Northern Italy was locked down on March 8 and 9 (entire Italy on March 10), the USA had declared a national emergency without a lockdown on March 13, Spain on March 14, France on March 17, and UK which initially wanted to curb the pandemic through developing “herd immunity”, on March 23.

In India, Kerala’s rapid response strategy was in stark contrast to the inaction of the Union government. On January 25, even before the first case of Covid-19 had been detected (January 30 in Kerala), the health minister of the state, K K Shailaja convened an inter-department meeting to discuss strategies to deal with the pandemic. That many students from Kerala who study in Wuhan would be a potential threat was correctly prognosticated. By 26 January, Kerala had set up a central coordination control-room and by 28 January there were Covid control rooms in every district. There was daily press briefing by the health minister and later by Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan. On March 22 while Prime Minister Modi was merely asking people to ring bells to honour healthcare workers, Vijayan had announced a Rs. 20,000 crore Covid-19 relief package – nearly two thirds of the state’s annual plan.

Even after March 22, the Modi regime remained focussed on bringing down the state government in Madhya Pradesh (MP). The national lockdown was announced only after Shivraj Singh Chouhan had been sworn in as Chief Minister. The great disservice done by the BJP to the state is evident. There is no health minister yet in Chouhan’s cabinet to oversee the crisis. The state’s death rate of 8 percent from Covid-19 is the highest in the country and nearly half the infected patients in Bhopal are from the state health department.  

The government’s failure to consult widely before it acted had devastating consequences for migrant workers in the wake of the nationwide lockdown. Its sole reliance on the loyal advice of the central bureaucracy rather than also consulting others outside the system narrowed its options. Nor did it consult the state governments, even though “health” is a state subject. In order to declare a unilateral national lockdown, the Union government invoked the Disaster Management Act to override the powers of the states.

Other countries have used a lockdown for extensive testing. Not so India. If we consider comparison with other countries (admittedly smaller in size but better planned) India was at 0.092 tests per 1000 up to April 8. The cumulative tests per thousand (on April 9) for Italy were 14.43, Germany 15.96, France 3.4, US 6.63, South Korea 9.6, Australia 12.99, Canada 9.9, Denmark 10.73, Turkey 3.29,  and Vietnam 1.16.

PM holds first video conference with all chief ministers amid lockdown | Photo: Twitter (@ANI)

Extensive testing was not possible in India because there weren’t enough test kits. Only from April 9 did the Indian Council of Medical Research change its testing strategy for hotspots where everyone with influenza like symptoms, whether they are connected with an infected patient or not, were to be given a regular Covid-19 test within seven days of the illness and if negative, an anti-body test after another seven days. However, the import order of 5 lakh antibody test kits is yet to be received. So even now, the proposed extensive testing remains on paper.

Prime Minister Modi despite his legendary connect with the public has failed to communicate his government’s pandemic containment strategy. A joint secretary of the health ministry provides dry statistics daily. However, Prime Minister Modi and his ministers who should have been the master narrators of the government’s evolving strategy, with experts in attendance, are absent.  

India has elected political leaders at all levels but Prime Minister Modi’s highly centralised command and control strategy failed to empower them in this national crisis. Instead he appealed to religious leaders as if democracy had been suspended and the only social influencers left were priests, pontiffs and mullahs. The Chief Ministers and Opposition were consulted only when the mess created by his centralised approach became apparent.

The government has still not restored a feeling of well-being in the worst affected daily-wage workers whose lives were ripped apart by the lockdown. Nor did an inspirational leader urge his followers to desist from spreading a communal narrative in which the coronavirus turned into a “Muslim virus”.

Prime Minister Modi’s crisis leadership compares poorly with the exemplary leadership provided by some state chief ministers – prominent among them being Pinarayi Vijayan in Kerala, Ashok Gehlot in Rajasthan, Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal, Uddhav Thackeray in Maharashtra and Arvind Kejriwal in Delhi. However, there is still time for the government to evolve an inclusive national effort to counter the damage being wrought by the pandemic.

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