India’s COVID-19 combat plan: An inexorable march of folly

Was Hegel true when he wrote: “people and governments have never learned anything from history”? But then, history is not Modi’s strong suit

Prime Minister Narendra Modi
Prime Minister Narendra Modi

Mohan Guruswamy

Historian Barbara Tuchman, in her celebrated study on decision-making failures by governments, The March of Folly, chronicles several major events in history when despite the clarity of the situation and availability of options wrong choices were made leading to catastrophic consequences.

Her analysis starts with the case of the Trojan horse, actually a Greek horse laden with Greek soldiers with deadly intent, which was unthinkingly and happily hauled into Troy.  Tuchman theorised that leaders are usually driven by base and sundry motivations instead of being driven by grand visions and noble impulses and so make huge mistakes time and again.

In his seminal work on decision-making in government, psychologist Irving Janis warns of the dangers of Groupthink. Groupthink is a malady to which decision-making groups are highly susceptible unless the group’s dynamics are carefully controlled and marshaled to advantage by the leader, for groups often tend to be dominated or manipulated by one or few individuals who have their own agendas.

There are dangers when the system leaves all decision-making to one individual. Others stop thinking. Worse they stop warning the leader.

The Spanish Conquistador, Hernan Cortez, with less than two hundred soldiers entered Tikal, the Aztec capital. Cortez boldly strode up to the waiting Montezuma seated on the great pyramid and seized him. The numbed Aztecs capitulated and South America soon became Latin America.

Coming to more recent times, there are two fateful decisions we must wonder about. The first is the decision to “demonetise” all Rs 500 and Rs 1000 currency notes. On that fateful night in November 2016, out of the total banknotes in circulation valued at Rs 16.42 lakh crore, nearly 86% or around Rs 14.18 lakh crore in Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 banknotes was withdrawn from circulation with a four-hour notice. Did they consider the consequences of rendering the economy dangerously anaemic by withdrawing 86% of the cash? Did they not know that India was still mostly a cash economy, and that the so-called ‘black money”, Modi said he was after, is seldom kept in cash? In the end, it only flushed out Rs 10,720 crore.

We were still counting the devastating losses inflicted by demonetisation when the COVID-19 pandemic struck. India experienced an even more virulent pandemic in 1957, when the influenza, again with a Chinese origin, arrived in May that year on a ship from Singapore. By the end of June, it spread all over India infecting over two million. Two H1N1 Swine flu pandemics hit India in September 1968 and again in May 2009. The last visitation in India was from the US and was brought by an air passenger returning to Hyderabad. Clearly, the only way to curb a pandemic is to stop it at the gates.

When reports of the Novel Coronavirus started coming in early January, we should have been warned to screen all air passengers arriving in India. I returned to Hyderabad from Bangkok on January 23 and saw the thermal cameras but they were not manned. The situation was similar in all other airports with international arrivals. By the time screening began in end February, over 70 lakh passengers had arrived from all over the world, many carrying the virus.

Why were the lessons of the earlier flu pandemics weeks not imbibed? Those viruses too were mostly dangerous for the older population, and we had dealt with them by isolating the infected and vulnerable. Clearly, the government needed to reach out to institutions that retained the institutional memory.

The medical professionals seen advising the government were mostly cardiologists and general physicians. The head of ICMR is a cardiologist who earned his spurs by attending to the heart ailments of New Delhi’s VIPs. It is said he pipped an epidemiologist for the job. The head of the prestigious AIIMS, New Delhi, is a pulmonologist. The medical professionals favoured by the influential English TV channels were again mostly cardiologists. So who was influencing the government’s decision making?

If eminent epidemiologists like Dr Jayaprakash Muliyil, a former Dean of the reputed Christian Medical College in Vellore were consulted, they would have told Modi: “There was an epidemic of H1N1 influenza in 2009. It came in and stayed for two-three months and spontaneously disappeared. Why? It is because of a certain level of herd immunity that was produced by the infection.

So, our only hope is that this virus head that way”. Once again this virus caused only a mild disease among the age group below 60 years. Unlike, USA (16%), Japan (26%), China (12%), Italy (23%), Britain (18%), France (20%) and Russia (16%), India with a life expectancy of 68 years had a population cohort above 65 years of only about 6.8%. The morality rates in the widely reported countries were relatively high because they typically had twice as many people in the 65+ years cohort.

Now the big question. Did Modi not know that of the unorganised workforce of about 410 million, as many as half that were daily wage earners? A lockdown meant that all workplaces such as construction sites, small retail, eateries, industrial sweat shops and factories employing contract labourers shut down, throwing tens of millions to the wolves. CMIE has now estimated that 130 million were rendered jobless with just a four-hour notice.

Did he consider what social distancing would mean in our metro city slums that typically have population densities in excess of 60,000 per sq. mile? Dharavi has a density in excess of 700,000. Most of the migrant workers stay in groups of eight to 10 in a room, with as many as 27 sharing a toilet.

Did he consider that confining these to their localities without incomes and food in summer was akin to a death sentence? Did Modi think that the migrants would not break out of their prisons, and begin their now-familiar long marches back to their villages?

Before he died in St Helena, Napoleon Bonaparte exhorted his son to read history because that was the only truth. Was Hegel true when he wrote: “people and governments have never learned anything from history”? But then, history is not Modi's strong suit.

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