Covid 19 and the Indian response.

There have been lot of stories about Coronavirus and with it a lot of political blame-game has been happening. The first step that India took of a lockdown is and was a good step but without having a plan as to how especially the poor and the needy and especially the huge migrant population that India has (internal migration) be affected by it. A 2019 World Economic Forum shares the stats. as 139 million people. That is a huge amount of people and there are a variety of both push and pull factors which has displaced these huge number of people. While there have been attempts in the past and probably will continue in future they will be hampered unless we have trust-worthy data which is where there is lots that need to be done. In the recent few years, both the primary and secondary data has generated lot of controversies within India as well as abroad so no point in rehashing all of that. Even the definition of who is a ‘migrant’ needs to be well-established just as who is a ‘farmer’ . The simplest lucanae in the later is those who have land are known as ‘farmers’ but the tenant farmers and their wives are not added as farmers hence the true numbers are never known. Is this an India-specific problem or similar definition issues are there in the rest of the world I don’t know.

How our Policies fail to reach the poor and the vulnerable

The sad part is most policies in India are made in castles in the air . An interview by the wire shares the conundrum of those who are affected and the policies which are enacted for them (it’s a youtube video, sorry) –

If one with an open and fresh mind sees the interview it is clear that why there was a huge reverse migration from Indian cities to villages. The poor and marginalized has always seen the Indian state as an extortive force so it doesn’t make sense for them to be in the cities. The Prime Minister’s annoucement of food for 3 months was a clear indication for the migrant population that for 3 months they will have no work. Faced with such a scenario, the best option for them was to return to their native places. While videos of huge number of migrants were shown of Delhi, this was the scenario of most states and cities, including Pune, my own city . Another interesting point which was made is most of the policies will need the migrants to be back in the villages. Most of these are tied to the accounts which are opened in villages, so even if they want to have the benefits they will have to migrate to villages in order to use them. Of course, everybody in India knows how leaky the administration is. The late Shri Rajiv Gandhi had famously and infamously remarked once how leaky the Public Distribution system and such systems are. It’s only 10 paise out of rupee which reaches the poor. And he said this about 30 years ago. There have been numerous reports of both IPS (Indian Police Services) reforms and IAS (Indian Administrative Services) reforms over the years, many of the committee reports have been in public domain and in fact was part of the election manifesto of the ruling party in 2014 but no movement has happened on that part. The only thing which has happened is people from the ruling party have been appointed on various posts which is same as earlier governments.

I was discussing with a friend who is a contractor and builder about the construction labour issues which were pointed in the report and if it is true that many a times the migrant labour is not counted. While he shared a number of cases where he knew, a more recent case in public memory was when some labourers died while building Amanora mall which is perhaps one of largest malls in India. There were few accidents while constructing the mall. Apparently, the insurance money which should have gone to the migrant laborer was taken by somebody close to the developers who were building the mall. I have a friend in who lives in Jharkhand who is a labour officer. She has shared with me so many stories of how the labourers are exploited. Keep in mind she has been a labor officer appointed by the state and her salary is paid by the state. So she always has to maintain a balance of ensuring worker’s rights and the interests of the state, private entities etc. which are usually in cahoots with the state and it is possible that lot of times the State wins over the worker’s rights. Again, as a labour officer, she doesn’t have that much power and when she was new to the work, she was often frustrated but as she remarked few months back, she has started taking it easy (routinized) as anyways it wasn’t helping her in any good way. Also there have been plenty of cases of labor officers being murdered so its easier to understand why one tries to retain some sanity while doing their job.

The Indian response and the World Response

The Indian response has been the lockdown and very limited testing. We seem to be following the pattern of UK and U.S. which had been slow to respond and slow to testing. In the past Kerala showed the way but this time even that is not enough. At the end of the day we need to test, test and test just as shared by the WHO chairman. India is trying to create its own cheap test kits with ICMR approval, for e.g. a firm from my own city Pune MyLab has been given approval. We will know how good or bad they are only after they have been field-tested. For ventilators we have asked Mahindra and Mahindra even though there are companies like Allied Medical and others who have exported to EU and others which the Govt. is still taking time to think through. This is similar to how in UK some companies who are with the Govt. but who have no experience in making ventilators are been given orders while those who have experience and were exporting to Germany and other countries are not been given orders. The playbook is errily similar. In India, we don’t have the infrastructure for any new patients, period. Heck only a couple of states have done something proper for the anganwadi workers. In fact, last year there were massive strikes by anganwadi workers all over India but only NDTV showed a bit of it along with some of the news channels from South India. Most mainstream channels chose to ignore it.

On the world stage, some of the other countries and how they have responded perhaps need sharing. For e.g. I didn’t know that Cuba had so many doctors and the politics between it and Brazil. Or the interesting stats. shared by Andreas Backhaus which seems to show how distributed the issue (age-wise) is rather than just a few groups as has been told in Indian media. What was surprising for me is the 20-29 age group which has not been shared so much in the Indian media which is the bulk of our population. The HBR article also makes a few key points which I hope both the general public and policymakers both in India as well as elsewhere take note of.

What is worrying though that people can be infected twice or more as seems to be from Singapore or China and elsewhere. I have read enough of Robin Cook and Michael Crichton books to be aware that viruses can do whatever. They will over time mutate, how things will happen then is anybody’s guess. What I found interesting is the world economic forum article which hypothesis that it may be two viruses which got together as well as research paper from journal from poteome research which has recently been published. The biggest myth flying around is that summer will halt or kill the spread which even some of my friends have been victim of . While a part of me wants to believe them, a simple scientific fact has been viruses have probably been around us and evolved over time, just like we have. In fact, there have been cases of people dying due to common cold and other things. Viruses are so prevalent it’s unbelivable. What is and was interesting to note is that bat-borne viruses as well as pangolin viruses had been theorized and shared by Chinese researchers going all the way back to 90’s . The problem is even if we killed all the bats in the world, some other virus will take its place for sure. One of the ideas I had, dunno if it’s feasible or not that at least in places like Airports, we should have some sort of screenings and a labs working on virology. Of course, this will mean more expenses for flying passengers but for public health and safety maybe it would worth doing so. In any case, virologists should have a field day cataloging various viruses and would make it harder for viruses to spread as fast as this one has. The virus spread also showed a lack of leadership in most of our leaders who didn’t react fast enough. While one hopes people do learn from this, I am afraid the whole thing is far from over. These are unprecedented times and hope that all are maintaining social distancing and going out only when needed.

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