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COVID-19 – India’s Road Ahead

MHA had issued an order on 25th April, for all States/UTs, to allow opening of all shops registered under Shops & Establishment Act including shops in residential complexes, neighbourhood & standalone shops. These Relaxations in Lockdown are not applicable in Hotspots/Containment Zones. 

“This order is a move towards gradual relaxation which is crucial. It is thought on basis of key factors like intensity of pandemic in given geographical areas, sectors of economy that require interpersonal interaction,  and contribution of that sector to economic activity,” said, Chief economic advisor to Government of India, Dr. Subramanian Krishnamurthy. 

Explaining about similarities in Spanish flu and COVID-19, and how countries can prevent eventual economic downturn, Krishnamurthy said, “The 1918 Spanish flu affected 1/3rd of world population and mortality rate was 10% and my reading of “R0” (the rate at which an infected person infects others) seems to be similar for Spanish flu and present Covid-19. In such circumstances, it is observed that countries that are taking adequate measures to protect lives in early phase, are the ones where the eventual impact on the economy is also likely to be better.” He lauds how nationwide lockdown implemented from 24th March onwards in India, is pivotal to save lives and shall help in quick economic recovery.

Watch special edition of DD Dialogue on COVID-19 : https://youtu.be/KTV5dTSFST4

India’s response Vs response of developed nations 

As the virus is new, providing no template to follow to curb it, so it took the whole world by surprise. 

UN resident coordinator, Ms. Renata Dessallien said, “Nobody was prepared for this virus as it was wholly unknown. Countries have managed to flatten the curve though extraordinary efforts and foresight and India is one such nation that has been very steadfast in response to COVID-19.” 

She cited how India took precautionary steps with immediate effect in wake of the virus. “On 6th January, China declared the virus was of Corona string and on 17th January, advisories were being given to all states and union territories in India, very shortly after that PM Narendra Modi convened meetings with cabinet ministers.”  

India issued a travel advisory to travellers visiting China on 17th January, in the early stage when only 41 confirmed cases were reported, as on 11th January, 2020. 

“Briefly, after this 11 empowered groups were formed to look into various dimensions of government’s response. There was outreach to private sector and civil society groups and commendable efforts were taken by India to bolster the health infrastructure” she said.

On March 29, the government had constituted 11 empowered groups to suggest measures to ramp up the healthcare infrastructure, put the country’s economy back on track and reduce the miseries of people in lockdown, imposed to contain the coronavirus pandemic. 

Dr Rodrico Offrin, WHO’s regional emergency director for South East Asia, mentions contrasting responses between Western and South Eastern nations. “The disease was declared as a pandemic because other countries were not seeing it as seriously as India. Countries of South East Asia region have low cases as compared to the Western Pacific countries as the former took early actions”.

India as ‘Pharmacy’ of the world  

WHO has said that India is in a “decisive phase” of the response to pandemic. Elaborating on this, Dr. Rodrico Offrin said “WHO stated that it is looking forward to India on world stage as there is a whole history of the country, successfully combating deadly diseases like Polio, Small Pox.”  

He mentioned how India’s quick response came from all segments and sectors- from health authorities, to transport and aviation sector, to foreign affairs ministry involved in repatriation exercises, to highest leadership, all worked in unison. 

He underscored India’s humanitarian approach by saying it not only repatriated its own students and nationals but also helped other countries that could not afford to have charted flights like Maldivians. “It took immediate steps to quarantine at airports and comfort stranded people.” 

Commenting on COVID- diplomacy, Dr. Offrin said, “India, as a country is ahead of some of its neighbours in terms of economy and technology, due to which they see it as the (PHARMACY) of the World as it is able to provide quality medicines at a very cheap price.” 

Krishnamurthy outlined how “Coordination between national, state and district level is key to save lives, which India has been following as against working in isolation”.

Crux of PM’s outreach at National level 

Time and again PM Modi has addressed the nation with a great outreach and immense effect to aware the masses on pandemic. 

“Not only that the pandemic has come without a template, there is no template for robust democracy of a billion people,” said Mr. Shashi Shekhar Vempati, CEO of India’s public broadcaster, Prasar Bharati. 

He explained how effective and timely communication by PM Modi has been strategic to deal with the crisis.“What the Prime Minister wrote in his recent Linkedln blog is that we will eventually come out of this pandemic. He mentioned what we need to do to get our economy going and so we take a leadership position as India has a lot of potential and resilience.” 

Referring to the key 5 elements that PM shared in his blog as extremely significant, he explained one of the elements called ‘Adaptability’. If you see governors of New Jersey, they are putting out a distress call for COBOL programmers as their social security systems are still based on mainstay computer systems. On the contrary front, we see how India has adapted to generation ahead technological systems like Jan Dhan, Aadhaar and mobile to ensure financial and social security with direct bank deposits.” 

New Jersey governor Phil Murphy put out an open call for tech experts to help balance the load placed on the state’s unemployment system, which runs on a programming language called COBOL. This language is rarely taught to computer-science students due to which the number of people who can effectively program the system is dwindling. 

Elaborating on adaptability aspect , Prasar Bharati CEO, Shashi Shekhar Vempati heralded PM’s message to think ‘digital first’.  “I think the industries, the businesses that are going to survive the crises shall be the ones who have adapted themselves into digital setup with agility in operations. Work from Home is an example of this in contrast to 8-9 hrs traditional work culture. As a public broadcaster, we have also adopted electronic office applications which is helping us in coping with this pandemic.” 

Explaining how PM’s public addresses became so impactful that a nation of billion people followed it, he said, “PM uses least common denominator, with which people can relate like he used ‘Laxman Rekha’ as a metaphor to convey message of staying at home. His way of communication is highly effective.” 

Elaborating upon clarion calls of PM, he said, “There are two things PM asked people to follow- first, stand up and clap for all corona warriors and second was to light a lamp to show solidarity in crises. People wholeheartedly followed up, to this extent that the Television rating system recorded its lowest viewership, which means no one watched TV for those 9 mins and showed active participation in tasks. This is why we also delayed the most popular program of Ramayan by 9 mins. He truly produced a national moment”. 

Krishnamurthy adds how the addresses to the nation were very important to underline how the collective consciousness of the community will help in combating the pandemic rather than us being left alone to fight it.

Pandemic has sensitized on environmental concerns 

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought enough time to let humanity ponder on environmental problems as we see nature claiming public spaces. 

Prasar Bharati CEO mentions how the public broadcaster has charted out interesting programs to give positive- feel-good- stories in times of pandemic. “We have started a new segment called  ‘Dawn Chorus’ on All India Radio at 5:45AM every morning where one can listen to the birds chirping, as these days such stories of nature’s calling and animals enjoying freedom in a clean environment are surfacing up. We will have to look at technological innovations and lifestyle to be far more climate friendly and respect nature because that is where all these pandemic are coming from.” 

Joining the chorus on environmental problems, Ms. Dessallien said, it is time to reflect on the global model of development, that countries have chosen, that is killing our planet. “We have to build back better, build strong economic system, socio-economic response and sensitize people to think about nature that complements the modernization process”. 

Krishnamurthy adds how India has always followed a unique model of wealth creation where the market economy is coupled with trust and the moral fabric to enable growth ‘without harming anyone’. 

Employment and Economic security 

India is one of the nations to come up with robust social relief packages to deal with the effect of COVID-19 on vulnerable population. 

Krishnamurthy said “In a pandemic like this, there is more of a demand-like disruption as people won’t buy that much. At such time, being able to reach to masses through goods and services is a humongous challenge which is smoothened by Jan Dhan accounts, efficient Public Distribution Infrastructure and delivery of essential services”. 

Ms. Renata Dessallien, extolling India’s relief packages for the needy in crises, said “It must be acknowledged how the 23 billion dollar package was announced to provide immediate relief to millions. Covid-19 was declared as a national disaster which liberated the national disaster fund that helped in catering to food and shelter needs of people in India.” 

Krishnamurthy prescribes, in these times both the supply and demand side must be taken care of. “On the demand side, if money goes into the hands of the vulnerable sections then that will impact the consumption and thereby bring up demand. On the supply side, it is important to take care of the working capital of the firms, especially for MSME to let them survive the crises.” 

Besides this, he mentions about financial sector and forbearance needed there to make companies come out of exogenous shock. “What we want to do is therefore, forbear…. in the sense the non-performing assets, recognition of assets, (NBPA) norms etc, have to be relaxed and RBI has already taken steps in that direction along with the Centre.”

India’s recovery rate 

India is a huge country with many states and union territories where every state is in a different transmission scenario. 

Dr. Rodrico Offrin highlighted how ministry of Health in India, with all health workers and apparatus, is working hard to detect cases, rapidly test them, carry isolation, and trace contacts. “As the transmission scenario changes, India’s testing strategy is also changing which is a highly appreciable move. As of now, India has 200 labs, more than 85 private labs and capacity of nearly 550 tests a day.”

Fighting Stigmatisation 

Ms. Renata Dessallien voices PM Modi’s concern of not discriminating or stigmatizing in a time of a pandemic like this. “PM was calling for unity and solidarity, as the virus doesn’t know any religion, and cannot be identified with colour, skin, caste, language, and other borders. Unity and solidarity is also needed at international level but unfortunately nations are not delivering right now while India, of course, is delivering”.

Citing UN secretary general, she says, nobody is safe until everybody is safe and so discrimination should not be done anywhere in the world.

Challenges for India and exit strategies 

Dr. Offrin says that for a densely populated country like India, social distancing can be hard. “Cities that are places of work may not be the places of residence for some which causes mobility. This has to be seen.” He mentioned how access to healthcare remains a challenge for various areas and suggested to think on exit strategies to avoid resurgence in covid cases. 

Ms. Dessallien underlined the need to invest in the health sector while Krishnamurthy, highlighted how the ministries have been working very hard, taking the inputs and absorbing ideas to support the economy. 

Prasar Bharati CEO thanked the frontline workers for their efforts and augmented support to them from the side of public broadcaster of the world’s largest democracy. 

He said how the pandemic has brought not just challenges but immense opportunities to give example– how do you engage students in this environment? “Not everyone has a computer or internet access at home. Luckily in India we have built World’s only free to AIR DTH platform, that reached 35-40 million households. People can access 40-50 free education channels and there can be no disruption in education. We are actually making it happen”. 

“These are the kind of solutions that will help us in fighting this pandemic and coming out of it. Ultimately, we have to design universal way so that the rest of the world can adopt them. India is doing its bit so that entire humanity and mankind comes out of this stronger” he added optimistically.

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