A continuing problem with the handling of corona pandemic in India is that even after a long effective lockdown — which did save the country from a surge of infections that would have totally overwhelmed our governance — the logic of prevention through ‘social distancing’ and ‘surface hygiene’ has still not been put across to the common man here because of poor messaging.
The episode of the virus will stand out for the disproportionate panic it produced in India due to the highly deficient communication between the people and the administrators implementing the policy during the lockdown. It is possible that many of these functionaries missed out on this logic themselves — it relates to the simple facts of ‘science’ behind the virus which, once understood, would have brought clarity and precision to whatever responsibility they were discharging during the crisis. This could also be the reason for the disconnect between the medical experts who painted the picture of a deluge facing the country and the strategy handlers who looked upon the lockdown as an end in itself and not as an instrument of mitigation against the danger.
And on top of it, what is now impeding the handling of the pandemic is the ‘conflict of interest’ between the Centre and some of the states — rooted in the desire of the latter to reduce their area of accountability. Some have taken to politics of blame game over what remains a totally non-political problem of saving the people wherever they were, from a common threat to their life and livelihood.
Grasp of some elementary facts about the virus will help all concerned in the period ahead. First, corona is not an invisible ‘hydra headed monster’ out to ‘attack’ people. It is, in fact, not even a ‘living organism’ but a free-floating protein molecule put out by an infected human being — that can either land on another human body available in close proximity or rest on a surface where it would disintegrate after a short period of time if left alone. Since this protein is of the same class as the Ribo Nucleic Acid (RNA) which is a building block of human genes, the virus has the bio-chemical quality of mutating or multiplying in a vulnerable human body thereby adversely affecting physiological functioning and the working of organs depending on the level of immunity of the individual concerned.
The virus has no ‘intentions’ about doing anything and is destined to self destruct in the absence of an opportunity for mutation. Prevention, therefore, lies in not coming in its way when it is in the air as droplets or perched on a surface for a few hours. This is the mystery behind ‘social distancing with mask on’ — to avoid the contagion in the air — and an ‘effective hand wash’ whenever a suspect surface was touched. Lockdown was an immediate and effective preventive measure to prepare the people for following these practices whenever they would be out of the house at some point of time later. It had to be made ‘total’ in India as there was already enough of this virus around in the world — delayed responses in the West created that situation — and also because the cycle of infection had to be broken through a three-week pause initially. Movement for essential commodities or medicines was allowed so that there was no panic on that count for the people who would otherwise have to be in confinement.
For lack of proper and adequate communication from authorities to the public, however, the lockdown came off as a law enforcement event that additionally scared the uninformed about the ‘death at the hands of an unknown demon’ staring them in the face. One reason why the migrants turned out in the streets was — apart from the loss of livelihood — their inborn instinct about ‘preferring to die at home’ rather than in the wilderness outside. The saga of suffering of migrants that exposed the administrative inadequacy of the Centre-State combine has, in fact, overtaken the merit of the handling of the corona pandemic itself.
District Magistrates should have been activated at the first signs of migrant movement to rush to the clusters wading through their jurisdiction to assure them of food and shelter and explain it to them that there was no threat to their lives if certain precautions were taken by them while they waited for public transport. That was also the moment for the Centre to make a loud announcement of payment of wages for the lockdown period — with the government equally sharing the burden with employers. If the district authorities listed out the employees and their employers for ready payment of the month’s salary, many of the migrants might have chosen to stay on for some time making it easier for the administration to organise travel for the others. Corona contingency funds could have been allocated to the DMs to make all this possible. The governments sat too tightly on money to make for a quick response on these lines.
The problem would not have acquired tragic proportions if enforcement would have been combined with a response of benign guidance to the weaker sections. Just because lockdown orders came from above, it suited the local administration to surrender its judgement and discretion and put the police in the front to ‘discipline’ the people. It is another thing that this pandemic brought out the role of our policemen as a collective of caring and sympathising people who generally avoided using force against the migrants — this image will stay in public mind for a long time even as grievances against the administration lingered on.
Even now, the movement of migrants should be facilitated by the government with all logistic help and human care and the cost of it borne by the state — the financial burden is larger now because of initial indecisiveness but this cannot be helped. The sooner this is done the better it would be for the image of democratic governance in this country. India is too large and resourceful a country to allow a successful handling of the pandemic to be marred by bureaucratic insensitivity towards sections of the law-abiding population that were forced to trek down the roads with their children for hundreds of miles just to reach home.
Coming back to the strategy on corona pandemic, it has only two components — keeping up the preventive protocols while opening up the socio-economic life and readying the health infrastructure to take charge of cases detected by testing or reported otherwise. The treatment includes medical quarantine, admission into a ward and shifting a case to ICU on the doctor’s advice. Public must be constantly educated on how to bring ‘home quarantine’ into operation in appropriate cases and avoid prematurely rushing a person to the hospital. Being tested positive is in no sense a social stigma. In fact, this has been another major shortcoming in the communication and messaging flowing out of the experts of the government for the ordinary people. Shortages of hospital space, trained manpower and equipment is a legacy of the neglect of healthcare over the years. It is high time the Centre declared health and education as strategic sectors that would give it primacy over the states in laying down the policy and development projects in these spheres — weakness in these segments would deprive the nation of its demographic dividend. This is as important as the emphasis on ‘production’ that continues to drive the conventional economic policy.
Opening up the socio-economic life with knowledge-based preventive measures being observed during a journey or at place of work is the right way out. It has to be understood that apart from the measures initiated by the government, every individual has to be ‘smart’ about not crossing the corona’s path. There would be many new cases detected on the basis of symptoms but many other persons of younger age groups would also be going around undetected as they were asymptomatic — because they had already developed anti-bodies in response to an initial infection and acquired immunity. They might have transmitted the contagion but only during the run-up to their becoming immune themselves.
The crucial thing is that there should be adequate capacity in the country — spread out to all districts — for handling the reported cases. Only a small percentage of cases of infection, around 3 percent, lead to a fatality on account of virus complications as shown by the data. Many of these fatalities were attributable to the added vulnerability created by other illnesses in parallel. Gradually population might move towards ‘herd immunity’ that would help but the real ‘cure’ has to wait for invention of a vaccine against this virus. The learning from India’s experience of corona pandemic is that public messaging should not only be about the rigour of clampdown but should also emphasise the assurance of the state that no body would be left in the lurch. This did not happen — the result is that the pandemic might be remembered more for the man-made tragedy of the migrants than anything else.
Author: D. C. Pathak, former Director Intelligence Bureau of India