Across the aisle: P Chidambaram writes about survival, revival after Coronavirus crisis

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April 19, 2020 3:30 AM

In such an extraordinary situation, there can be only one leader in each country, and that is the President or the Prime Minister or a despot masquerading as a popular leader.

Health workers collect throat swabs for Covid-19 test from residents of a colony in Mahim, Mumbai (Express photo)Health workers collect throat swabs for COVID-19 test from residents of a colony in Mahim, Mumbai (Express photo)

The Coronavirus challenge has no precedent in humankind’s recorded history. There was certainly nothing in history that affected 207 countries, afflicted over two million people (and rising) and caused the death of 1,35,163 (and rising). The long-term consequences of the pandemic are as yet unascertained.

In such an extraordinary situation, there can be only one leader in each country, and that is the President or the Prime Minister or a despot masquerading as a popular leader. India has a duly elected prime minister, which is why I called him, in my statement of March 25, the Commander. We are foot soldiers. I, therefore, welcomed the lockdown effective March 25 as well as the extension of the lockdown after April 14 until May 3. We are all obliged to observe the rules and regulations of the lockdown until it lasts; that is the only way a democracy can be governed without boots and batons and bullets.

A Glossary
I compiled a glossary of words that are currently in usage and my understanding of those words.

Coronavirus or COVID-19: A new strain of the Betacoronavirus with approximately 70% genetic similarity to the SARS-CoV. It was first noticed in a patient in China on December 30, 2019. It is highly contagious and the disease became a pandemic in less than 75 days. There is no known cure and there is no vaccine yet.

Lockdown: An extreme form of curfew where a whole city or province or country is shut down. China tried it in Wuhan city and in Hubei and some other provinces and, allowing for some fudging of numbers, has, by and large, brought the situation under control. Dozens of countries have enforced a lockdown to different degrees and have reported success to different degrees.

Testing: ‘Test none, Find none’ was the title of a learned article. Absolutely true. Some countries were ahead of the curve in testing (South Korea, Singapore), some fell behind and paid a price (Italy, Spain, France), some dithered (India, United Kingdom), and some rubbished it initially (United States), but there is now a consensus that a lockdown will be ineffective without extensive testing.

Testing Kits: There are different methodologies, and some take 72 hours to report the result. Antibody tests yield results in 4 hours. ICMR, the competent authority, dragged its feet for several weeks before it approved antibody tests. Besides, there is a worldwide scarcity of testing kits, especially the rapid testing kits. Only a handful of countries manufacture rapid testing kits, China among them. Finally, India seems to have got its act together in testing and, as on April 16, had conducted tests on 2,86,714 individuals or 220 per million population.

Enforcement: Declaring a lockdown is one thing, enforcing it is another. A lockdown had been recommended very early, some states had locked down parts of their states in the third week of March, the central government did not reveal its mind, and on March 24, at 8 pm, the Prime Minister announced a nationwide lockdown with effect from 00.00 hours on March 25 — a notice of barely 4 hours. There was panic. No one was sure if jobs or work would be available the next day onwards; no one was certain if money would be given to them to stay at home (staying at home requires cash). When, on March 25, the finance minister announced a miserly, over-valued ‘package of relief’ that left out millions of poor, especially the migrant workers, the dam burst. Panic turned to chaos, and what unfolded thereafter will forever remain a blot on India.

The Aftermath
Federalism: It was the first to be thrown out of the window. Health, sanitation, testing, quarantine, relief, etc., are in List II (State List) of the Constitution of India. But the key to the Treasury is with the central government. State governments cannot borrow without the approval of the central government. Consequently, the Centre has assumed all powers and states have been reduced to supplicants. Letters of chief ministers pleading for funds have gone unanswered for weeks.

The Poor: The proportion of the population that has been left to fend for itself for 21+19 days. Their survival does not appear to be a priority of the central government. Chief ministers are at their wits’ end. Hunger is widespread, malnutrition is entrenched. Why the government cannot allocate up to Rs 65,000 crore (out of an expenditure budget of Rs 30 lakh crore) to provide cash support to up to 50% of the families, is a mystery.

The Economy: It is sliding to zero growth in Q1. There is no plan in the making. Revival of the economy requires ideas, a plan, and effective implementation. A talent-short government, if it is serious, will constitute a Task Force consisting of economists like Dr Raghuram Rajan, Dr Arvind Panagariya, Dr Esther Duflo, Dr Arvind Subramanian, Dr Isaac Thomas, Dr Himanshu, Dr Jean Dreze and Dr Sajjid Chinoy to recommend a hundred things that have to be done.

News: Government’s handouts are news, criticism is fake news. The bad news is that the cumulative total of persons who tested positive is rising, the graph resembles an upright hockey stick. The good news is the foot soldiers and the corona warriors are obeying the Commander, whatever their reservations, and putting up a brave fight against the enemy.
Jai Hind!

Twitter @Pchidambaram_IN

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