The Corona Pandemic: If India could have done better

India's COVID-19 cases have declined rapidly—but herd immunity is still far  away, scientists say | Science | AAAS

by Rajesh Kumar Sinha          7 March 2021

The Corona pandemic that has created unprecedented mayhem across the world, shaking political executives and debilitating the global economy, has led the world to ponder over if we could have averted it…if we could have done better to handle this. The same applies to India as well. With a nationwide never-before-seen 70-day lockdown in operation and many wondering, if there will be or should be an extension of the ongoing lockdown, it is worth discussing if India could have handled this pandemic better. It could well be a bit early in discussing it. Still, it might pave the way to make a realistic assessment of the situation and devise innovative and relevant strategies in dealing with new exigencies in the future.

On 31st December 2019, China officially informed World Health Organisation (WHO) regarding the presence of Corona and its gradual spread in Wuhan. However, several reports suggest that the Corona effect had well been visible in China since September. But the Chinese government did not share this vital information with the rest of the world.

The official accounts of the government state that while the first Covid-19 case in India was diagnosed on 29th January, the administration started making appropriate preparations since the second week of January. When discreet information started coming from China, a dreaded Coronavirus has affected certain segments of Chinese people in a specific area.

The first quarantine centre was prepared around that time at the ITBP facility in Delhi. And various administrative organs of the government, especially the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), started monitoring the situation very closely. When initial cases started trickling from Kerala and tracked to their foreign travels, some quick action was taken. Gradually international flights from various countries, starting with from China, were suspended. And over a period of five to six weeks, almost all international flights from and to India were suspended.

Within a few weeks, hundreds and thousands of people across India, including many foreigners who got stuck here, have been quarantined. Crores of people have been put under home quarantine. And to top it all, the nationwide lockdown, the largest one globally, was initiated. The entire passenger railway service and all flights were suspended. Except for emergency and security services and curtailed banking/financial operations, the entire administrative machinery stayed at home.

While the ‘stay home, stay safe’ governmental directive is certain to result in a huge financial setback to the national economy, it seems that the government did not have enough options. The very prospect of this highly infectious disease Covid-19 spreading among crores of Indians using public transport daily is, simply put, scary.

In the midst of these developments, the Tablighi Jamaat episode of Nizamuddin in Delhi has really acted as a big dampener. A big religious congregation by a powerful Islamic sect, with huge financial pockets and global political connections, close to the police station, thrashing all governmental directions and social distancing norms, led to a sudden, significant spurt of Covid-19 infections across the country.

While current figures hovering around more than 11 million infections and an unprecedented 1.56 lakh deaths, one can still believe the situation is very much under control in India. In the interregnum, the government and administration have been able to beef up the health infrastructure, including testing kits (importing initially and manufacturing lakhs of kits locally later on), ventilators, medicines, and R&D efforts on the development of new vaccines and medicine to deal with Covid-19.

Information dissemination on Corona, percolating down to all sections of society, developing Aarogya Setu Apps, and using drones and AI to locate, identify and sanitise people and affected areas have been a big plus. Holding such a massive lockdown exercise without affecting essential services and supplies must also be regarded as an achievement for the country’s entire administrative and health apparatus.

However, there had been grey areas. One of the best things that could well have been to start screening the incoming passengers on all international flights from the second week of January last year. That would have been a gigantic exercise and would have required a great deal of patience and probably pandemonium. But that probably could have stymied the entry of Covid-19 in India. However, one could not have stopped it even then because due to the non-availability of information from China and WHO’s incompetence since there had been plenty of foreign tourists already in the country, and many of them turned out to be its carriers.

The lockdown plan, too, could have been simpler and more practical. The plan should have first thought about the movement of lakhs of labour from one part to other parts of the country. Also, their stay at selected destinations and civic society’s involvement, NGOs in reaching out to them with food and essentials should have been better planned out.

There had been clamour of the need for massive testing exercise, following the South Korean model. However, the non-availability of test kits and dealing with such a massive population spread over a large geographical area at that time practically ruled out such a possibility within such a short time. One can even look around the US’s example and how it has failed to replicate the so-called Korean model there.

While we still are fighting out pandemics and should consider ourselves comparatively in a much better shape, as against a significant global community, how the situation evolves in the coming weeks and how we react to them is a matter of conjecture. With an impressive 21 million people in India currently getting vaccinated and the process being run 24×7 and free or at a highly subsidised rate, the initial nightmarish scenario painted around the world about its impact on India is certainly out of the question.

However, like Kerala, Maharashtra remains a matter of concern; one should reasonably hope to see a much better situation in the next few weeks. Broadly, so far, we have been able to work out fine in dealing with this global menace, but how we do in the imminent future and later on deal with likely economic crisis will show our true resolve, resilience, and commitment.

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