COVID-19: Govt clueless as over a billion people caught like the genie in a bottle

Both the Centre and other states should learn from the examples of Kerala and Rajasthan as the Centre does not appear to be up to the task

Photo courtesy- social media
Photo courtesy- social media

Abid Shah

Like the mythical genie from old folklores, over a billion people have been shoved into the virtual bottle, read homes, for now over five weeks or so. Yet, there seems to be no end to their ordeal. The mortal threat of the COVID-19 virus still hangs ominously over multitudes of people. This may well continue in all likelihood for quite some time to come.

So much so that the abject outcome of this is that every Indian has been reduced to being a mere puppet in the hands of a government that has been clueless or feigned ignorance from day one about the grave threat. And ever since it belatedly woke up, it has only been loquaciously hopeful until this day to exorcise and fight the virulent virus even as it has steadily been taking an increasing toll of lives. Its victims somehow have included both the rich and the poor.

Sadly doctors, nurses and other health sector personnel too are among those who are amongst the casualties that the current viral scourge has brought. If this is allowed to spread further amid the lack of adequate wherewithal to take on the pandemic, the ability to manage and control it by the already beleaguered medical establishment is going to dangerously plummet.

Though for weeks the Government has not declared any countrywide figures regarding the loss of lives of health staff, there have been numerous cases where they have got infected while treating COVID-19 patients. An NDTV report as far back as April 12 had cited sources to say that no less than 90 doctors and nurses got infected by the COVID-19 virus. Ever since several of them had to be taken off duty, quarantined and yet lives of some of the affected among them could not be saved. The scale of infections catching up with the overworked hospital staff has been such that in a few cases, entire hospitals had to be sealed. The possibility of health givers becoming prey to attack by the virus has been so palpable since the beginning of their fight against it that the Government had to declare an insurance of Rs 50 lakh to cover the risk posed to them because of the critical nature of their job.

The threat faced by them in the wake of fighting the virus and thus coming close to it has been feared so much that often they had to face resistance and even violence and intimidation back home from their landlords and neighbours. There have been attacks targeting them in a few cases when they have ventured out with the intention to create awareness among communities about Coronavirus and its potential to travel from one person to the other. The Government brought an ordinance to ward off such attacks and to ensure punishment for the attackers.

The point is that these steps by the Government indicate the extreme nature of the threat to those who carry out the task to tackle and possibly stem the threat of the spread of infection. Yet, for months, no adequate and fool-proof protection could be given to them. The lack of equipment like proper masks and protective gears and the health staff’s inability to conclusively test the infected persons due to faulty testing kits imported from China are now widely known. These have also greatly affected a realistic assessment of the extent of diffusion of the virus.

A top-down approach largely monopolised by the Central Government with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s office mainly calling the shots over and above the state governments is clearly coming in the way of using local or state-level knowledge, wisdom and feedback. This also leaves little hope to allow state governments to take locally suitable initiatives. The biggest casualty because of this is the fact that amid the entire crisis, the focus is being shifted on to revival of the economy rather than survival of the people. This approach goes against taking up the challenge of daily bread and butter issues faced by a huge section of the population with urgency. It is this section that has been facing the heat of the lockdown more than others. And yet, the curfew-like clampdown in all probability is going to continue in some form or the other through significant parts of the country, including some of the big cities, beyond the May 3 deadline set by Modi to lift the lockdown.

Thus, the question that arises is why is the Government response turning out to be not so effective and promising as it should have been with regard to controlling the threat? And why can its battle against COVID-19 go well beyond the deadline set? Though the Government may not directly address these questions, the truth is that the battle against one of the most serious threats in decades has been marked by bravado rather than a cool assessment and understanding of the extent and nature of the threat.

After clearly missing out and underplaying the extent of challenge in its initial days, the Government responded on irrational and unscientific lines. The segregation of people through social distancing was mainly, rather solely, relied upon as a mantra to ward off an otherwise far more serious threat whose potential since the beginning was as huge as the number of people who flew back from abroad at a time when the killer virus was taking an enormous toll of lives in China and several other countries. Sadly, ever since this the Government’s approach remains far from being changed even as relatively better-off sections like not only doctors and nurses but also policemen and journalists are ending up infected.

This should serve as a warning sign against any more complacency and the Government has to step up medical intervention to control further spread of the infection. The approach has to be both curative and preventive. But unfortunately both these areas are suffering because the disease is being more dreaded than fought against. The COVID-19 infection has somehow been so badly stigmatised that people have often been found to be wary to come forward and seek diagnosis and pursue treatment. The quarantine facilities have been so appalling that their media images look like prisons with ramshackle beds and broken and unclean toilets. This has been creating such a scare that people may instinctively try to stay away from them even in case of showing Coronavirus like symptoms. It is obvious that all such people can become potential virus careers.

The fight against Corona has indeed been blurred because of the ideological and sociological preferences of the present Government. It has ended up to mainly playing to the middle class gallery where marginalised sections felt like having been put out in the cold. This was palpable from the way the migrant labourers started fleeing the cities in an attempt to reach their native villages. The Government, the larger section of media and other consequential class took time to realise that the battle against a threat like Coronavirus cannot be fought selectively. Yet, these sections tried their best to turn the fight as soon as it was declared against the pandemic by Modi into an opportunity to boost his image further. The attempt was to turn him into a messianic figure who alone could take on the virus.

Unfazed by this, a few state governments like Kerala and Rajasthan were able to work out their own strategy. These states could successfully tame the contagion through their relentless efforts to a large extent. Thus, it is high time for both the Centre and other states to learn from these successes. More so since people are to be freed as soon as possible from the pangs of what can otherwise well become an endless lockdown with unimaginable consequences.

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