National leadership has to have a war-room, comprising top medical experts, corporate leaders, logistics players, etc, to deliver at the last mile
With Covid-19 infections touching new peaks at about 4 lakh per day and daily deaths at around 4,000, India seems to have landed itself right in the eye of the storm. With no more beds in hospitals and dire shortage of oxygen, and unending waits at the crematoriums and graveyards, panic in public is natural. But, unfortunately, the governments, both at the Centre and in most states, seemed to have lost control. While political rivals are busy blaming each other, many vultures are making money through black-marketing of oxygen and remdesivir injections, indicating a collapse of governance. Whether elections rallies triggered all this or kumbh celebrations with mass congregations can be settled later. The fact is who could judge in February-March of 2021 that a tsunami of Covid was ready to hit India. The accompanying graphic shows the total number of daily infections were continuously coming down since the peak of September 2020. That led to complacency, both at the government level as well as in the general public. Recall how thousands of farmers thronged Delhi borders in November-end 2020, and they were already protesting in large numbers in Punjab against the new farm laws. Nobody said at that time that they could be potential super-spreaders of Covid infections. In fact, several opposition parties supported and fanned that. Then came the New Year Eve, and about 45 lakh people are reported to have visited Goa to celebrate.
Many of them I know of came back infected. Still no one raised any red flags. Then came Makar Sankranti, Lohri, Pongal, etc, celebrations in mid-January, followed by Holi in March-end. While Maharashtra had started showing distress signals, but it was not as alarming in other states. Come April, and hell seems to have broken loose. And that’s when politicians were busy with elections and Hindu saints in kumbh. Should there have been a nationwide lockdown at that time, as was done last year by the prime minister with four hours of notice on March 24, 2020? This will remain an open question for many to discuss and debate. But, now, when we are in the midst of this cyclonic storm, we have to do our best to save as many lives as possible by putting our shoulders to the wheel.
What can be done now? First and foremost is calming the panicked public. Our elected representatives need to be in their constituencies, calming and helping people, rather than holing up in their comfy homes. National leadership has to have a war-room, comprising top medical experts, corporate leaders that can ramp up the supplies of oxygen and necessary drugs, logistics players to deliver the last mile, etc. They need to address the nation at least twice a week and share the truth of the disease, the testing, the rate of infections and deaths taking place. People are losing trust in politicians and bureaucrats who are trying to hide the reality. We are losing more people to Covid than we have ever lost in any war. So, the response has to be as it is in times of war, as ICRIER chairman Pramod Bhasin said in one of his latest interviews. If there is any consolation, it is that deaths in India per million population is still way behind Brazil, the UK, the US, France and even the world.
Nevertheless, given our sheer numbers, it is time for every one of us to put our shoulders to the wheel. Corporate sector has already come forward, diverting oxygen from steel and cement manufacturing to medical use. The government can take a step forward, saying that at least half of the CSR funds of the corporate sector be used for ramping up health infrastructure in the country for the next 2-3 years. RBI has come up with a loan package of `50,000 crore, which will be treated as priority sector lending. Remember, Covid has now reached rural areas, where health facilities are very poor. The devastation in rural areas can be much more than in mega-cities like Mumbai, Delhi or Bengaluru. Can our corporate leaders adopt primary health centres (PHCs) in rural areas and in Tier II/III towns, pump in resources from CSR funds and bank loans, and upgrade health facilities? And state governments should allow them to have an equal say in managing these PHCs. Can social reformers, NGOs, religious leaders, and even medical students come forward with financial and physical help and also convince people that there is no alternative but to get vaccination as soon as possible. People in many rural areas that I know of still resist getting vaccinated. There is dearth of knowledge and trust. These corporate, social and religious leaders have ample experience in running their large businesses or managing their followers, running into lakhs and crores, and can come very handy in collating information, giving better medical advice, enabling vaccination and saving their lives and livelihoods. But government needs to provide a framework for their effective participation in this difficult hour. There is no dearth of good people and organisations in this country to contribute their bit, provided they trust that it will be used for the good of people. By joining hands, we can turn the tables quickly and this crisis can help India emerge stronger.
The author is Infosys chair professor of agriculture, ICRIER