Why Nehru would have dealt with COVID-19 better
Apart from the fact that Nehru tackled an entire gamut of epidemics during his time, he adopted a scientific approach in everything that he did
Looking around at the magnitude of devastation wreaked by the Coronavirus and watching the national leadership wringing their hands helplessly or turning a blind eye to it, one misses the administrative acumen of the country’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who once said: ‘sanitation and health and the conquest over some diseases depend on science.’
Apart from the fact that Nehru tackled an entire gamut of epidemics during his time, he adopted a scientific approach in everything that he did. In ‘Discovery of India,’ he wrote: ‘It is scientific approach, the adventurous yet critical temper of science, the search for truth……. should be, a way of life, a process of thinking….’
During the critical years he ruled India, his policies and actions were governed by the same scientific temper that helped the nation put up valiant and successful fights against malaria, small pox, venereal diseases, leprosy, filariasis, diphtheria, typhoid, whooping cough, pneumonia, meningitis, rabies and so on. Those diseases were major mass murderers on the global scene then.
The secret of Nehru’s success in ushering in a healthier India was the public healthcare systems that he brought in. He also ensured that apart from affordable medicines, the people had access to government produced free vaccines.
Nehru’s rule saw the government dedicating more and more resources to fight epidemics through the Five-year Plans, start more medical colleges – it went up from 15 in 1946 to 81 in 1965 – and most importantly producing vaccines indigenously in government-owned laboratories.
Though India is home to the oldest vaccine public sector unit and many such units were set up during the British rule, Nehru nurtured all of them with due care since he believed in self-reliance and self-sufficiency in vaccine production. He also started more such units.
But today we stand helpless, waiting for foreign and Indian private profit making companies to supply us vaccines for Covid-19 at prices that are highly unaffordable to most of Indian population as we have lost the privilege. Most of the vaccine PSUs have been closed or given to the private sector. Such a crisis would not have befallen the nation if Nehru had been around.
What else could he have done in the present situation? Well, a lot. First he would have found a scientist, who knows about pandemics, to head the crisis solving team, something which many developed nations did.
Then, more research would have been done in Indian universities, institutes and laboratories to develop a treatment protocol, medicines and also vaccines to combat the pandemic and he would have definitely not be concentrating on building the Central Vista. He always wanted to build scientific institutions and perhaps he would have started one dedicated to Covid-19 mitigation, too.
Above all, he would have started the vaccination programme much earlier than it was launched now and would have ensured that most of the population was vaccinated before the onset of the second wave, under whose looming threat the entire nation is now reeling. For he would have consulted only scientific brains on the matter.
It is highly unimaginable that Nehru, as Prime Minister, would have turned a blind eye, or encouraged the needless congregation at Haridwar in the name of Kumbh Mela, advanced by a year, when the pandemic was at its peak. So we would have avoided a super spreader by all means.
Also Nehru would not have permitted communal forces to take advantage of the pandemic to spread hatred against certain communities through fake news. He would have cracked down on fake news himself and encouraged the mainstream media to be critical of the situation, taking the views of experts and journalists very seriously.
Under no circumstances would anyone seeking help for oxygen or ventilator through a social media post have to go to jail. No Chief Minister would have had the gumption to do such a mean thing if Nehru was the Prime Minister. In fact, he might have reached out to those seeking help to not just solve their problems but also to apologise for the mistake that might have happened somewhere.
Nehru would not have tried to wash his hands off the looming problem, suggesting that health is a State subject, but taken full control and led the fight against the virus from the front, extending necessary help to the States. For, he always knew that issues of such magnitude would need the Centre’s backing in all ways and cannot be left to the States to manage.
Even now, the present pandemic has brought to light the truth that the States that developed robust public health systems on the lines of Nehru’s vision alone are able to withstand the onslaught to some extent.
Also, we realized that those nations that had invested in affordable health care systems, as Nehru had dreamt, were able to come out of the Coronavirus crisis much earlier. Countries like China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Singapore and Cuba can be cited as examples for such a success.
Going by such success stories, India with Nehru at the helm might have even shown the world the way to tackle the new deadly virus through meticulous planning and a humane approach. Yes, he would not have imposed a lockdown on the nation without warning. His lockdown would have been well thought-out to ensure that people do not suddenly go without home and food.
As far as the unwelcome second wave is concerned, the country would have been more prepared to face it and not seen the kind of devastation that we have now. For, medical experts did predict its onset and Nehru would have taken them more seriously, rather than saying that we have the cure through cow urine, cow dung and so on.
On that count, Nehru would not have spared anyone who spoke ill of medical science and its practitioners without basis, despite his tolerance and preparedness to face criticism. He would have challenged charlatans scientifically and discredited them in the open forum to help people give up their faith on such people.
At the time when the lockdown was first imposed and migrant labourers suffered the most, Nehru would have taken a more sympathetic view of their problems and found means to solve them with a human touch. For that was how he dealt with most problems of India during his time.
Yes, Nehru would not have tried to browbeat the people through his eloquence or cried on camera to cover up his own failings. Definitely he would have screamed at those not wearing facemasks and not maintaining social distancing but would have been kind to people admitted to hospitals and ensured that lives were saved.
Definitely Nehru would not have trumpeted of successfully tackling of the pandemic when it actually raged or have urged the people to clang their vessels standing on the balcony or light candles and diyas from the terrace when the ambulances were still ferrying patients to hospitals and the crematoria were overcrowded.
Above all Nehru would not have impelled a world media to come up with denigrating headlines like ‘India in Crisis’ and ‘How Modi Failed Us’. For the situation would have been different and we would have been tackling the pandemic in a more efficient and scientific manner with the Prime Minister leading us.
(A Gopanna is author of Jawaharlal Nehru – An Illustrated Biography. He is also the Vice President, TNCC Chairman, Media Department, TNCC)
Views are personal