Adhering to the basic rule in crisis management, the Modi government has taken the right step to limit the intensity of the infection by forcing social distancing of the people.
The Prime Minister’s appeal for a 21-day complete lockdown of the country seems to be going well so far, except challenges arising from the exodus of migrants to their native states and the irresponsible acts of the Tablighi Jamaat. His earlier call to clap and clang thali (plates) to thank doctors, para-medics, health workers. security providers and others for their valiant fight against the deadly coronavirus epidemic, at times risking their lives, went very well drawing huge public support, as did the 9 pm “lighting lamp for unity” event on Sunday. What he probably did not envisage was the over enthusiasm of the people who spilled on to the streets to carry out his wishes. One important lesson in crisis management was learnt, albeit at the cost of increased exposure to the deadly virus.
But even as one thought that all the important lessons were learnt, along came the Markaz of the Tableeghi Jamaat in Nizamuddin, Delhi, right under the nose of the PMO, South and North Blocks and a few kilometres away from the AIIMS.
The congregation, in blatant violations of government’s lockdown rules in the fight against Covid-19, revealed the chinks in our armour. More than 900 such foreign “Islamic preachers” were said to have been issued tourist visas. The government has reportedly cancelled these visa permissions and is tracking them. But the harm seems to have been done already. Again, it is ironic that such a gathering was going on within a few meters of the Nizamuddin police station. This speaks poorly of the Delhi Police. It was the health officials who alerted the police. Indian members of this illegal congregation were allowed to travel back to their respective states and according to news reports more than 20 states have reported new positive cases of Covid 19 involving exactly these members. Coming close on the heels of the migrant workers crisis, this serious lapse of Markaz of Tableeghi Jamaat, allowing the infected to go back to their states and bolting the stable after the horses have fled is nothing short of a serious security fault. It is highly unfortunate.
Tackling a crisis is not the same as resolving a problem. There are situations when a problem and its magnitude can be foretold and solutions prepared in advance. But managing a crisis comes often post the realisation that the unforeseen problem is spinning out of control. The deadly coronavirus epidemic has hit us, rather the whole world with unusual speed and unanticipated magnitude. Many countries were unfortunately slow in assessing the enormity of the devastation and the extent of overall impact of the lethal infection. India was no exception to the fact it acknowledged the perils of coronavirus rather late.
Adhering to the basic rule in crisis management, the Modi government has taken the right step to limit the intensity of the infection by forcing social distancing of the people. The world over, governments are resorting to this one and only available antidote, which is efficient in tackling the epidemic, prevent it from spreading. But it is easier said than done. Considering the civilisational characteristics, population density and low levels of awareness about healthy civic practices, it is very difficult to implement social distancing practices in our society unless certain amount of force and coercion is used wherever necessary. India’s adaptation to social distancing is slowly and steadily taking place.
It is a well acknowledged fact that the government plays a seminal role in crisis management in cooperation with the civil society. A “Communist” Russia or an authoritarian China generally does not think twice about using strong arm tactics to carry out state orders, however important they may be and yet go against the principles of upholding the fundamental rights of citizens. Against all the evidences pointing to Wuhan in China as the origin of the deadly coronavirus, the authoritarian system has effectively prevented the spread of the infection to Beijing or other cities situated in uncomfortably close vicinity. In more free societies, like some of those in the West, especially Europe, the infection rate is alarming so also the death rate, in spite of excellent healthcare facilities. In India’s case, there is a need to strengthen lockdown regulations so that Indians understand the requirements and abide by them strictly.
The success of the 21-day “stay at home” quarantine announced by the government will be guaranteed if people decide to follow the ground rules with all sincerity. On its part the Modi government and state governments have taken care of maintaining an uninterrupted supply of essential commodities. The commercial establishments are also apparently in a mood to cooperate. It is for the people to show more restraint, follow rules, stay home and lessen the burden on the already creaking health facilities. The success of the efficacy of government’s measures will depend greatly upon the collective responsibility of the authorities, stake holders and the people.
As the total lockdown is in progress, the government has already announced certain short-term economic measures. The cumulative effect of these measures will no doubt result in allaying the immediate fears of the people, commercial establishments and the industry. But presuming that the intensity of the viral infection subsides, its potential to snuff lives out of masses like the plague is frustrated, the government will still have to keep virus related measures active in order to prevent a recurrence. Resolving a crisis includes preparing the people for the consequences and planning necessary relief to mitigate the intensity of the negative consequences.
It is no secret that the economy will suffer the maximum as a result of the lockdown and loss of man hours and industrial output. The Modi government will do well to announce a string of economic measures aimed at incentivising the industry, increase production, attract investment and boost local consumption and exports. The world is going to experience an unprecedented recession and most of the markets in the West and in Europe will automatically turn to India for relief.
One of the golden rules of crisis management is to have multiple teams working on various problems but under a unified command structure and moving towards the goal as a team. Such an effort will need enormous inputs to multiple agencies from not only inside the government but also civil society in the form of strategic thinkers, academicians, researchers engaged with universities and other non-governmental institutions. In normal times the government can afford to go by its priority. Abnormal times call for quick, out of the box thinking and greater participation at the smallest possible time. Let us not forget that the present crisis has all the signs of a biological warfare, a proxy war against an emerging economy. Nothing should deter us from our path of progress.
India’s experience in handling Covid-19 where it has been fighting with an invisible enemy has been satisfactory. India must take stern action against all the violators of the lockdown. The social distancing perhaps would be one of its kind to prevent the spread. Those of them who have either condemned or not following social distancing during pandemic should be duly punished as per the legal provisions. Let the people of India rise to the occasion and fight this great menace collectively. India will come up with a health security strategy which in due course will take a precedence over its military strategy. India would also require to put all its efforts in improving upon the R&D in virology for understanding these unforeseen challenges.
Seshadri Chari is a well-known political and strategic analyst. Dr Arvind Kumar teaches Geopolitics and International Relations at Manipal Academy of Higher Education (MAHE), Manipal