Government was in a crisis mode with a rapidly deteriorating tragedy. Dithering could prove catastrophic.

 
Even during these unprecedented times when the entire mankind is under siege, home-grown naysayers are out in full force indulging in their ideologically entrenched nit-picking and muckraking; creating a hue and cry instead of offering solutions. Consumed by an inveterate opprobrium for Prime Minister Narendra Modi, these perpetual cynics have lost all sense of reality, reasoning or morality and are clearly unable to comprehend the broad picture that extends beyond their blinkered vision. What we are seeing today with regard to Covid-19 embodies the word preternatural or beyond the realm of nature. It is an apocalypse in the making. The closest parallel to our current predicament is the Pralaya or Great Flood in prehistoric times referred to only in religious texts.
In the rapidity of its spread, the extent of its reach, its potential for lethality and its capacity to disrupt all facets of normal life, Covid-19 surpasses any prior calamity be it a World War or the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-1919 that killed 20-50 million people, including 18 million in India.
Research based on modelling projections (The Global Impact of COVID-19, 26 March 2020) indicates that Covid-19 can potentially affect 90% of the world’s 7 billion population and kill 40.6 million people; India’s share would be at least 5 million dead. The study also suggests that mitigating measures like social distancing, containment and testing can decrease the death toll to 1.9 million; delayed action will see this number rise to 10.5 million.
This data unequivocally underlines the magnitude of the problem and the need for urgent action.
To task the Central government alone with confronting this scourge is unrealistic and impractical. The exceptional nature of this humungous challenge calls for a united front comprising all levels of society—innovative leadership at the top, state-level competency and proactive citizen participation; with each element complementing the other.
Critics have gone to town excoriating the government for its callous insensitivity towards the poor in imposing a lockdown, with some even questioning its validity. Vidya Krishnan, writing in the Atlantic (The Callousness of India’s COVID-19 Response. 27 March) pontificated: “This lockdown is, in keeping with many of this government’s policies, a headline-grabbing initiative announced with little warning, but one that will do little to address the myriad problems India faces in dealing with the coronavirus.”
Experts across the board categorically assert that in the absence of definitive treatment, containment and social distancing effected via a lockdown are key. There is no debate about that.
Harsh Mander (State’s measures to fight coronavirus are stripping the poor of dignity and hope, Indian Express, 27 March 2020) described the lockdown as “anti-poor” and surmised: “The state is bereft of public compassion… The measures the state has opted…will only destroy her possibilities of dignified and hopeful survival.” He even calls for a rollback.
Emotional outbursts laced with a holier than thou attitude or ideological antagonism make for interesting arm-chair dialogue, but lack the pragmatism to resolve a crisis. To call for a rollback is nothing short of definite suicide.
Yes, it is heart wrenching to see droves of migrant labourers trekking home in the scorching heat without food and water. And it is axiomatic that the poor suffer disproportionately in times of socio-economic upheaval like this. Extrapolating the same logic one can also argue that the potential for Covid-19 to wreak havoc among the economically disadvantaged is immense: a gargantuan catastrophe that outbalances any transitory logistic difficulty.
Could the government have planned better? No. The government was in a crisis mode with a rapidly deteriorating international tragedy fast descending on us—thousands dead in Italy and the resource laden US fumbling for a firm response. Dithering could prove catastrophic. The government did not have the luxury of time; this was not a rehearsal for an Asian Games two years hence. Prompt decision was required and the Prime Minister acted accordingly.
Second, hindsight is always a perfect 20/20. The natural assumption that people would stay put did not play out. It would have taken extraordinary supernatural clairvoyance to predict such a mass exodus. New reports suggest that in Delhi at least the lapse was at the local level, which Modi critics must take notice of.
The most bizarre critique was penned by senior journalist Tavleen Singh. In an unhinged essay (Does PM Narendra Modi trust us enough to tell us what his strategy is? Indian Express, 29 March), she ranted about police brutality, harangued against BJP supporters and castigated Modi for lacking in compassion and trust. There was not a single positive suggestion.
She wrote: “…images of migrant workers walking hundreds of kilometres to get back home fill my head. As does the Reuters video…of policemen beating up and humiliating people trying to get home… It’s a new level of monstrous autocracy.”
Charges of police brutality are misplaced and hyped. To successfully execute a lockdown in a diverse country like India is a nightmare. Public responsibility is vital, which was obviously lacking. While one cannot condone harsh measures, to fault the police at this stage is self-defeating. The police were only trying to do their job in a difficult situation.
Tavleen Singh’s self-righteous hectoring is clear when she indignantly demands without doing proper homework: “He (Modi) needs to explain exactly why this curfew is for 21 days only.”
The 21-day lockdown has a scientific basis derived from the infectivity and incubation period (time from being infected to expressing symptoms) of the disease.
The government has, however, moved quickly to address the adverse fallout. State governments have provided food, shelter and transport to the needy. Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced a package deal, PM Modi has constituted several empowered groups that will oversee issues like hospital capacity, quarantine facilities and availability of essential commodities. Vocations compatible with social distancing are also being identified.
This is a life and death situation. A misstep can mean a medical calamity in the short term and incomprehensible misery and penury in the years to come. Covid-19 is the ultimate equalizer targeting one and all: rich, poor, educated, uneducated, Hindu, Muslim, upper caste and lower caste. We are all in this together and must function as intrepid soldiers united in purpose, with each and every one doing his part according to one’s own ability.
Partisan criticism that has more to do with ideology and petty vindictiveness should not distract us from our immediate goal of subduing Covid-19 and must be called out repeatedly and emphatically. To revisit the million-dollar question: Could the government have been better prepared ? In a utopian world yes; under the present circumstances—no.