On 30 January 2020, an Indian student studying in Wuhan, China (the epicentre of the novel coronavirus outbreak) returned to Kerala, to become the first COVID-19 patient in India. The 50th case was identified less than 41 days after this.
Currently, India has 3,072 identified cases and 75 deaths – roughly sixty days from the first infection – as of 5 April 2020.
Meanwhile, after a massive economic crisis, a ‘Janata Curfew’, a national lockdown, and an unprecedented exodus of confused, hungry, jobless migrant labourers, people are now living in an uneasy, new normal. One that throws up micro challenges (work from home, to stock or not to stock, uncertainty about the scale of the pandemic) and macro crises (economic, stigmatic, humanitarian).
Little wonder then, that India's collective conscience – represented by these opinion pieces, in part – is focused on the many facets of the COVID-19 crisis. Nevertheless, in the midst of each of these critical viewpoints, hope and optimism prevail. Read on!
More Than Gestures Needed Now
Tavleen Singh's refrain, in her column for The Indian Express, is that she had hoped for more. This is in light of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's roughly three-and-a-half minute speech, in which he revealed neither plan, nor strategy nor any real update on the government's measures against the COVID-19 crisis. She expects the prime minister to step up and lead from the front, especially at the daily briefings by official from the health ministry, who do nothing to alleviate or at the least, mitigate, the people's worries.
“We thanked our frontline corona warriors in advance on the day of the ‘Janata Curfew’ by ringing bells and banging our ‘thalis’ but can we now ensure that they have the protective equipment they desperately need? Speaking of our frontline warriors, I have to say that the most dreadful story last week was of healthcare workers being beaten up by mobs in Indore, Hyderabad and Bengaluru. Those who did this should be jailed as should the head of the Tablighi Jamaat, when he is caught and charged with criminal negligence leading to mass murder... Turning off our lights at 9 pm tonight for nine minutes and lighting candles is a good gesture of solidarity but that is all that it is. A gesture.”
Reforming the World Health Organisation
Manjeev Singh Puri bats for a G20-like response to the COVID-19 global crisis, in which the WHO boosts its immunity against global power-play, by including voices from developing countries in the decision-making process. He expands on this thought in his opinion piece for Hindustan Times, and suggests that the EB (Executive Board) become a standing body with permanent representatives, which meets when required and directs the WHO.
“As an intergovernmental body, WHO is not immune to global power-play as is being witnessed by reports of the director-general having shied away from naming the virus after the country where it originated – China – and delaying the declaration of a pandemic. Moreover, only a quarter of its budget comes from contributions from UN member-states, and the real money to power its work is from voluntary funding by countries and organisations. WHO, as a global convener, plays a key role in standard-setting in public health. This is a matter of much importance to the “haves” of the global economy, especially those with a vibrant pharmaceutical industry. The United States is the largest contributor, but the Chinese have also recognised WHO’s importance, and the previous director-general was their nominee.”
What India Did Right With The Lockdown Will Overshadow The Wrongs
Swapan Das Gupta, in his Times of India column Right and Wrong, opines that the country has succeeded in managing the 21-day lockdown with more positives than negatives, in the balance sheet of outcomes. Despite human stupidity, short-sighted politics (not necessarily synonyms), and the wanton suppression of 'uncomfortable' data, the writer believes that the prime minister's response to the crisis has been phenomenal and bold. How the loose ends are tied up when the curfew lifts, however, remains to be seen.
“On balance, however, and despite many local hiccups and cockups, India has responded spectacularly to an endeavour that has involved both personal sacrifice and inconvenience. A hostile Western media will, predictably, focus on what Mahatma Gandhi once described as the “sanitary inspector’s report”, but to most Indians, what went wrong is easily overshadowed by what the country did right. Particularly striking was the show of resolve and discipline that even the country didn’t realise it was capable of... Prime Minister Modi took an unimaginably bold step in ordering a 21-day lockdown. He didn’t dither and he brushed aside the soft options. Now, as the battle against the disease moves to the next stage, he will have to show this steely determination again.”
The Lockdown is Making Women More Vulnerable
Lalita Panicker, who leads the opinion section at Hindustan Times, bridges gender issues, politics, reproductive health and social engineering in her pieces. She summarises the very real social issue that the pandemic in general, and the lockdown in particular, has thrown up; rise in gender-based domestic violence.
The absence of medical counselling, suddenly inaccessible support systems, and the dangerous situation of being forced to become caregivers to COVID-19 patients at home; all these are bound to exacerbate abusive situations at home.
“The prolonged economic deprivation and fear of job losses often tend to create frustrations which fuel domestic violence. Kerala, now a model state in its handling of the virus, has had a past history of domestic abuse brought on by unemployment and alcoholism, despite its other enviable social indicators. The situation in less developed states, as people are driven indoors and face economic dis-empowerment, will only be a lot worse. Parental homes, once a refuge for many battered women, is no longer an option as the elderly are most vulnerable to the disease. The victims of domestic violence also now face the prospect of economic marginalisation, as the labour market shrinks for women. So, in many ways, the woman is more dependent on her spouse or partner, even if in an abusive relationship.”
Dalitality: The Caste Factor in Social Distancing
Suraj Yengde writes for The Indian Express on how 'social distancing in India comes with an edge, of caste.' The heavy handedness with which it is enforced, he writes, brings lakhs of migrant labourers – most of who are Dalits and Adivasis – face to face with the very atrocities, caste-based violence, exploitation and poverty that they came to the cities to flee from.
“What makes the injustice to migrant workers even more acute is the fact that many of them are Dalits or Adivasis. Of the 395 million inter-state migrants in India, 62 million are estimated to be Dalits and 31 million Adivasis. They moved to cities from their homes precisely on account of caste violence, atrocities, poverty or loss of ownership over forests and land. Post-COVID-19, they have been left again at their mercy of violence and exploitation. The total lack of empathy of the middle class towards migrant workers is seated in their place in the labour hierarchy, which is right at the bottom, with them engaged in low-paying jobs as masons, helpers or cleaners. The women work at construction sites laying bricks or labouring in farms, or as domestic helps. Many are reduced to begging on the streets with their children.”
The Double Whammy of Work From Home and Work At Home
Amulya Gopalakrishnan writes for the Times of India on how 'autonomy for middle class women has been won on the back of labour by other women'. As the curfew and the lockdown shatters well-formed familial and gender-based silos, it exposes deep seated fault lines, of narrow mental constructs that 'gender' each of our choices. They are usually brushed under the carpet.
“In lockdown, India is neatly divided between the working class and the work-from-home class. Those of us who usually depend on domestic workers, nannies and dhobis are now remote-working, tending to children, and keeping house. We’ve all seen pictures of men posing with their mops, cooking meals and making an occasion out of these unfamiliar tasks. But surprise, surprise – chore wars are also erupting all over the place, and traditional gender roles are rearing back in many ‘modern’ homes. Women are predictably saddled with the bulk of housework, while also working their day jobs. The Malaysian government recently advised wives not to be sarcastic while asking their husbands to help, and dress better while they’re at it. Even progressive men have an arsenal of techniques to dodge these duties – they declare women too finicky. They insist on doing the work on their time, in their style, until their partner just decides it’s easier to do it herself than to bargain and coax and fight.”
Amid a Pandemic, Race For The 'Best'
Meghnad Desai writes for The Indian Express, on the alarming trend, of leaders of different nations focusing more on their PR and one-upping the other, than actually dealing with the COVID-19 crisis. Have global leaders turned the crisis into a golf tournament, having been caught unawares?
He opines that, like with the case of Britain and the United States, it is ultimately the people of India – and not the State or its machinery – who will need to rescue themselves.
“Without exception, every leader has been caught unprepared. China took days to realise and then publicly admit that Wuhan had coronavirus infection. President Xi Jinping cared more for his reputation than to admit a crisis. It may not be over yet but until recently, China had the highest positives and highest number of deaths. American President Donald Trump has rescued Xi from looking bad. Trump believes that he knows best even as he changes his mind. So, after a lot of false optimism and blaming everyone but himself, he is taking it seriously. America may still head the league in number of positives and deaths. We know what works. Testing. South Korea showed it. German Chancellor Angela Merkel also managed to keep infections and deaths low. What these two had was an efficient health sector and a disciplined public service. They don’t need PR.”
How Long Will the Pandemic Last? 3 COVID-19 Scenarios
SA Iyer practices restraint, even as he lays out three extreme possibilities, of how the COVID-19 pandemic will pan out, in his opinion piece for the Times of India. He lays bare the gaping holes in India's economic, social and political infrastructure, the over-dependence of the middle class on servants, digital incompetence, and the real danger of a rise in infections through humanitarian measures like community kitchens or even agriculture. More of a warning to buck up, than a dismal POV.
“Consider three possible scenarios. First, with effective medical and economic responses, the crisis might rise explosively and then rapidly peter out. A deep recession in the first half of 2020 could be followed by a sharp V-shaped recovery. In Scenario 2, the virus and recession will continue till September, with correspondingly higher deaths and bankruptcies. The economy will suffer long and hard despite government rescue packages. GDP growth may recover a bit but still be hobbled till end of 2020. In Scenario 3, the virus will take ages to control, and may return in a second wave even after it initially seems controlled. If so, the crisis will continue into 2021, wreaking more havoc than the 2008 Great Recession. I believe the chances of Scenario 1 are no more than 30 percent, of Scenario 2 maybe 60 percent, and of Scenario 3 maybe 10 percent.”
Shed Partisanship, Reach Out to the Best Minds
Ramachandra Guha appeals to Modi-Shah, to emulate Nehru-Patel in inviting their worst critics – who might well be the best minds – in tackling the COVID-19 crisis together. In his piece for the Hindustan Times, he tells the story of how the first cabinet of free India was formed; one in which political animosities and power play were set aside for the greater good of the country.
“The first Cabinet of free India also included SP Mookerjee of the Hindu Mahasabha and Baldev Singh of the Akali Dal, who had likewise been bitterly opposed to the Congress-led freedom struggle. Other Cabinet posts were offered to the businessman CH Bhabha and the administrator N Gopalaswami Ayyangar, who had no previous party affiliation. Why am I recalling this past history now? Because it speaks so directly to the present. For, in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19), the country faces probably its greatest challenge since Partition. Even before the virus hit us, the economy was in a shambles. Now, it will deteriorate much further. The travel and tourism industries have been devastated. The lockdown has massively affected both manufacturing and agriculture. This pandemic and its fallout have already led to enormous human suffering, and this will multiply. In this scenario, to restore social trust and to rebuild the economy may be beyond the abilities of one man and his small circle of trusted advisers.”
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