The coronavirus pandemic is making a bigger footprint in India every day. It’s something everyone agrees has to be fought on priority — from Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan, from Maharashtra CM Uddhav Thackeray to West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee.
As of now, there are 396 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in India. But doctors and experts have said it’s just the tip of the iceberg because India hasn’t been testing adequately. No matter if you considered Modi’s Janata Curfew Sunday a success or not, with a population of over 1.3 billion people, India should be bracing for much worse.
And in times like these, leadership counts. Donald Trump will forever be remembered for his careless handling of coronavirus in the US and Singapore PM Lee Hsien Loong for his timely, action-oriented handling of cases in his country, so much so, that the country didn’t have to go into lockdown.
So, how does Prime Minister Narendra Modi fare? And what about ‘chanakya’ Amit Shah, India’s home minister? It is also the job of the opposition to make sure the government is doing the right thing in these tough times. So, what is Rahul Gandhi doing?
The Janata Curfew
Prime Minister Modi addressed this dark moment in India’s history Thursday by speaking to the nation through a live telecast speech and letting us know the gravity of the situation. Self-isolation, he said, is a must. We were told to observe a ‘Janata Curfew’ or a self-imposed curfew Sunday and clap on balconies or clang plates to cheer blue collar workers and medical staff at 5 pm.
The 5-pm plate clanging and clapping happened with the kind of pomp and show that we see during a baraat, jaagran and Diwali. If the ‘festivities’ happened on balconies, it would still look cute, but people stepped down from their homes on to the streets to ‘come together’ against the disease. And that destroyed the whole point of the exercise. Instead of celebrating our medical heroes, we ended up disrespecting exactly what they asked us to do, which is, to be responsible citizens and not overwhelm the medical staff by maintaining distance and avoiding community transmission. Perhaps, the PM needed to spell it out more clearly for Indians. They stayed in all day and came out at 5 pm to undo it.
The problem is that at no point did the Prime Minister speak about the actual steps the government is taking to tackle the novel coronavirus pandemic in India. What are we doing to test patients? Do we have enough testing kits? How much are we spending on hospital space, staff, beds, ventilators? Are we following the South Korean model of more testing and no lockdown to contain the spread of the virus? We were instead told that finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman will be heading a special task force to tackle the pandemic. Till now, no financial package has been announced by the Modi government. Abstract ideas and one-day of semi-successful quarantine are not going to help India now, neither is it going to reflect well on Modi’s leadership.
Also, considering how the economy is at the precipice of a major downward spiral, with businesses virtually shutting down, spreading the finance minister thin in tackling an epidemic doesn’t seem to be the wisest of decisions. And that too a minister who is often criticised for not doing her job as the finance minister well.
The opposition too has a role as a leader during a pandemic. Keep people calm, ask them to cooperate and quarantine, and ask the government about measures being taken. But then there’s Rahul Gandhi whose tweets are constantly reminding us that we better panic since India is going to pay an extremely “heavy price” for the government’s inability to act decisively. So, for a moment, let’s pay heed to Rahul Gandhi’s call for a quicker action. But here too, what steps is someone like Rahul Gandhi, who has figured out the disaster we are heading towards, suggesting we take?
And Sonia Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi aren’t helping us figure that out either.
Again, it is the regional parties and leaders who have taken the lead in the fight against coronavirus.
Kerala’s Pinarayi Vijayan has announced a Rs 20,000-crore financial package, which includes a Rs 500 crore health package to tackle coronavirus in a state that just has 40 infected patients so far. He has announced free food grain, subsidised meals, tax relief and arrear clearance along with “facilitating Rs 2000 crore in consumer loans through self-help group Kudumbashree to those impacted by COVID-19”. Social welfare pensions of April will be released in March itself in Kerala. Meals will be served at Rs 20. These are real-time, actual steps that can tackle the pandemic and its economic cost.
Rahul Gandhi should have tweeted what Congress governments in Punjab, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan are doing to fight COVID-19 because the rest of the opposition is wasting no time to reassure the people of their states. For example, West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee has announced that the state government will provide rice for free for the next six months in ration shops to make sure no one goes without food in these dire times, benefiting 7.5 crore people of the state.
Arvind Kejriwal has reassured the people of Delhi that his government is prepared to handle the COVID-19 crisis. He has arranged DUSIB flats for patients, which have been vacant for a long time, and installed 500 isolation beds in Delhi government hospitals. In fact, he has gone a step ahead and added rooms in under-construction hospitals of the Delhi government for the purpose. Delhi is now in a lockdown.
This is a time for the community to remain alert and morally uplifted. And for that, we need the Narendra Modi government as well as the opposition, including the Gandhi family, to stand up for science and practicality, if not solidarity.