In a country where the seriousness of infectious diseases is not always appreciated, it’s heartening that the PM’s call for social distancing has struck a chord.
Last week, Prime Minister Narendra Modi reached out to the people, warning them against complacency but also assuring them that there is no need to panic in the fight against the coronavirus. He asked everyone to make behavioural changes and called for restraint and resolve. The PM spoke about the importance of social distancing and emphasised that only an alert and compassionate society can tide over the public health emergency that is upon the world. It’s a testament to PM Modi’s communication skills and the goodwill he commands, that the people responded wholeheartedly to his call for a 14-hour “Janata Curfew” on Sunday. In a country where the seriousness of infectious diseases is not always appreciated, it’s heartening that the PM’s call for social distancing has struck a chord. The participation in the 7 am to 9 pm “voluntary” curfew is a reassuring indication of incipient national purpose in dealing with the COVID-19.
Pandemics are cruel, not just in terms of the demands they place on the health and immune systems of people and the hardships they create for families, but also because of the economic — and social — disruptions they cause. There have been reports of migrants, whose livelihoods have been hit, heading back to their villages. A large number of them live in unsanitary conditions and do not always have access to adequate water supplies. Their exodus in overcrowded trains has raised fears of the virus spreading to the country’s rural areas and health experts apprehend community transmission of the infection. A high-level meeting of state chief secretaries convened by the cabinet secretary and the principal secretary to the PM on Sunday directed that all inter-state and suburban trains and metro rail services be suspended till March 31. But in the coming days and weeks, the Centre and state governments will have to find ways to mitigate people’s economic hardship while addressing public health imperatives. The states have, so far, by and large, fought their own battles against COVID-19. The tough demands made by the virus require them to be in constant conversation with each other, and with the Centre.
On March 21, a meeting of the Centre’s Empowered Committee for COVID-19 Response asked all hospitals “to cooperate with national labs for clinical sample collection”. Given India’s high population density and already stressed and under-resourced public health infrastructure, much more coordination will be required between healthcare institutions, research bodies and government agencies to prevent community transmission of the infection. It is imperative that science remains the cornerstone of the country’s response to the pandemic. This requires public health bodies and research outfits to be attentive to all signs on the ground, frame their responses accordingly and communicate the challenges posed by the virus to the people in a language they understand. The success of Sunday’s Janata Curfew indicates that the people appreciate the gravity of the situation. But their response to PM Modi’s call should be seen as only the first step in the fight against COVID-19.After Janata Curfew