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If India has to control coronavirus pandemic, it must contain 4 other contagions as well

Just as there are war cabinets during wartime, multiple coronavirus pandemics also call for a pandemic cabinet. India must act now.

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There are not one but five concurrent, interconnected contagions spreading around the world, all triggered by the SARS-CoV-2 or the novel coronavirus outbreak that emanated in China in December 2019.

The first is obviously the COVID-19 pandemic caused by the increasing global spread of the coronavirus itself. This, in turn, has triggered four other contagions — in information, economy, psychology and behaviour. While policymakers’ and media attention is primarily focused on the COVID-19 pandemic, it is important to recognise and address all five contagions in order to bring them under control.

The viral pandemic

The viral pandemic, of course, is the most immediate and about which much has been discussed and much is being done. India’s response — like that of many other countries — is to contain the spread through social distancing and severe restrictions on movement. Prime Minister Narendra Modi did well to his personal standing with the masses by emphasising the need for people to protect themselves and the community by staying home and distancing themselves for others. The Janata curfew that he proposed was a trial both to assess how practical voluntary shutdowns are in a country of 1.3 billion people, as well as to sensitise the people to the seriousness of the challenge. The government will have to quickly learn from the intended and unintended consequences of the exercise as it implements such measures nationwide for weeks together.

Greater availability of and access to testing — now that ICMR has permitted accredited private laboratories to conduct tests — will bring to light the true extent of the outbreak in India, and we should expect to see more positive cases reported in the coming days. Against this, serious social distancing and travel restrictions implemented since last week will start reducing new infections, showing up as a slowdown of the viral contagion towards the end of April.

Also read: Modi’s refusal to shut Parliament despite COVID-19 shows BJP’s cynical politics

The information pandemic

We have been deluged by a contagion of both good and bad information about the coronavirus over the past week. There is even a mini epidemic of coronavirus jokes. Managing the ‘infodemic’ is important. Good information about the current outbreak status, epidemiological models, learnings from other countries’ experience, effective treatment options and so on help individuals make better decisions. They also compel governments to stay on top of the information cycles, failing which authorities begin to lose credibility and public trust. This calls for daily briefings and real-time sharing of accurate data. India’s health authorities are not there yet. As cases shoot up in the coming weeks, the health ministry must raise its information dissemination game.

Tackling bad information is a harder problem because there is already a widely spread fake news infrastructure — it transcends television, social media and word-of-mouth. If quackery, unscientific techniques and bigotry were just bad before the pandemic, spreading them at this time should be criminal. We saw how Modi’s attempt to rally the people in the struggle to contain the outbreak turned into dangerous community gatherings owing to contagious memes spreading wrong information. The fact that big celebrities like Rajinikanth and Amitabh Bachchan transmitted these dangerous memes to millions of people should worry us, even if Twitter deleted Rajinikanth’s message (instead of the latter deleting Twitter, as jokes would have it).

Also read: Is COVID-19 a biological weapon and can neem or hot bath prevent it? Fact-checking 24 claims

The economic pandemic

The economic contagion — of which the financial and stock market meltdown is but a leading indicator — is already posing massive policy challenges and will persist long after the virus is contained. A global recession and an unprecedented shock to a slowing Indian economy mean that growth will grind down.  Households, firms and government will suffer economic losses, which will cascade through the economy in complex, hard-to-predict ways.

The Indian government will face a surge in healthcare costs, demands for social spending to ameliorate the losses faced by the poor and to provide a stimulus to rekindle growth. It had very little fiscal room to begin with, and even that is shrinking as tax collections slow down in the past quarter. Raising taxes will hurt growth prospects, as will not compensating hundreds of millions of wage earners and the poor who will suffer disproportionately. The longer the viral pandemic, the worse will be the economic contagion.

Also read: How can India counter coronavirus stigma, boycotts and inadequate social distancing?

The psychological pandemic

The psychology of fear, uncertainty and doubt is contagious too. For instance, the moment we see a person wearing a mask we get anxious and spread the anxiety to our family members, neighbours, friends and colleagues. As Frank M. Snowden writes in his history of epidemics and society, common responses “include stigmatization and scapegoating, flight and mass hysteria, riots, and upsurges in religiosity.” The viral pandemic is also damaging mental health. Moreover, the new anxieties add to the old ones within the overall climate of extreme political partisanship and worsening social harmony that prevailed even before COVID-19 came along. If left unmanaged, the psychological contagion can both undermine efforts to contain the virus and revive the economy.

Also read: Coronavirus advice from leading economists: Bring out the big artillery

The behavioural pandemic

Finally, there is a contagion of human behaviour too, both good and bad. The good part is when washing hands and working from home catches on. The bad is when people ostracise victims, attack groups suspected of transmitting the virus, avoid screening, escape quarantine, hoard medical supplies, try to make a fast buck from profiteering, congregate for religious events, and so on. So far have been fortunate to avoid mass unrest and challenges to public order, but we cannot take this for granted.

The infodemic and the behavioural contagion feed off each other, and higher levels of social anxiety exacerbate the process. Similarly, the psychological and economic contagions reinforce each other, and are in turn amplified by informational, behavioural and viral contagions. The complex interactions among five contagions make it much harder to contain the spread of the coronavirus that triggered this cascade. This why a governmental response focused on public health alone (with some information management thrown in) will not suffice.

Just like there are war cabinets during wartime, the multiple pandemics call for a pandemic cabinet. If there ever was a time for the cliched ‘whole of government approach’, it is now.

The author is the director of the Takshashila Institution, an independent centre for research and education in public policy. Views are personal

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  1. Government delayed taking steps to face the pandemic. When it broke down in China & other countries, at the same it alarming stage any challenge which gives alarm starting was expected. But we awake when we are at the danger . The steps which we are taking now why not 21 before. Why parliament is not locked down again this is undoubtedly cynical steps. Now the BPLs are facing the problems we are not prepared for that. Due attention is not paid to the problems. The masks, ventilators & other medical problems not paid attention due . So on & so forth.

  2. Some shut their eyes and ears so that they can spread onlyspread venom and be pessimistic always, refusing to see the realities.The lockdown has helped us though it could have been better planned in advance, to the extent we have not reached a bad situation like Europe, especially like Italy and Spain.To criticize still the decision making, you need extraordinary talent to find fault.Congrats, you have it.

  3. This might be slightly out of the way from your article, but what is important is when you look around, you will see that in the western world the virus has spread in a very high rate. Once International flights are opened again to India, there could be a lot of +ve patients coming back to India with the virus. Therefore all the lock down, curfew all across India and all the hard work of isolation will fail if International flights are not stopped for Indefinate period till the scenario in the world improves. Just my opinion.

  4. Simple words conveying multiple aspects clearly. Really liked the flow.
    Now that the government has announced Rs. 1.7 lac crores worth of measures (part of it is just math to beef up the figures), let us hope that the basic needs of people are met. This may actually counteract the psychological pandemic, along with infusing confidence in investors and buyers in the share market, thus slowing, if not preventing, an economic meltdown.
    Several commentators are predicting contraction in global growth, if not a recession altogether. $2 trillion by the US alone, promise of $5 trillion by G20 and India’s own domestic spending – will they prove sufficient to stem the rot?

  5. Government not taken timely measures during January itself to protect people from deadly virus. Now they are doing white 8.washing /fire fighting exercise

  6. RSS/Hindu hater Librandus masked as journalists are a more dangerous form of Corona virus infecting India now. Police and courts have failed to clean this garbage from their rotten minds. As there is no medicine for Corona virus, there is no medicine for RSS/Hindu hater Librandus. As Shaaheen bagh has died its natural death, these librandus should also die the natural death. However, important thing here is that no new librandu should born in Indian universities.

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