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India and its approach to tackle COVID-19

India and its approach to tackle COVID-19
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Shah Zubair Rashid

The outbreak and the spread of COVID-19 have to some extent halted globalisation and have contributed to the rise of populism, xenophobia, and right-wing ethno-nationalism. The impact of COVID-19 on the global markets has been swift and shocking and it has lead to most severe economic disruptions. As the border closures and lockdowns around the world have disrupted supply chains and sent commodity prices into a free fall, the valuation in global financial markets has crushed. The different countries of the world have adopted different methods to save the lives and livelihoods of their people. This write-up is concerned with India’s response towards the protection of it’s most vulnerable sections.

India is witnessing a rapid surge in the number of COVID-19 patients with new positive cases being reported every day. As the number of cases continues to rise in India, the question remains how the government is responding to it. The consequences of the lockdown are already proving to be disastrous for migrant workers and they are among the worst affected category of people during this pandemic. Their efforts to leave cities because of being afraid to fall ill and not being able to pay rent indicates that they have very low incentives to stay in cities without jobs. Millions of people especially migrants and informal sector workers were immediately left jobless at the announcement of lockdown with barely enough savings to possibly feed themselves and their families for a week or two at most. All of this prompted a mass exodus of people fleeing cities to go back to their villages on foot travelling thousands of kilometers in above 40 degree celsius temperature, many more remained trapped in cities as interstate trains and buses came to halt and there is no reliable account of the number of people among them who are dying because of being hungry. This mass exodus of migrants from cities has raised concerns over an impending economic crisis. India’s migrant workers have fallen through the cracks of its social security net and the government’s response has shown a significant gap between high minded intentions, reflecting in existing laws, and their implementations.

Owing to highly informal and exploitative nature of the sector, labourers are most often paid much below the minimum wages rate prescribed by the local administration and the percentage of Indian daily wage workers who make Rs 200-400 per day is 55% and those who make Rs 400-600 per day is 39%, above Rs 600 is 4% and below Rs 200 is 2%.

The Indian government has unveiled a 260 billion dollar economic stimulus package which would cover around 800 million people over the next three months. The package entails 5kg of wheat or rice per person per month, a gas cylinder per month for poor families, and some cash subsidies. However, these will not likely reach migrant workers who are far from their registered addresses. In addition, over 100 million people are possibly excluded from enrolment in the Public Distribution System (PDS). The lockdown by the Indian government seems to be more misery for migrant labours. Over 40% of migrant workers surveyed did not have food surplus commonly called ration in India. Only handful of them said they had ration to support their households for two to four weeks and the current situation of food supplies among Indian migrant workers who don’t have ration now is 42.3% and those who have ration to last for less than two weeks is 39.4%, rest 18.3% have ration for two to four weeks according to Jan Saha’s data.

The middle classes have settled down to a routine and (though they too face challenges) can work from home, affording the luxury of leisure too, but the ones on the road are being corralled and herded into stadiums after giving them a chemical cleanse and quarantined but what next for them? Who will undertake the responsibilities to medically examine them, provide food, and then on some stage transport them to their home in the city or village? Will their jobs be waiting for them? What is the plan to put the economy back on track and mitigate the impact of the lockdown? These are common questions which the government of India needs to answer.

One of the other most influential impacts of this global health emergency is an exponential rise in the curve of unemployment. The government of India claims to be successful at controlling the rapid spread of the highly contagious virus and it has attributed the success to the lockdown. However global experience shows that many countries managed to control the spread of COVID-19 without going into such a drastic shutdown of the economy and all its consequences – one of which being the staggering levels of unemployment. Data from the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) has already revealed a large rise in unemployment from 8.4% on the 1st of March to 23.4% on the 5th of April. Owing to highly informal and exploitative nature of the sector, labourers are most often paid much below the minimum wages rate prescribed by the local administration and the percentage of Indian daily wage workers who make Rs 200-400 per day is 55% and those who make Rs 400-600 per day is 39%, above Rs 600 is 4% and below Rs 200 is 2%.

Many of the government’s peremptory decisions have caused hardships and misery to millions. The current government is without any strategy and the condition of frontline warriors like doctors and paramedics is no better than migrant labourers, as most of the hospitals have no isolation wings, no protocol to screen patients with COVID-19 symptoms and do not have enough N-95 or even three-ply masks for the staff. According to current government guidelines for the coronavirus crisis, hospitals cannot turn away COVID-19 patients. They will have to, instead, mobilize enough resources to treat them while ensuring protection to health workers, but to their misery, the same government is unable to provide N-95 and protective gear to doctors.

In India, 320 million students have been affected by the pandemic, though the government quickly recommended shifting to online teaching without any proper planning. The 2017-2018 national sample survey reported that only 23.8% of Indian households have internet access. In rural households, only 14.9% had access to the internet while as in urban households the percentage was 42%. 16% of women had access to mobile internet compared to 36% of men. A recent report stated that only 12.5% of students had access to smartphones. Furthermore, most teachers are ill-equipped for online teaching.

Yet today it ranks low on the list of confirmed cases and high on the list of COVID-19 recoveries. Kerala’s mantra for success has been straightforward and open to the world to be followed, as public health authorities of Kerala have prioritized early detection through extensive testing, widespread contact tracing, and 28-day quarantine for all those infected.

The Indian government’s approach to tackling this global health emergency is totally different from the rest of the world. With an aim to bring the entire nation together in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic, Modi had urged the countrymen to turn off lights for 9 minutes and lit diyas, candles, or even mobile flashlights. Another time he suggested banging plates and clap so as to applaud those at the forefront of combating the coronavirus. Some of the current government politicians want to shoot migrant labourers and to some of them, they are irresponsible and just taking advantage of their enforced vacation to go home to their families. So all I can say a humanitarian crisis in making is overshadowing India. The COVID-19 national task force which was appointed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi has raised serious concerns over the government’s failure in handling this crisis. A panel of epidemiologists was of the opinion that the lockdown failed to achieve its purpose due to the government’s failure to take crucial parallel measures such as developing India’s testing capacity and medical infrastructure. The panel also said that the Indian government has taken decisions regarding this lockdown without consulting any experts. Kerala despite being the first state of India to report a case of COVID-19 – a medical student who arrived from Wuhan, China at the end of January – has effectively and scientifically resisted the spread of the contagious COVID-19.

When Prime Minister Modi announced a nation-wide lockdown on March 24, Kerala had the most number of cases than any other state in India at that time. Yet today it ranks low on the list of confirmed cases and high on the list of COVID-19 recoveries. Kerala’s mantra for success has been straightforward and open to the world to be followed, as public health authorities of Kerala have prioritized early detection through extensive testing, widespread contact tracing, and 28-day quarantine for all those infected. Moreover, the state’s fatality rate is the lowest in India and it has managed to limit the spread of COVID-19 without inflicting any sort of human sufferings as seen in other parts of the country. Kerala’s model of COVID-19 resistance seems to be more effective than the methods followed at other places and has also been widely appreciated not only in India but also in the world. The Health Minister of Kerala K K Shailaja shared the precautionary measures taken by Kerala to successfully combat COVID-19 to BBC news channel. The Minister said that the state opened special control rooms and started taking precautionary measures as soon as the disease was reported in Wuhan China. In the second phase, the check-up facilities for diagnosis were arranged and people who came from outside were intensively examined. Home quarantine facilities are also managed and monitored said the Minster. It is high time for the rest of the country to follow Kerala’s model so as to combat this global health emergency without inflicting any further human sufferings.

Shah Zubair is a  science student. He hails from Kulgam district, Kashmir.

Disclaimer: Views expressed are exclusively personal and do not reflect the stand or policy of Oracle Opinions.

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