The deadly second wave of Covid-19 has provoked an intense public debate and anger on the reasons why it was allowed to hit us at all and the points raised have varied from delayed preparatory moves to failures of response from an overrun healthcare system that resulted in casualties owing to shortages of beds, oxygen and medicines at the hospitals. What matters more, however, is that once the crisis broke out the government at the Centre did speedily source the vital equipment including oxygen and its bureaucratic machinery, not used to micromanagement, also took on the national challenge of logistics and delivery to the people on the ground — of whatever was available.
The pandemic overwhelmed all systems and inevitably a large number of tragic deaths occurring across the country could become a part of the collective historical memory — but with the remembrance also of the enormous work done by our medical fraternity for saving lives despite shortages of supplies and equipment. The crisis has produced a political fallout and the opposition has seized the opportunity of pressing forth with its criticism of the Modi government in regard to the long-term preparations required for meeting the health hazard. It is the politics of perceptions that is in full play now but all of that could change in the future depending on the way events unfold themselves and the success the present regime achieved in planning for all contingencies in the times ahead. In the entire narrative of how the government of the day performed in helping the people, the vital question of how the public responded to this live threat to everybody’s life should also be looked at as there are socio- cultural learnings on how a big nation should cope up with a human crisis of this magnitude.
There is no denying the fact that even in the ‘unlock’ phases Prime Minister Modi had constantly emphasised the need for Covid precautions to be followed strictly. Many people in India regrettably did not come out at their best as far as their own conscious or innocent contribution to the spread of the pandemic was concerned. Social festivities like weddings and get- togethers continued particularly in the North in utter disregard of the Covid restrictions. There could be a variety of reasons why this happened. Herd mentality, so typical of the public here, came into play in adding to the defiance of the standardised Covid-appropriate behaviour.
Evidently, there was also a widespread absence of scientific temper that would be a major reason why people failed to grasp the prime importance of the elementary preventive measures of mask, safe distancing and hand sanitisation. This was seen even in the segments of population that could afford to buy quality masks and sanitisers. Migrations of the economically weak on account of lock downs — that had not guaranteed their wages even for a temporary period — proved to be a debilitating factor. The pull of faith as a mitigator of threat to health, and even of danger to life, was also there in the context of an event like Kumbh. The pandemic demanded voluntary postponement of mass agitations, a political activity in normal times, in the interest of the public at large.
An excessive reliance on the powers that be for delivery, big or small, in a public crisis, could be the outcome of a system where the voter accepted the promise that everything possible under the sun would be done by the victorious candidate or party. This would, in an emergency, focus the public wrath entirely on the government and completely disregard the importance of the attitude of ‘self-help’ among the people in overcoming a public crisis. On the whole, a higher degree of public awareness would have reduced the gravity of incidence of the second wave and checked its cumulative spread. As the government proceeds at a rapid pace to make up for deficiencies and arrange for universal vaccination the role of the people in countering the pandemic is still going to be extremely important in the months to come.
A few illustrations of the typical behaviour of people in the midst of the Corona threat would be worth mentioning. Even the educated lot were seen wearing a regulatory mask when they came out but not covering the nose. It is like displaying the mask but without an understanding of the crucial point about its utility — covering the mouth and nose was for ‘the user’s own safety’ against some other potential carrier around. It does not matter that the users might themselves be healthy. Further, it could even be in the psyche of a well-to-do person to put himself above the ‘compliant’ common man and not accept an ‘inconvenience’. The logic of wearing a mask while facing a courier or a repairman is not understood well enough and there is an attitude of negligence towards anybody called for domestic assistance in the matter of checking out for any exposure elsewhere. There have been numerous cases of serious and even fatal consequences of exposure to an asymptomatic infected person who was a regular visitor to the victim’s house. The point is about lack of awareness in a situation where common sense itself would have suggested the dos and don’ts of Covid precautions. Now that even children are said to be in the zone of vulnerability, the adults across the society have to once again redefine their responsibilities.
What is truly deplorable is that the health emergency exposed the socio-cultural degradation of many in Indian society, a society that prided itself and genuinely so for its inheritance of moral and spiritual legacies. This has produced a spectacle of innumerable individuals and philanthropic bodies coming forth to help those in distress on the one hand and a significant number of depraved individuals making huge monetary gains, on the other, by selling medical equipment and medical supplies in the black — in full knowledge of the threat to life that this caused. Deterrent action against such culprits, wherever possible, has to be taken to build confidence of the citizens in governance.
The crisis has unravelled the poor state of management that various establishments deemed to be autonomous in their working, had suffered over the years — whether it was the case of a hospital, a university or a civil supplies centre of the government. Misconduct of a ward boy with a Covid patient going unpunished has become the symbol of how this country’s systems had been allowed to run without supervision. A lesson from this pandemic is that the internal governance of the country across all segments and states needed to be upgraded to a point where organisations in public or private sector would be audited for performance in terms of their compatibility with the national interests and public good.
There are many more lessons to be drawn from the pandemic India is passing through, creating the ‘fear of the unknown’ in every citizen here. The experience calls for a greater public education on governance and policy making — subject, of course, to the requirement of confidentiality on grounds of national security. A daily national bulletin on the important aspects of the pandemic would help to keep the people attuned to their responsibilities and counter any serious attempts at spreading misinformation. Robust functioning of Parliamentary Committees has to be ensured, accountability for failure of implementation of the given mandate on the head of an enterprise or a department of the government has to be fixed and punishment meted out to functionaries in leadership positions who misused the authority of the state for personal benefit.
The Covid crisis showed up flaws in the implementation process — there was immediate public appreciation of the government functionaries who performed well — and it is necessary, therefore, to determine whether some lives could be saved through competent and prompt handling by the personnel concerned. The challenge of riding a crisis tests decision-making and the pandemic would have revealed how outstanding performers stood in contrast to the incompetent. The Intelligence machinery of the Centre has once again proved its sterling worth by acting as the eyes and ears of the government to give an objective picture of the impact of the pandemic — it should be strengthened further in the interest of the nation and democratic governance.
Perhaps the most meaningful lesson in handling a national emergency that affected the entire population is that the process should be taken down to the level of districts and the DM-SP duo made the nodal point of ‘survey’ and ‘implementation’. Some of the districts of India are of the size of a small country and they offer a decentralised autonomous centre of governance closest to the people that could represent both the Centre as well as the state government. Shortages of hospital beds, oxygen and critical care medicine stocks in the district could be ascertained by the DM within hours and communicated to the authorities above for urgent attention and despatch of life-saving equipment on prioritisation. This practice should be invoked even now as the crisis is likely to prove to be a long-term challenge — the virus is predictably spreading towards rural India. This strategy will also be of great value in helping to build the medical infrastructure across the country that had fallen so short of the national requirement — and which was undoubtedly the biggest reason why India lost so many lives in this pandemic. It is a matter of great satisfaction that Prime Minister Modi himself reached out to the district magistrates of affected districts and encouraged them to take charge of the situation and boldly plan out the strategy of meeting the challenge of the Corona crisis on a long-term basis.
(The writer is a former Director of Intelligence Bureau)