This article is written by Aayushi Gupta of Rajiv Gandhi National University of Law, Punjab. This is an exhaustive article which deals with the roles and responsibilities of different sectors of society during a pandemic, what are the limitations that slow the process, analysis of America’s and India’s response to COVID-19 and politics in dealing with a pandemic.
Every crisis is pregnant with opportunities in which the communities, individuals, organizations, and governments can work together in fighting against the crisis. It should be noted that there are always instances where one country could learn from its own mistakes and the mistakes of others. Also, there should be no intrusion of politics in decision making, as it could threaten the very existence of peace and safety of citizens.
Roles and responsibilities during a pandemic
Pandemic is defined as an epidemic occurring over a large geographic area and usually affecting an exceptionally high proportion of the population. While the pandemic affects a large scale of the population over a large area, this critical time requires not only the cooperation of the government and other related sectors but also emphasizes significant roles played by the families, communities, organizations, and individuals as well. All in all, it focuses on a whole-of-society approach, wherein all the sectors work together in mitigating the effects of the pandemic.
While all the sectors are involved in pandemic preparedness and response, the national and the state governments naturally become the leader in such times, ensuring overall harmonization and communication across the nation. The government, to fulfil its leadership role, should identify, appoint and lead the coordinating body for pandemic responses. They should also enact or amend certain legislation and policies that are crucial for the sustenance and optimization during pandemic preparedness, response efforts, and capacity development across all the sectors.
It should also prioritize the targeting and allocation of resources to all the vulnerable and heavily affected sectors. For example, the Government of India launched an Economic Stimulus Plan of 20 lakh crore, which specifically deals with the allocation of resources to various sectors of the economy. They should also get involved in providing technical and monetary assistance to other countries experiencing the outbreak of influenza with the potential of it turning into a pandemic. This is the time when countries need to unite and help one another. For example, India has supplied medicines to over 100-plus countries to help them fight the pandemic.
The global outbreak of the COVID-19 has challenged the governments to act in ways that are normally reserved for wars or depressions. The pandemic has caused a global upheaval that may last for long and during such critical times, people place immense trust in the government to take effective actions, limit human cost and economic disruption. Irrespective of different geographic conditions or influenza spread, every government will come across these three overlapping phases: respond, recover and thrive.
- Respond: This is the initial phase of the pandemic spread. In this phase, the country deals with an immediate crisis. It goes fast and past many typical procedures like business closures, constantly working on increasing the industrial capacity to meet dire medical needs, curtailing travel, and making provisions for immediate monetary aid. In this phase, the government mostly tries to flatten the death curve of people.
- Recover: As this immediate danger eases, the country enters the recovery phase. In this phase, they shift their attention to steepening the curve of the economy and mitigating broad long-term impacts.
- Thrive: Having survived the crisis, the governments will consider long-term refinements to public operations- responding effectively to future risks and monitoring for future pandemics. It also involves the reevaluation of old practices, so that they prepare themselves for unseen future crises.
In all three phases, the governments will face common challenges in addressing the healthcare system, recovering the economy, bringing things to normalcy and keeping the business of the government going.
The COVID-19 response is challenging in three ways. Firstly, its characteristics are set apart from all the disasters. This pandemic will unravel over an extended period, unlike natural disasters which complete in minutes or hours. Secondly, it is a global disaster that makes the shifting of resources from unaffected to affected areas difficult. And lastly, as a novel RNA virus, its timing, spread and ultimate effects remain unknown.
Despite this, the response phase in all the sectors requires rapid and decisive action.
RESPOND: THE HEALTHCARE FRONT
The main aim of healthcare is to save lives and one way to do that is by stopping the spread of the virus through various means like increasing healthcare capacity by turning several infrastructures into quarantine centres or hospitals, and by reducing the time needed for in-hospital treatment. The governments may use certain strategies that will flatten the curve on one hand and will boost capacity on the other.
- Use communications to help reach out to the audience: the government must provide all useful information to the targeted audience and can use social media as a way to allow for adaptive improvements.
- Social distancing and lockdown: the governments should announce country-wide lockdown to reduce the speed of transmission. It should also advise the people to maintain social distancing so that they can’t get infected with the virus.
- Mass testing: the country should resort to mass testing for the disease as well as for the immunity. It will be crucial in understanding the transmission of the disease as well as how it can be controlled.
- Test and trace: In the earliest phases of a pandemic, public health authorities must employ contact tracing to identify people who have come in contact with the infected, and this can be performed through thermal scanning and by strengthening home quarantine systems.
- Relaxing certain regulations: the governments can expedite the approval of certain drugs and tests and can allow even the companies outside the healthcare industry to make equipment like facemasks, sanitizers, and ventilators.
- The government must provide incentives for the rapid development of diagnostics, therapeutics, and testing and medical equipment. They should also ask doctors to devote more of their time and skills.
RESPOND: THE ECONOMIC FRONT
The immediate or crucial challenge is to provide cash to businesses through direct payments and loans. It is also essential to renew the economy in the long term and help those who were the worst affected.
- Accelerate the use of digital tools: To address the surging cash distribution needs, the government can develop single-purpose, easy-to-use apps, that can also serve for other benefits, like the State Bank of India is offering a facility where the debit cardholders of the bank can withdraw cash from the grocery stores or stores with point-of-sale terminals.
- Tap into networks: The government can facilitate payment transfer by asking various organizations and trade associations to help identify the most vulnerable groups and small businesses.
- Launching economic stimulus plans which help the citizens to survive this tempest and also help small businesses and other workers to help get back on track.
RESPOND: THE BUSINESS-OF-GOVERNMENT FRONT
This phase requires a two gear outlook as some functions demand massive surges like emergency response and benefit programs and some demand a complete shutdown of schools, several businesses, and so on. In the nub of such uncertainty, the government must ensure the safety of all its workers, execute various response initiatives that help them to address both the economic and health front effectively, and should shift to remote work.
The Recover Phase will set forth its pace in the middle of economies facing high unemployment, depleted healthcare systems, plummeting tax resources, and many other serious problems. Given its level of complexity, this phase will require an unprecedented level of coordination over an extended period of time.
RECOVER: THE HEALTHCARE FRONT
This phase will experience a whole multitude of challenges like a possible ‘second wave of infections’, developing and approving vaccines, coordination among the nations to study the cured and immune people, and develop a vaccine. This phase requires a scaling up of tests to gain statistical insights into community and individual exposure. It most definitely requires developing and scaling treatments and vaccines. Targeting the most at-risk population would also be effective. This phase also requires boosting the morale of our healthcare and sanitation workers, who have been through a tough ordeal. It also requires assessing the financial conditions of the hospitals and providing financial assistance to them.
RECOVER: THE ECONOMIC FRONT
The key challenge here is rebuilding and renewing the economy, which involves helping those who lost their jobs get back to work, starting the shutdown businesses, helping state governments who have seen revenues drop. This can be done through stimulus packages that fund everything from digital and physical infrastructure to providing financial aid to businesses and governments. This phase also requires private sector participation to revive other sectors. It also requires the usage of data for identifying the worst-hit sectors of the economy and providing assistance to them.
RECOVER: THE BUSINESS OF GOVERNMENT FRONT
In this phase, people and businesses will have witnessed different experiences from the initial phase. In the Recover phase, the government should aim at safeguarding the health and safety of public employees and should also remove all those hindrances which obstruct public service. The governments must be able to sense and respond rapidly and effectively to changes in the pandemic. The tasks post-pandemic must be regulation of social distancing, disease monitoring, and better preparedness for possible outcomes.
As the pandemic recedes and the economy recovers, the government will go beyond making things normal. They will try to bring the next normal, which includes preparedness for a future pandemic, greater readiness or agility in providing critical services, sustained economic growth, and increased resilience. One could only expect the government to use more digital tools like AI, blockchain, and the cloud, so they become less dependent on physical locations and can increase their resilience to any future crisis. The Thrive phase is more of an aspirational one where the government builds a better platform for a more resilient health system, a stronger economy, and more adaptiveness. This could be done in many ways. Firstly, agility in this phase requires making intentional productive changes so that the government has the necessary skills not only to deploy in times of a crisis but at all times. The COVID-19 provides great examples of how governments employed agility in the workplace to survive this- reassigning workers to overloaded areas, easing of regulations, collaboration with the private sector, etc. The government should work on a two gear basis- managing existing operations and also working to improve future responses. The government should also accelerate digitalization to reduce its dependency on physical resources. The government should also seek international cooperation to help countries who are severely affected.
This sector has an innate advocacy and leadership role in pandemic preparedness and response efforts. It should coordinate with other sectors in providing leadership and guidance on the actions needed as well as raising awareness of the risk and potential health consequences of the pandemic. It should provide authentic information on the risks, seriousness, and development of the pandemic The provision of healthcare shouldn’t be stopped during the period of crisis, and guidelines should be issued on how to prevent the transmission of influenza.
These sectors should work for the establishment of progressive policies to be implemented during a pandemic, plan for the plausible consequences on all the sectors, develop capacity and plan for response, and communicate with the citizens for the appropriate measures to be taken during the pandemic.
Individuals, communities and organizations
Civil society organizations, individuals, families, and leaders have significant roles to play in such critical times. These organizations, who are in close contact with the community, can raise awareness, transmit reliable information, and counter-rumours. They could provide essential services like sanitizers, masks, and food and support the households. During a pandemic, households need to have access to reliable information, follow preventive measures and could also volunteer to help the affected.
International organizations like WHO can help the affected countries by providing them financial assistance to deal with the pandemic. They are also endowed with the responsibility to provide people with accurate information, preventive measures and issue guidelines to keep them updated.
Why have governments failed to do better?
This pandemic has been proven to be the ultimate stress test for the governance systems lately. This concept of a pandemic is scarcely new. The playbook for dealing with them has been honed by practices and lessons learned from hard-fought battles. Usually, the first stage of responses involved leads to the complete lockdown of society, with the consideration of the most vulnerable groups in mind. This phase is used to flatten the death curve and secure the Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and medical supplies necessary for saving lives. The second stage usually involves the easing of burden on the economic system, massive testing and tracing and easing of regulation to place everything back to normalcy. The final stage of response requires a mass vaccination program, full restoration of economic and social life and preparedness for future pandemics.
Despite taking appropriate measures, one country fails while the other country succeeds. The limitations of contemporary governance systems are what drags the country down.
Firstly, all the defensive finger-pointing and xenophobic posturing pose a great challenge. This is not a crisis that can be tackled without robust and multidimensional international cooperation between nations. We are seeing real-life examples of how cooperation is not restricted to national borders. But the nationalistic turn in global politics over the past decade has reduced funding to and undermined the legitimacy of the international organizations, that help the countries to coordinate. PM Modi did well in convening the meeting of the SAARC leaders to decide on a regional response, but what was also reflective was that there have been no summit-level meetings of the organization since 2014. President Donald Trump’s outburst saying that the US will stop the funding of WHO is not only detrimental for US’s accessibility to vital international data, but also for other countries like India who receive significant support and funding from WHO.
Secondly, the pandemic response requires a whole-of-government strategy, in which political will and legitimate leadership are quintessential elements. Here, Germany and Kerala stand apart in this field. Despite having a constitution that gives states more power, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, mobilized the entire system, making the country come out as a success story. Also, Kerala’s CM convened a state response team at the earliest possible moment and is in full support of a coordinated public health strategy, which helped a lot in reducing the transmission and death of patients. Also, several countries or states have lifted the lockdown and are facing dire consequences. On the other hand, in the US, the government officials are fighting among themselves. On one side, some officials are insisting on lockdown, whereas Trump urges to seek liberation.
Lastly, the main challenge is posed by the starvation of the public health systems. This is due to the inequitable allocation of resources. Most hospitals don’t need ventilator beds normally, just as they don’t need Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and Intensive Care Unit (ICU) beds. But these are the most essential equipment during a pandemic. Due to a lack of such equipment, health systems succumb to the pressure of the pandemic and fail. So, they must be properly equipped with all such facilities. Also, not providing proper transport and accommodation facilities to workers has led to an increase in transmission and also an injustice to them.
It is therefore important to recognize that the times of crisis require international cooperation among countries. Also, it must be noted that there should be a whole-of-society approach, wherein all the members coordinate and cooperate to make the country survive this pandemic.
The COVID-19 pandemic spread to the United States on January 19, 2020. The Trump administration declared a public health emergency at the end of January. From the first week of February, the US began to prevent the entry of foreign nationals who have recently been to China but didn’t put a ban on the entry of US nationals who travelled to China and nor were people who tried to enter the country, virus tested. The US response to the pandemic was moderate in the initial stages with respect to mass testing, curtailing travel, and preparing the healthcare system. And initially, manufacturing defects rendered test kits inoperative, and commercial testing was disallowed by regulation. This led to the spread of the virus hastily, infecting its citizens, and increasing the death cases. As a response to this, the US declared a national emergency on March 13 and a national lockdown. But the President was in a feud with other government officials. While he was insisting citizens under his political opponents to seek liberty, other officials were yet to issue stay-at-home orders and some were keen on opening the economy against the express advice of public health experts. Since then, the US has taken several efforts to lessen the impact of the pandemic.
In the healthcare sector, Trump signed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act (CARES Act), which provides $6.3 billion additional funding to the Administration for Children and Family to respond to coronavirus related needs. Administration for Community Living offers reliable and accurate information and guidelines to the elderly, children, and people with disabilities, as they are the most at-risk citizens. They are also providing people with accurate home-safety advice. And even the Defence Agencies are working their best to ensure the quality and safety of food available to the military, thereby ensuring their good health. Department of Health is working for new medical treatments while it also releases required information to the public. The Department of Homeland Security is facilitating a whole-of-government response in tackling this disease and helping detect and stop the spread of it. The Food and Drug Administration is constantly functioning with the medical industry to develop diagnostic tests, drugs and vaccines. They have started virtual safety training provision for front line workers.
In terms of travel regulation, it isn’t allowing any citizen of other countries to enter the US. Also, the federal government issues to trade and travel advisories, restricting the entry of certain foreign nationals. They also provide advice on managing the personal financial impact of coronavirus and delayed tax filing and offer advice on cutting COVID-19 costs from taxes.
Due to the rise in the pandemic, more than 40 states have shut down all the educational institutions and employees are advised to work from home. The federal agencies like Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency are looking after scams related to coronavirus. They also keep a check on Medicare and COVID-19 testing scams, false information like suspension of social security benefits, and coronavirus tax scams.
They have made several provisions for providing benefits to the most affected communities. They have a separate provision for support to Appalachian communities and also offer resources to military families. The US Department of Commerce recently announced a $1.5 billion aid under CARES Act funds to assist communities affected by the pandemic. Economic Development Administration’s CARES Act recovery assistance provides a whole multitude of monetary aid to regions and communities as they respond to and recover from the impact of the pandemic.
The state strongly encourages the e-filing of cases and also released guidelines for that. The Federal Communications Agency is making sure that the whole of America stays connected during the pandemic and is making agency communications accessible to everyone. The Treasury is supporting workers and businesses. They support the US exporting community and urge lenders to work with borrowers during this time. The Federal agencies are working with the banks and consumers to effectively respond to COVID-19 and also remind them to stay alert and report concerns. Small Business administration is working with businesses and is offering low-interest Economic Injury Disaster Loans to businesses and nonprofits affected by the pandemic.
The Department of State is working cross-borders to combat COVID-19 and is also funding international organizations. The US has made available $1 billion to combat COVID-19. Even the US Postal service is taking steps to ensure the safety and security of its employees and customers.
Currently, the US is spearheading humanitarian aid and health response to the global pandemic despite being the country with the most number of cases. The US Department of State asserts that they and the US Agency for International Development, in working with several Non-Governmental Organizations, have issued over $508 million in emergency health and financial aid to communities all over the world. This aid is specifically for 100 of the most affected and at-risk countries. Specifically, in Asia, the US is granting help to several countries like India, Afghanistan, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam.
These steps surely helped the US fight against the pandemic, but it yet remains the most affected country in the world, reporting the highest number of deaths. But the US is keen on reducing funding to WHO as the latter appreciated China. Some even call WHO the “China Health Organization”. But the limited funding would not only be detrimental for the US but also for other countries who receive financial assistance from the organization.
India’s first coronavirus case was reported on 30 January 2020, in the state of Kerala. To limit the spread of the virus, PM Narendra Modi declared a nation-wide lockdown on 24 March 2020, initially for a period of 3 weeks, which was further extended for 19 days on 14 April. The country entered in its Phase-IV of lockdown, which was extended for two weeks till 17 May and even this lockdown was extended till 31 May. Only essential businesses like Grocery shops and pharmacies were permitted to remain open throughout the lockdown. There were restrictions on farming, banks, and public works, and people were supposed to stay in their houses and come out only for necessary purposes while maintaining social distancing. Road, rail and air transport were closed throughout the country but is now facing some relaxation so that the workers can reach their homes safely. Gradually, this lockdown also saw some relaxation in the form of people travelling within the internal boundaries of the state with a permit, opening up some of the public offices but the educational institutions are still closed. However, social distancing was difficult to maintain in our country as hundreds and millions of Indians live in densely populated areas such as slums, and even the workers violated the regulations and came to roads demanding to be sent back to their homes.
The Government of India announced a relief package of INR 1 trillion to help the poor, hit by the lockdown on 24 March 2020. This package included providing medical insurance cover of 50 lakh to doctors, Asha workers, paramedics, sanitation workers, and nurses.
This relief package under Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana seeks to ease the financial pains faced by the poor, urban and rural women, migrant workers, and farmers. This package also included a provision for ensuring food security. Under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana, about 800 million people will get 5 kg of wheat or rice for free over a month or get additional 3 kgs above the 5 kgs they already get. Also, 1 kg of the preferred pulse will be distributed for free to each household for the next 3 months. The equitable distribution will be ensured under the government’s Public Distribution System (PDS) and could be availed by people in 2 instalments.
Direct benefit transfer related measures
Under the PM Kisan scheme, the first instalment of INR 2000 will be transferred to the accounts of 86.9 million farmers in the country. Under MNREGA, their wages will also be hiked from INR 182 to INR 212 per day. A one-time transfer of INR 500 per month for the next three months starting from April will be done to the Jan Dhan accounts of over 200 million women. 30 million widows, disabled and senior citizens are expected to receive a one-time ex-gratia amount of INR 1000 in two instalments. Women in 83 million families below the poverty line will receive free LPG cylinders for 3 months under the Ujjwala scheme. For over 6 lakh Self-help groups, who help over 70 million households, the government is doubling collateral loans to 200,000. All the state governments have been instructed to use the welfare fund to help the building and construction workers. The District Mineral Fund, worth INR 310 billion will be used to help those who faced financial strain due to the lockdown.
Social Security-related measures
To help the organized sector ensure social security, the Employment Provident Fund Organization has announced that employees who contribute to EPF can withdraw up to 75 percent of the account balance or 3 months’ basic salary, whichever is lower. The government has also announced that the establishments that employ up to 100 employees, out of which 90 percent of whom earn up to INR 15000 per month, the government will contribute to the employee provident fund for both the employee and the employer, from the period March 2020 to May 2020, which is extended for another period from June 2020 to August 2020. In the view of the government’s decision to declaring COVID-19 as a pandemic, the Pension Fund Regulatory and Funding Authority (PFRDA) has allowed partial withdrawals from the National Pension System (NPS) to fulfil financial needs towards the treatment of a family member, provided essential documents are shown. The documents include the medical certificate and a formal request for a partial withdrawal. The government also provided jurisdictional tax reliefs to people in response to COVID-19.
The country made a significant effort by announcing a country-wide lockdown, which essentially helped in lowering the transmission of the virus to a certain extent. Under Lockdown 1.0, the country was locked down from 25 March to 14 April. Only essential services were available and rest were shut down. All international and domestic travelling was curtailed until further notice. But the Ministry of External Affairs announced that the foreign nationals who are stuck in India and whose Visa expired between February 1 and April 30, were granted an automatic extension of Visa till 30 April. Due to the increasing stress around the world, India announced that foreign nationals can leave India, from 3 May to 17 May, without levy of penalty for overstay. The Government of India made sure that the Indians stuck in other countries were brought back to the nation. So, the government also made provisions for bringing back Indians to the country by sending flights to foreign nations. They were advised to stay quarantined for 14 days from their arrival. Also, a notice was placed in front of their homes that these people have arrived from a foreign country and no one should visit them.
Economic stimulus measures
The Government of India announced a 20 lakh crore economic support package in May, intended to keep the economy tide over the COVID-19 crisis. It is a five-part package, of which the last part was announced in May. The package included liquidity measures announced by the RBI like conducting auctions for Targeted Long Term Repo Operations, reduction of cash reserve ratio, etc, loan guarantees and increased spending on some areas such as rural employment programs. The largest part is 8 lakh crore in liquidity measures announced by the government. The government has decided to provide a 100 percent guarantee to 3 lakh crore in small business loans. It has allocated 15000 crores to the health sector. If the additional expenditure under this 20 lakh crore package is added to the PM Garib Kalyan Package and 15000 crores are allocated for strengthening health infrastructure, it would amount to 2.7 lakh crores or 1.2% of the country’s GDP. Also, the launching of the Arogya Setu App, which helps detect the nearest infectious person is a great development in this field.
The Reserve Bank of India also announced some economic stimulus measures. They reduced the repo rate by 75 basis points from 5.15% to 4.4%. The government also took some other measures like prohibiting the export of surgical or disposable masks, textile material for masks and coveralls, ventilators and oxygen supply apparatus, and sanitizers. It also prohibited the export of Hydroxychloroquine, unless permitted by the government. It exempted certain products like artificial respiration apparatus or facemasks, ventilators, Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and sanitizers, from customs duty and health cess.
The country has one of the lowest spendings in the health sector, but it is trying to cope with this problem. Its containment policy focuses on tracing those who have come in contact with the infected person and stop the transmission of the virus through stricter lockdowns and recognizing areas as red zones, green zones, or orange zones. The country is conducting around 40000 diagnostic tests daily with plans to increase it to 100,000 by 31 May by increasing the number of government and private laboratories who perform this function. It has also imported 1.5 billion antibody testing kits from China and 95000 diagnostic and antibody testing kits from South Korea. It also has helped foreign nations in their dealing with the crisis through the supply of essential equipment.
But these extreme measures had extreme consequences. India’s economic growth rate has slowed down to 5% in FY19-20 as compared to 7% in the prior years, and the unemployment rate is as high as 26% in April up from 7.8% in Mid-March. But the country is taking measures to ensure that the country rejuvenates itself from this. The announcement of stimulus packages that provides cash transfers and free food to its poorest citizens is surely a positive step in this way.
As India faces certain policy and economic challenges domestically, it has increased its engagement with regional partners to help combat the virus. During the first high-level meeting of SAARC since 2014, Modi established a COVID-19 Emergency Fund to be used by the SAARC nations for urgent medical supplies and equipment. Total contributions towards the fund were $21.6 million. India has also participated in virtual meetings with 7 Indo-Pacific partners like the US, Japan, and Australia, as well as the G20 leaders’ summit. India has provided crisis assistance to regional partners like supplying medical assistance to Bangladesh and food to Afghanistan. It has also sent a team of 15 doctors to Kuwait and 14 doctors to the Maldives. As the largest provider of generic drugs globally, it is also set to supply anti-malarial drugs known as Hydroxychloroquine and Paracetamol to 85 countries.
The rapid pace at which the coronavirus has taken over the health systems of the world exposed the withering health of these countries and dwindling reliability on neoliberal orders. The US initially sought to downplay the spread of the pandemic, hoping they would be spared of the consequences. President Trump was sceptical and claimed it was even real. And now, the US stands with the most number of cases and deaths reported in the world. The nations with the greatest number of cases are indeed prosperous countries with strong political freedom and civil liberties and yet they stand in a worse position than authoritarian nations like China or South Korea. These representative governments failed to institute population surveillance and control mechanisms, which would have been helpful. Also, these countries were in conflict with their own government officials. On one hand, President Trump was insisting people for gaining liberty and on the other hand, other officials were indecisive with the lockdown decision. The US was so pestered with WHO appreciating China’s efforts that it stated that it would stop the funding to the Organization. This would not only be detrimental for the US as it would be lacking with vital international data but also for other countries who receive financial support from the World Health Organization. But the country assisted many of the countries in times of crisis.
The US was slow in its responses in the beginning, but as it witnessed a rise in the number of cases, it became more stringent with the regulations. But still, it falls short to other countries in terms of being stringent with its policies and regulations. Had it been more efficient in dealing with the pandemic, there would have been fewer casualties reported in the country.
India was the first country in the world to announce a country-wide lockdown, which has so far been considered as one of the most effective measures for preventing the rapid transmission of the virus. In terms of its responses, the Indian government has been quite rapid. Installation of the nation-wide lockdown, shutting down of businesses and educational institutes, and putting on travel restrictions proved to be very effective.
But the main problem with our country is not up to the mark healthcare facilities. This is due to our less spending on the health sector. The country still lacks enough ventilators or ICU beds, lacked testing kits and relief materials like medical equipment, PPE, masks, and even sanitizers, and also the challenge in manufacturing these essentials indigenously, thereby relying on imports. The country’s doctor to patient ratio was 1:1445 while the hospital beds to people ratio and ventilators to population ratio were 0.7:1000 and 40000:1.3 billion respectively. Therefore, the country had to turn existing infrastructure like schools, colleges, temples, community centres, and banquet halls into isolation wards and quarantine centres. Being the largest producer and supplier of generic drugs, India was able to produce and supply Hydroxychloroquine, the prospective drug for COVID-19.
In terms of travel restrictions, the people were supposed to remain at home. To go out they were required to go through thermal scanning and possess a permit. They should also maintain social distancing. But due to a lack of knowledge and awareness among people, they didn’t maintain social distancing and became prone to the infection. The government also has failed to provide accommodation and travel facilities for workers. They were forced to be on the streets and live without basic necessities. They even protested, but it only resulted in a worsening of the situation. The people violated the social distancing norms and had to be repressed with violent measures.
But what was most appreciative was the fact that India provided crisis assistance to many countries to help combat the pandemic. India’s ability to undertake a strong leadership role and help the countries by supplying medical essentials will have a powerful impact on the importance of maintaining international and regional cooperation.
The government was responsive in granting help to the most vulnerable groups of the country. It launched economic stimulus plans which focused on providing financial assistance to the poor as well as businesses. The most crucial impact is experienced by our economy. Our economic growth rate has slowed down by 5%, and it’s dwindling. The government has made several efforts to restart the economic system and bring it out from the abyss.
Fears over the virus have exacerbated religious tensions in India, with Muslims facing increased hostility over some places, resulting from a March conference convened by Tablighi Jamaat, which led to the largest single outbreak of over 1000 cases in New Delhi and around 4000 cases across the country.
Lessons from Italy’s response
It was only a matter of weeks that Italy went from discovering its first case to completely shutting down the country and stopping all the non-essential activities. Within this very short period of time, it has been hit by nothing short of a tsunami, claiming hundreds of lives. It is undoubtedly Italy’s biggest crisis since WWII. Several lessons could be learned from Italy’s response.
In its early stages, no one could have anticipated that this crisis would rapidly escalate into a pandemic. The initial state of emergency announced in the country was met by suspicion by both the people in policy circles and the general public. Similar reactions echoed around several other countries, and this has been called confirmation bias, a tendency to seize upon or search for information that confirms our prior beliefs or position. The initial scepticism of these countries led to the worsening of the crisis. Threats like these act in a non-linear fashion and are unable to track because of their uncertainty. So the best response comes at the earliest possible stages-where a single case is detected or yet to be detected.
The next important lesson that can be learned from Italy’s response is the significance of systematic approaches and risks of incomplete solutions. The Italian government issued a series of decrees that increased the restriction within the red zones and then eventually expanded it until it got applied upon the entire country. In this case, this solution backfires, which would otherwise be considered advisable and well-judged. Firstly, it was not in consonance with the rampant spread of the epidemic. This instance proved that the facts on the ground will not provide for the future situation. Italy followed the virus rather than preventing it. And secondly, the selective approach could have aided the transmission. The news of locking down northern Italy created a massive exodus to Southern Italy, which led to the transmission of the virus even to the hitherto unaffected places. This proved that an effective response to the virus must be coupled with coherent actions taken simultaneously.
The next lesson could be finding the right implementation process, which requires learning from both successes and failures. Surely, countries like China, South Korea provide a valuable example of how to respond effectively. But the best lessons could be learned from within the national boundaries as well. The Italian healthcare system is highly decentralized and different states react differently.
The main distinction is between the states of Lombardy and Veneto. Lombardy was disproportionately hit by COVID-19. It reported around 35000 cases with 5000 deaths, while Veneto reported around 7000 cases and 300 deaths. The trajectories of these two states were shaped by factors, not within the control of the policymakers like the high population density of Lombardy and a higher number of cases. But the policy decisions also made an impact. While they both insisted on social distancing, the response by Veneto was highly proactive and multidimensional. It insisted on extensive tracing and testing, home diagnosis and care, and monitoring and protection of healthcare and other essential workers. On the other hand, Lombardy followed a conservative approach. It conducted half of the tests conducted by Veneto and made little investments in proactive tracing and protecting workers. The policy decisions by Veneto have significantly reduced the burden on hospitals while the response of Lombardy only worsened the situation. The same is the case with Indian states. States like Kerala were proactive in launching a state response team and also joined hands with essential service facilities. They were effective in reducing the transmission, while states, like Maharashtra, didn’t follow the social distancing norms and had to bear the disastrous consequences with the highest number of cases.
So, the main factors involved in dealing with the pandemic are that there is no time to waste as it can lead to an exponential increase in cases, and also the decisions must be coherent with the further actions taken. The people also need to be kept updated with all the reliable information.
Politics in dealing with a pandemic
This pandemic has dawned everyone to the realization that politicians around the world will turn to domestic policy, even if it has external triggers. They are discovering that despite all the global dimensions of the national economy, all policies are local. Given that most individuals are concerned with existential issues, they place immense faith in doctors, political leaders, and government officials to take care of them. It is a proven fact that even during the times of war, people place absolute trust in generals expecting them to make rational decisions that would minimize loss and maximize gain. Similarly, in the case of a pandemic, people place immense trust in healthcare workers and doctors to make informed decisions. The problem with these assumptions is that they are not the only decision-makers. More often than ever, they are forced to make decisions that are imposed on them by political leaders. This is how political consideration and politics enter decision making during crises. The last word on any policy is that of the state. Civil servants and bureaucrats give them their best advice, but the final decision rests in the hand of politicians, keeping political consequences in mind. Even their external policy decisions are made with domestic consequences in mind. It is therefore not surprising that the COVID-19 crisis has turned into a geopolitical and geoeconomic conflict between China and the United States. Even when Modi talks about cooperative federalism, all his policy decisions are unilateral. It is only natural when the Centre places West Bengal under the radar of COVID-19, the CM alleges it as an infringement of state rights. The pandemic responses are replete with policy choices that resonate with the promotion of political and personal power.
The time of pandemic requires international cooperation and solidarity, while all we are doing is finger-pointing and international politicking at each other. While the scientists and epidemiologists are working together at finding a vaccine, the countries are just blaming each other. This is the time when countries need to unite and help combat the crisis.
Pandemic is a situation that affects an exponential geographic area and population over a period of time. So the most crucial thing is to evolve a whole-of-society approach in which communities, individuals, and governments participate in combating the crisis. Also, countries should maintain international cooperation and solidarity.
LawSikho has created a telegram group for exchanging legal knowledge, referrals and various opportunities. You can click on this link and join: