The whole world is gripped with the novel Coronavirus and countries are battling in their respective ways. China, where it originated, and Italy have been the two worst affected. The affect of this vicious virus is so dreadful, so devastating that it beggars any estimation or prediction. In addition to the health hazards, the economic fallout is equally alarming. Besides, its immediate and long term effect on the GDP, poor people in many countries, including India, who survive on their daily earnings, will simply perish without support.
The health care systems and welfare provisions in many countries are non-existent, some basic facilities that exist in some middle level countries are unable to cope with such a gigantic challenge. This is the time, in each country, the tenacity of the people and creativity and generosity of their leaders will come into play. We have discussed in this column in foregoing two weeks, the origin, the spread, and the theories around this disease, we now somewhat evaluate the efficiency and sagacity of the leadership in several countries.
In the pecking order, it has to be China where the virus sprang up from wherever the world is yet to learn. Donald Trump has already said that China is making bio-weapons; the virus could be a deliberate creation or an accidental bi-product of the bio-weaponisation process. There are evidences, direct or indirect, to show that China may be doing so. One of them is a book written in 1999 by two colonels in the People’s Liberation Army, Qial Liang and Wang Xiangsui. The focus in the book is on how China can defeat a technologically superior country like United Sates of America.
The book written by two military strategists talk about non-military means to defeat USA. It is being interpreted that the virus was created. The theory goes like this: “Create a virus and the antidote; spread the virus; cause chaos in the world, starting with Europe; quickly control the epidemic in your country; after all, you were already prepared; get back to producing quickly while the world is at a standstill. Buy what you negotiated cheaply in the crisis and sell more expensive what is lacking in countries that have paralyzed their industries.”
The observers ask: “How come Russia & North Korea are free of COVID- 19? Is it because they are staunch allies of China? Not many deaths are reported from these two countries. On the other hand South Korea, United Kingdom, Italy, Spain and Asia are severely hit. How come Wuhan is suddenly free from the deadly virus? Why Beijing was not hit? Why only Wuhan? Wuhan is open for business now.”
To be sure, the world will come to know of the veracity of such interpretations sooner than later. China has, however, controlled the virus faster than it was anticipated. It could be the “Chinese efficiency” in doing things. But why do not they share the mechanisms of combating and containing the virus? We know how South Korea did it and there are essentially three lessons to learn from its experience: One, intervene fast before it becomes a crisis. Second, test early, South Koreans say, “the early test was the key behind out low fatality rate”. Lesson three is to do ‘contact tracing, isolation and surveillance’.
The response of Canada and the US to mitigate the miseries of the people during this horrid situation is exemplary. Canadian government has announced an $82 billion financial aid package in form of direct payouts, tax deferrals and general economic stimulus. Specifically, the Canadian government would deposit money in the accounts of the unemployed, subsidise wages of the employees of the small businesses, help the middle class to restructure their loan accounts, provide financial and other support to the families of the Corona-dead to tide over the immediate crisis.
The US is on a war footing to fight the deadly virus. It has announced three financial packages to tide over the crisis. The first was of $8.3 billion to invent a vaccine. The second was for financial assistance to Americans with cash payments of $1200 to most individuals, $2,400 for married couples and $500 per child adults. The unemployment insurance was increased. The social security safety net will cover individuals earning less than $75000 and the couples below $150,000. The third package is an economic stimulus of $2 trillion, the largest in the history of America. This is to deal with the economic fallout of the virus. This is meant to help individuals, businesses and hospitals.
Back home, we have a Prime Minister who is quite controversial, he has die-hard supporters and bitter critics. He has come twice on national television to give messages, like a supreme leader does. He does not believe in press conferences where media personnel could ask him questions and point out the gaps in policies and management of the crisis etc. It is another matter that our media is strangely and largely servile. But a few of those who are intrepid men and women could raise pertinent questions.
To be non-partisan, Modi spoke twice for roughly 30 minutes each. Once for people’s curfew for 14 hours on 22nd and then on last Tuesday, he announced a lockdown of the country for 21 days. He also announced a fund of Rs 15000 crore to shore up the hospital facilities to deal with the crisis. He talked of social distancing as the only way to control and defeat the disease. It was refreshing to see him not indulging in any party politics like Opposition-bashing. As usual, he was persuasive and impressive.
But on deeper analysis, did the PM say enough to fight off this virus? Is he not placing the burden on the shoulders of citizens alone to combat the pandemic? Is our government working out any stimulus plans to come to the rescue of the 130 crore beleaguered Indians? The PM said,” If we do not prepare we will let people die like those in Spain and Italy”.
What are our preparations? The 21-day lockdown feels like a repeat of the sudden announcement of ill-thought out and unplanned demonetisation in November 2016 that dealt a crippling blow to our economy. People are yet to recover from it. How will poor people who work every day to earn their livelihood survive for 21 days? Did the PM extend the social security umbrella to millions of daily wagers? Clearly, the stimulus to the hospital is not enough to scale up the health care system just as Japan, South Korea and Germany did. India as such spends 3.6 per cent of its GDP on health, much below the world average at 10 per cent.
There are immediate challenges to face. Social distancing alone will not help and it is not easy in the second most populous country in the world where 455 people live in one square km, compared to 148 in China and 60 people as world average. So far, only 15000 people have been tested, but more testing needs to be done. The ICMR chief says we can test between 60 to 70 thousand people a week, whereas UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson is scaling up testing up to 25000 a day.
Our Prime Minister makes bold announcements, hallmark of a decisive leader. How we wish, he backs them up by tangible, urgent and necessary actions!