Speaking at a virtual conglomeration of business leaders and economists, Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz described India as the “poster child of what not to do” in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. Albeit harsh, one cannot deny the truth behind this discourse given India’s simultaneous rise in cases and a fast sinking economy. Currently India has the second highest number of reported COVID-19 cases and its economy is among the worst affected globally.
A day before COVID-19 was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO), India reported 50 cases, most of which were restricted to those with travel history to foreign countries with reported COVID-19 cases. India was among the first few countries to impose early heavy restrictions on international travel, even temporarily halting all international flights and suspending visas to prevent the spread of the virus. State governments in Kerala, Odisha, Haryana, and Delhi moved fast to institute some form of restrictions on social gatherings and the central government acted promptly by announcing a nationwide lockdown on March 24, when the rate of cases were relatively low compared to global standards. Nevertheless the government’s “pre-emptive, pro-active, graded” response failed to curb the skyrocketing cases. By May 25, India ranked tenth globally in terms of total number of cases; just one and half months later it ranked third, behind only the United States and Brazil, and it recently surpassed the latter after a record 90,0000 cases were reported in just 24 hours. These numbers indicate that while the government may have initially delayed the spread of the virus, it was unable to control it. It is surprising how little the government is doing to revise existing strategies, which have clearly proven ineffective.
Measures taken by the government: What went wrong?
It is surprising how little the government is doing to revise existing strategies, which have clearly proven ineffective.
The highly contagious nature of the virus—which is less deadly than the SARS or the MERS virus, but is far more communicable—presents the greatest challenge to governments. Most countries have adopted lockdowns as a key response against the virus. The rationale for this is that physical distancing breaks the chain of transmission and in turn reduces its ability to spread, all the while providing governments much needed space and time to gather their national resources. China’s success in “flattening the curve” was attributed to the successful implementation of a complete lockdown, and India followed suit hoping to achieve the same results. With just a four hour notice, in what was dubbed the “world’s largest and strictest lockdown,” the entire country came to a complete standstill.
Early hope that the timely efforts would curb the spread of the virus has eroded, largely because early hopefuls failed to adequately account for the unique socio-economic conditions of the country. Around 95 percent of workers—among India’s 1.35 billion people—are in the informal sector. Most of these workers survive on a daily wage. With no opportunity to seek out alternative income, lockdown was a privilege they could ill afford. The contractual migrant workers were the worst affected as they walked thousands of miles bearing the summer heat—and many even died en route due to exhaustion and hunger—to return to their villages in hope of assured food and shelter. Although the government offered some short term relief to them through promised free supply of food grains for two months and special trains provided by railways for transportation, they were marred by administrative hurdles and ultimately proved to be too little, too late.
The government’s flashy marketing of a USD $273 billion economic stimulus package failed to conceal the fact that it amounted to only 1 percent of the GDP. It hardly survived the critical scrutiny of economists and policy analyst alike and the fall in Sensex was testament to the markets lack of confidence. Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman attributed India’s economic woes to an “Act of God” only exacerbated economic anxieties.
Government authorities did little to address the existing deficiencies of the public health system, let alone the additional burden of the pandemic. The crucial time the early lockdown provided was ill utilized due to the absence of large scale testing facilities, which could have gauged the spread of the disease. Although India’s current COVID-19 testing rate is impressive, it comes as the government has virtually abandoned all restrictions in a desperate attempt to restart the economy. In contrast, during the most stringent phase of the lockdown, (March 25-April 23) India’s conducted only 0.02 daily tests per thousand people. Hospitals running out of beds, isolation wards with unhygienic living conditions, shortage of crucial drugs, “disposal” of dead bodies of coronavirus patients in garbage dumps became an everyday reality for many, as private hospitals either turned away COVID-19 patients or profit off of them by charging exorbitantly high rates.
The way forward
Although some estimates suggest that the worst may be over, India’s fight against the pandemic is not, as the road to recovery is long and hard. Economists have ruled out the possibility of a swift recovery from the lockdown induced coma and the greatest challenge before the governments is to provide jobs for the unemployed youth. A serious restructuring of the economy is necessary where healthcare should be given top priority through increased investment in health infrastructure. As the world adjusts itself to a world where virtual is the “new normal,” reducing the digital divide should be given serious considerations.
The pandemic further revealed a deeper structural challenge plaguing the Indian federal system—excessive centralization without adequate coordination. The central governments unilateral imposition of a nationwide lockdown without giving states adequate notice, abruptly starting interstate trains and flights, created unnecessary chaos. What is even more disconcerting is the use of this centralized power to push forward significant reforms through ordinances, which undermine the power of the state in a parliamentary democracy. The brazen erosion of fiscal federalism meant that state governments were made responsible for public health services but with neither additional resources nor their share of GST dues. Moving ahead extraordinary vigilance will be necessary—among opposition parties, coalition parties and the general public—to ensure the pandemic does not become an excuse to irreversibly centralize power in the hands of a majoritarian government.
Moving ahead extraordinary vigilance will be necessary to ensure the pandemic does not become an excuse to irreversibly centralize power in the hands of a majoritarian government.
Before the end of the lockdown revealed deeper domestic and infrastructural inadequacies had gone unaddressed, India’s leadership role in coordinating a South Asia COVID-19 response and its timely evacuation of Indian nationals from foreign countries garnered international praise. Although domestic considerations have taken priority, the loss of South Asia to Chinese influence would be detrimental to Indian interests and ambitions. Going forward, India must harmonize its domestic and foreign policy and leverage its position as the largest South Asian country to complement domestic and regional recovery. India’s appointment to the WHO executive board gives it the platform to showcase its leadership potential for which it should proactively participate, especially through advocacy for international reform.
The unprecedented nature of the pandemic has wreaked havoc across the globe and India is not alone in facing economic and domestic devastation. The global nature of this cannot excuse the government’s callous response, which tuned the global pandemic into a local humanitarian disaster. Little has been done in way of providing the poor a safety net during these times of crisis. More effort has gone into suppressing journalistic freedom, hiding data on migrant and health care workers deaths, and communalizing the pandemic through false narratives of a Muslim organization deliberately spreading the virus. This all indicates how the ruling party’s majoritarian agenda dictated India’s COVID-19 response at the outset, at the expense of the immediate concerns of the health and safety of its citizens. India can play a crucial role in containing the pandemic globally given its past experience in mass manufacture of vaccines. Before it can take on this role, it must get its own house in order through a major shift in macroeconomic strategies and social welfare policies.
Image 1: Trinity Care Foundation via Flickr
Image 2: Gwydion M. Williams via Flickr