Crisis is the moment when the survival instinct of humankind is put to test. The Covid-19 pandemic is one of those crises that has forced us to devise new ways and means to overcome it.
In most texts on crisis management and disaster control, we have read that disaster hits the poor first, and in the worst possible way. In the case of Covid‐19, it has been the other way round. Originating in China, it affected affluent European and American nations the most, and somehow seems to be settling in poverty‐ridden Asian and so-called ‘third-world’ countries. This has completely broken the age-old relationship between poverty and disaster, while also shattering the myth of the invincibility of big and powerful nations.
In the midst of unanswered questions about the success of lockdown measures, effectiveness of general hygiene practices, state of health infrastructure, usefulness of social distancing, and budgetary priorities, India has found new heroes in administrators, doctors, nurses, police personnel and government officials.
Challenges for districts
Not just countries and states, even districts across India have had to face different types of challenges during this pandemic. The multiple guidelines of Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) and state governments may have made it difficult for people to navigate through the crisis and contributed to the changing nature of challenges at play. Being a part of the cutting-edge government machinery in a country with a history of floods, famines, cyclones, and huge religious congregations, managing a crisis is like a daily affair for us.
However, it is a different war this time where the warriors are the most vulnerable lot. This made all our strengths and past experiences of dealing with disasters look like a house of cards waiting to fall.
The invisible nature of Covid-19, the lack of preparedness in terms of health-related infrastructure and equipment, and daily news of the coronavirus warriors getting infected have led to reluctance and fear in the hearts and minds of our commanders.
In Jharkhand’s Singhbhum district, the first daunting task in front of us was to ensure there are adequate resources for the public as well as field‐level functionaries on the ground. What was available was procured from near and far, and what was not was indigenously manufactured.
First, we came up with a Phone Booth Sample Collection centre that reduced the requirement of already scarce and overpriced personal protective equipment (PPE) kits in a substantial way. It also ensured greater safety of the person collecting the sample. The simple, fast and cost-effective solution, manufactured with a cost of Rs 20,000 ($265), was later replicated all over India.
But this small relief was suddenly overshadowed by news of doctors, nurses and other ancillary staff getting infected and dying of Covid‐19, due to daily interaction with positive patients. The thought of saving our warriors made us conceive and develop Co-Bot — a low-cost (Rs 26,000 or $350), remotely operated robotic device to deliver food, water and medicines to the patients. This reduced interactions between health officials and patients, and minimised their risk of exposure. Fitted with an internet-enabled high definition 360-degree camera and a two-way speaker-mic system, Co-Bot also enabled doctors and nurses to practice telemedicine.
Isolation Beds (also known as i-beds) for positive patients, low-cost face shields, meals-on-wheels deliveries for the stranded and poor people, ultraviolet note sanitisation machine for banks and railway counters, and sanitisation chamber in the newly setup Covid hospital were a few other initiatives we took. This was in addition to the regular work of ensuring smooth enforcement of the lockdown, maintaining the supply chain and ensuring home delivery of essentials, setting up quarantine and isolation centres, and managing containment zones and hospitals treating Covid patients.
However, these ‘regular’ tasks were not so regular due to the ever-changing and uncertain nature of the coronavirus. We had to modify our strategies and adapt to the situation on a regular basis.
For a rural district like West Singhbhum, which has a high dependency on government welfare schemes and low social security, Covid-19 posed a lesser threat than hunger, death, and distress-driven law and order problems. Metropolitans, in contrast, were faced with the herculean task of looking after millions of people who were away from their homes and families.
While the supply of essentials was straightened and people started to live with the lockdown, the number of positive cases kept rising, making us question our ability to fight the virus with the limited health infrastructure, equipment and human resources at our disposal. Still, as a nation we stood together. Low cost, nearly sufficient supply of PPE Kits, masks, sanitisers, ventilators and other health equipment became a norm. The quarantine facilities, isolation wards and Covid hospitals were set up in all districts in a very short span of time.
We readied ourselves to fight the virus in the hospitals, but the threat of community transmission was looming large. Even a single positive case outside of hospitals could undo all our efforts. To combat this, containment zones were set up. If a person living in normal circumstances is found positive, the entire possible movement area is converted into a containment zone. Cordoning off the area with zero inward-outward movement, door-to-door delivery of all supplies, contact tracing of the person, sample collection of all those found to be in contact, and several other tasks like these require a huge workforce and 24×7 monitoring.
The next large issue we faced was migrant labourers. Extension of lockdowns and the uncertainty attached to it, coupled with loss of livelihood, created restlessness among them. Millions started walking home. With limited public transportation, our focus as administrators again shifted from health concerns to their smooth travel.
Upon the arrival of migrant labourers, we followed several procedures — we kept those coming from areas designated Red Zone in state-managed quarantine centres and those from Green Zones under home quarantine, issued passes to the needy and tested thousands of symptomatic and co-morbid people. Maintaining hygiene, functioning toilets, quality food, drinking water supplies, and sample collection in state-run quarantine centres amid reluctant staff and unwilling migrants who want to go home as soon as possible is a task that has been giving us all sleepless nights. Amidst all of this, rising Covid-19 cases has given rise to fear and a discriminatory attitude among people. The pandemic has also led to a huge loss of livelihoods, especially for those from marginalised communities. This will take a long time to normalise.
Time to reflect
A question we have been asking without a certain answer yet is can things be managed better? This pandemic is as much a lesson for all of us as much as it is a crisis. It is time we introspect within ourselves and look at our systems, and reflect on the kind of future we want to give our coming generations.
Most of us are advocates of private hospitals for better services, but government health machinery has risen to the occasion and rendered extraordinary service in the face of this disaster. Khaki was previously perceived as the colour of fear, but the Covid crisis showed us the true colours of selfless and tireless service. While everyone was asked to stay home and stay safe, these organs of the state and agents of civil society were on the roads working for us despite great personal risk.
While globalisation and industrialisation have been the engines and parameters of our growth in the past, MGNREGS, revival of MSMEs, local production of masks, PPE Kits, etc. by Self-Help Groups focusing on creation of jobs, assets and self-employment opportunities in rural areas and tier‐2 cities are the new beacons of hope.
Decentralisation of funds, power and responsibility was previously seen as mere tenets of democracy, but the Covid crisis has shown us its utility, inevitability and power. All panchayat buildings became quarantine centres, and grassroot leaders such as Mukhiya, Munda and Manki were the ones we all relied on to enforce lockdown in villages, feed migrant labourers and conduct contact tracing.
Today, we need to move in HASTE — Health, Agriculture, Social Security, Technology, Education — if we want to recover from this crisis and prepare ourselves against such pandemics in the future. Raising budgetary allocations and focusing on health and education, making agriculture less risky, social security compulsory for all workers in all sectors, and above all promoting wider use of technology can bring India’s vision of ‘atmanirbhar’ or self-reliance to reality.
The author is an IAS officer, Deputy Development Commissioner of West Singhbhum District, Jharkhand. Views are personal.
This article is part of the series ‘Districts Fight Covid’ that explores how India’s district magistrates and collectors have been fighting the coronavirus pandemic. Read all articles here.