At a simplistic level, disasters and crises are either naturally occurring phenomena or ‘man-made’ — sadly, the ensuing COVID-19 pandemic, is both.
As the horrific reality and scale of the Indian pandemic situation gets relayed in the international press, far more than the reportage in the Indian media, this itself is symptomatic of the ‘man-made’ part of the devastation. ‘Truth’ has been the primary casualty in the governance saga, prior to the escalation of the situation, and even now, as it spirals out of control.
The relentless spin-doctoring, grandstanding and brazen politicisation over the ‘naysayers’ who pointed to looming facts and impending telltale signs, is now coming home to roost.
To still posit the ‘shaming the country’, ‘spreading negativity’, ‘playing into the hands of enemies’ or ‘fear mongering’ is to perpetuate the ostrich-syndrome — worse, this ensures that no lessons of handling a disaster are ever learnt, internalised and institutionalised. For once, an honest introspection of the lead-up to the crisis, without partisan guardrails, could salvage and course-correct to an extent, though not so, if we incredulously still insist on the partisan lens of justifications and contextualisation.
The Well-Oiled Machinery of Blame-Game
The core essence of Disaster Management Responsiveness is the critical appreciation of how a nation ‘prepares for, responds to and learns from the effects of major failures’ — but if you constantly posture infallibility in governance, history is bound to repeat itself, even if it is essentially the international media that holds the mirror.
The government is meant to govern the citizenry with due diligence and planning, even if the citizenry is, as it often is, irresponsible, callous and irascible. Any creative suggestion leading to the designed abdication of that responsibility, is nothing short of dereliction of duty.
But, did the government lead by example, scientific temper, inclusivity and the mandated sobriety? Short and unequivocal answer: NO.
To now shift the can from the usual suspects of ‘enemies’, ‘others’, opposition parties and assorted inelegances like ‘siculars’, ‘pseudo-intellectuals’, etc, to now onto the citizenry itself, is the karmic fate that awaits the larger citizenry, as many had remained dangerously silent, even as some contrarian voices kept demanding accountability of governance beyond partisan rhetoric and electoral impulses.
Tellingly, the well-oiled machinery of blame-game has now affixed, slammed and convicted the larger citizenry for the pandemic surge — whereas, those entrusted with leadership, governance and direction, melt away from the substantive frame.
Even the accompanying bureaucracy that holds together the national governance framework, is conspicuously missing?
Hiding the Truth Can Never Be a Patriotic Act. Whither Transparency?
Growing murmurs of a collapsed medical system are actually misplaced in spirit and timing, for they are borne of deflective convenience — while it is certainly overwhelmed, overburdened and unable to cope with the sheer mass of incoming patients, the medical fraternity is still fighting an unbelievably thankless, gallant and superhuman battle, not because of the governance support, but despite it!
What we have on hand is an unprecedentedly complex disaster that threatens not just precious lives but widespread and incalculable damage to societies and economies, in the future.
In such times, management of all governmental resources for the effective response, restoration and humanitarian aspects of emergencies, must be mustered and deployed centrally (without any unnecessary bravado of ‘expeditious approvals’, intimidation to those who speak the truth-to-power or by dialling up the federal dissonances of ‘Centre-State Subject’ inanities).
Co-ordination amongst the various agencies, departments, federal governments and non-governmental organisations must be done unilaterally, centrally and in complete transparency and equity of disbursement, based on actual need, period. Importantly, the communication of the evolving status is absolutely critical. Hiding the truth can never be a patriotic act, in any situation.
Such crisis communication must be done by domain experts (for example, Dr Anthony Fauci in the United States) who speak with the obligatory candour, credibility and sensitivity, demanded by the times. This communication needs to be completely stripped of any parallel passion, agenda or distraction as that diminishes the actionability and import of the messaging.
Disasters Need to be Owned — Not Downplayed
Wilful triggering of any ‘non-essential’ initiative or emotion (from a crisis mitigation perspective) weakens the national resolve. Symbolism if any (though the situation is well past that requirement), needs to be such that it demonstrates the deliberate, substantial and meaningful re-routing of sovereign/budgetary investments from the ‘good to have’ to the ‘absolutely essential’ of disaster management. All necessary curbs and constraints that are warranted to address the crisis must be done without privileging or discriminating any citizen, on account of their faith, region or profession — in times like this, no one is more ‘equal’ than the other!
Above all, disasters need to be owned — and not disowned or downplayed. A good starting point is a whiteboard admission of the avoidable missteps in the lead-up to the same and the reality check of the exact status, unfiltered.
Not doing so may be good politics, but is certainly not a good disaster management practice. It is a tough ask in the current situation given the dominant instinct at display, but such times in history beseech the demonstration of unusual statesmanship, magnanimity and governmental will (as opposed to political will).
Citizenry Must be Led by Exemplary Example. What is the Way Forward?
Transparency of the existing infrastructural wherewithal, capabilities and shortfalls may result in temporary embarrassment of militating against the political claims, made earlier — but more importantly, it may just save lives as it could lead to more focused movement and galvanisation of the type and form of ‘aid’, both domestically and internationally.
The vulnerability and the desperation of the times necessitates that the citizenry is led by exemplary example, guided only by experts and routinely updated truthfully by a singular and apolitical voice.
Sadly, what we see is still persistent whataboutery, non-experts preaching fearlessly and recklessly from important pulpits and the shocking abandonment of overall responsibility.
If only partisanship and political blame-game can take a visible backseat in the governance instinct and in the national conscience? For that, a fundamental change in the governance narrative, from what has been allowed to play out, can only deliver to the relief of a wounded nation and its reeling people.
(Lt Gen Bhopinder Singh (Retd) is a Former Lt Governor of Andaman and Nicobar Islands & Puducherry. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
. Read more on Opinion by The Quint.Modi Govt’s Resolve for Central Vista Project Is ‘Kaafi Real’COVID Crisis: Dear Govt, Where’s Ownership & Course Correction? . Read more on Opinion by The Quint.