Could the Centre and the prime minister have achieved more than what they did on curbing the endemic spread through more of the Modi outreach, given his credibility and unchallenged ability to communicate with the masses, asks N Sathiya Moorthy.
Even as the nation is coming to terms with the Covid-induced lockdown, it is being asked to re-adjust itself to the ‘new normal’ that would arrive with the phased out withdrawal of what is at times termed a ‘curfew’. The coming days, weeks and months will decide which of the two is better for individuals, industries and institutions alike.
That industries would suffer was known, incomes of individuals and institutions, starting with the governments at the Centre and in the states would suffer, too, was all well known. That there was no cure in sight for the pandemic, nor could one be found, tested and mass-manufactured for a nation of India’s population-size needed no reiteration.
Nothing explains the lack of decision-making and lack of communication better than Vice President M Venkaiah Naidu, requesting Rajya Sabha members wearing masks to go out and ‘please, please, go out and remove your mask… It is difficult to conduct the House…Otherwise, you know what I will do’. That was on March 18.
The fact was there was bungling all round.
Now, at the end of it all, the unplanned lockdown has meandered to a level when individuals and industries, state governments and other institutions began seeking a phased-out withdrawal of the lockdown. But the damage to the economy had been done, not that it required Covid to reinstall the fear of the rupee in the mind of the average Indian citizen -- whether individual or industry.
Now, the withdrawal of lockdown comes with a new set of rules, shortened as the ‘new normal’. In practical terms, it means that people cannot be moving around in gay abandon as before. They need to follow social distancing to the ‘T’, wear masks and at times hand gloves, etc in public, and all those kind of personal hygiene codes that was inspired or imposed from above.
The question is, if it would and could be enforced as stringently as was possible during the lockdown period. If so, how? If not, why not -- and what are the consequences, for the individual and institution, including the government?
Industries that are reopening after a break in the midst of a new global economic recession are duty-bound, without public avowal, to strictly enforce the ‘social distancing’ norms but are going to find it increasingly difficult to enforce them. Apart from shop floors and administrative offices, there are the cycle-stands and bike-stands, staff canteens and cooperative societies.
Maybe, the government at the Centre and in the states should sit together and set out a code on what all can constitute a violation of the Covid norms. Else, citing an unproven suspicion of a stray or at times non-existent case, a lower-level official, whether from the labour department of the Centre or the state, or health or revenue officials, could pull down the shutters of a large factory indefinitely. This applies to every other institution, like schools and colleges, hospitals and every government department.
More importantly, governments can use this occasion to study the living conditions of many of the ‘migrant labour’ working in some of these establishments, starting from top-rung industries to the street corner tea-shop, and codify actionable steps for their enforcement. Maybe this is not the time to enforce them, but this can still be the time to study and codify them.
Then, there is the larger agri sector, which every economist, government authority and medical man has ignored. The farm sector may need to be sensitised almost from the start, as the inevitability of their even knowing enough about ‘social distancing norms’ is not very high, nor is their inclination to abide by it given their own socio-economic conditions and upbringing.
Then there is the public transport sector, whether run by the governments or the private sector -- air, rail and road travel -- not to mention the continuing goods transport. Indian buses and trains are known to overflow, and there is no obvious way to enforce ‘social distancing on the move’ without increasing the number and frequency of buses and trains.
Already, State-owned road transport corporations are running at a huge loss. Both the government-owned Indian Railways and those that the private sector has been running for a couple of years now are not going to be happy to run ‘empty trains’. None of them may be in a position to increase the frequency, given their strained finances and anticipated fall in revenue from ‘half-empty, half-full’ buses/trains, for an indeterminable period.
The result could be witnessed on the streets of our cities, towns and villages, and on wayside stations and bus stops. Late attendance to non-attendance at offices (both public and private sector), and instant and impromptu street protests and road and rail-roko agitations, too, could become a part of the ‘new normal’.
It is doubtful if the state authorities down to the taluk and village-levels are tuned to face such a situation. What more, any street protest on the issue could end up with mass break-ins into passing buses and trains, making well-intended enforcement of ‘social distancing’ a mockery. The Centre, too, needs to devise ways in consultation with all stake-holders, without giving the impression that it is all (still) being enforced from the top.
What is the final take on the lockdown -- did it help or not? Translated, who was wiser, Prime Minister Narendra Modi or US President Donald Trump who scoffed at continual demands for an all-American lockdown? Definitely Modi scored hands down, considering that Trump has been flip-flopping on what needs doing -- including the so-called invention of a new drug, as if one were already here.
The lockdown may not have cured or curbed the Covid-spread, but it did go a long way in containing that spread. More importantly, it sensitised the entire populace about the pandemic, the dangers attending on it, and how personal hygiene alone could help stop the spread, or come knocking on your home and office.
In hindsight, there is no denying that the lockdown was not a cure for Covid. Now, with governments at the Centre and the states still acknowledging the continued presence and spread of the pandemic, will not a return to the near-normal, despite cautions about a ‘new normal’ help only in the spread, and not containment?
This is more so, considering that this phased withdrawal of lockdown also coincides with a period of spike in the Covid cases across the country. There are also new ‘medical claims’ that the spread would peak in July, and not end any time before it.
Granting the inevitability of industries and individuals having to return to near-normal even under ‘new normal’ conditions, do the governments in the country have a Plan-B, Plan-C and whatever more it may take to contain and reverse the trend if there is a new spread, from now on?
Likewise, could the Centre and the prime minister have achieved more than what they did on curbing the endemic spread through more of the Modi outreach, given his credibility and unchallenged ability to communicate with the masses, and at every level -- as only Gandhiji and Jawaharlal Nehru had done in their time?
Maybe that could have made it less burdensome for industries, individuals and the economies of the states and the Centre.
N Sathiya Moorthy, veteran journalist and political analyst, is Distinguished Fellow and Head-Chennai Initiative, Observer Research Foundation.