PM Modi needs to act like a statesman to avert the COVID-19 tsunami threatening to engulf India

The PM must shed inhibition and include talent from across the spectrum to avert the impending health and economic disaster which the country is staring at due to the pandemic

Photo Courtesy: social media
Photo Courtesy: social media
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Zafar Agha

We are indisputably living in abnormal times. Humanity, in fact, is facing existential crisis of a magnitude that no one could have imagined a month ago. The coronavirus disease was first reported from China in December last year and barely three months later, it has virtually put the entire globe under its footprint.

All continents, except for Africa to some extent, are reeling under coronavirus pandemic. Several European countries have imposed a lockdown, with others expected to follow suit. India has already put 80 districts across the country under lockdown. State after state is declaring complete shutdown. Lifeline cities of the country like Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Calcutta, Hyderabad etc. have been in complete limbo. Indian railways are totally shut for the first time in its history. Air travel is off limits. Local transport like metros, buses, auto rickshaw, cycle rickshaw etc have been told to keep off the roads. All educational institutions, both public and private offices, every kind of people gathering etc are shut.

Humanity seems to have moved into a surreal state. Life have taken on an entirely new meaning. You don’t have to get ready to rush to your office in time. Instead, get acclimatised to the work-from-home culture, something you and I never imagined before the advent of the coronavirus pandemic. Kids and students will have to take virtual classes through online teaching. God alone knows how institutions like banking and other such activities, vital for sustaining civilization. will now function. We are surely in a strange world where life seems to have changed, if not for ever, but surely for quite some time.

What is in store? The thought itself is scary. Frankly, no one has any clue. The fact is that all the systems that humanity evolved are crumbling. Governments have no idea how to fight coronavirus. Except for declaring a shut down, even the mightiest of world powers like the United States of America don’t know how to stop this pandemic. A developed country like Italy took the painful decision to allow its eighty plus corona patients die due to lack of health structures to save younger lives first. The richest global city, New York, is paralysed. How long this situation prevails is beyond anyone’s imagination.

As far India is concerned, we are still groping in the dark. Clapping to boost medics services and keep peoples’ morale high is, indeed, a commendable gesture. Shutting down cities and work is something every country suffering from the corona pandemic cannot avoid. But Indian government has not come out with any blueprint so far both on health and economic fronts. Coronavirus is, indeed, one of the greatest health challenges of modern times. But the financial crisis coming in its wake is beyond comprehension: the economic paralysis generated by shutdowns may lead to billions out of jobs across the globe.

India is sure to witness a much more serious economic crisis than the one we faced during and soon after demonetisation. We were already close to a recession-like scenario. Joblessness was already at its peak, the farming sector was a mess. Industrial sector, too, was not in the pink of health. How many more will go out of jobs from formal service sector like aviation, tourism and hotel industry alone is anyone’s guess. The auto industry has already announced a production shutdown. How many more industries and businesses may soon begin lay off is yet not clear.

The unorganised sector, manned largely by the poor, will obviously be the worst sufferer like demonetisation days. Shopkeepers, auto rickshaw and taxi drivers, vendors, domestic maids and servants, people working in small establishments etc will have no means left to fend for themselves. These groups survive serving the middle classes. How long this class can pay these groups with their own income is under a shadow. The government’s appeal not to cut salaries while people don’t attend offices can work for some time but not for long. The corporate sector does not believe in charity. Middle classes cannot afford to be generous for too long.

What will happen to the unorganised poor is hardly a guess. The poor, as you and I already know, will suffer the most without any government bailout which is nowhere round the corner so far. We are surely in for an economic disaster much worse and bigger than demonetisation days.

I am no health expert. But those who have spent their lives in medical services are claiming that India has so far only seen the tip of the iceberg of coronavirus pandemic. One wishes they are proven wrong. But going by Italy’s example where a bit of a delay in responding to the deadly disease led to unmitigated disaster, India may be sitting on a ticking bomb.

Imagine, we don’t even have sufficient testing kits or testing labs so far. Uttar Pradesh, with a population of the magnitude of entire Europe, has only two testing labs. Bihar and Bengal have only one such facility each. Select private labs like Lal Path have been permitted to conduct coronavirus test. Do you know how much they will charge per test? Each test will cost Rs. 5,000! How will the poor afford it? Even the best of public sector hospitals in small towns don’t have more than two ventilators. Guess the fate of patients if hundreds rush to a government hospital like in Italy.

India is surely in for the worst health and economic disaster if coronavirus pandemic spreads here like China or Italy. The Modi government has so far not shown the sign of seriousness one expects in this kind of an extraordinary emergency, If the BJP thinks it may mount the crisis selling nationalism, like it did during the demonetisation days, it will prove disastrous both for India and Indians. The country needs united response to the gravest health and economic emergency building up now.

Prime Minister Modi must shed inhibition and include talent from across the spectrum to avert the awaiting disaster. Scotland has appointed leader of the opposition and a well-known doctor as its health minister. We must not shy away from such politically-unconventional moves to face the gravest challenge staring the country.

Unfortunately, however, the Prime Minister so far has been banking only on sheer rhetoric and tokenism. It is time for him to act like a statesman and not just a politician looking for another electoral victory. Time and history will test Narendra Modi now. He has proved himself a skilled politician, manging electoral victories. Can he be a statesman, too? He hasn’t shown any sign of rising above party interests so far. There is not much hope either. If Modi fails, India fails. The cost of the failure could be too high both in terms of human lives and economic disaster.

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Published: 23 Mar 2020, 6:15 PM