- The country was fed with rumors that the life of the coronavirus is only 12 hours and this 14 hours isolation would be sufficient to make India free from the virus.
- Narendra Modi’s call for ‘clap to thank’ at 5 pm was enough for many Indians to come out in large processions in patriotic fervor, ignoring the basic medical advice of maintaining physical distance and therefore likely facilitating the spread of the virus further.
Coronavirus has posed such a serious threat to mankind, which the world has not witnessed at least since the end of the Second World War.
The pandemic has moved from East Asia to Iran and southern Europe and then to the US at great speed and intensity. Till now, the second-most populous country of the world, India, has not received the full impact of the COVID-19 catastrophe, but it will be a miracle if it can manage to stay away from the eye of this impending storm. The number of identified COVID-19 cases and deaths is still very low in India compared to China, Iran, Italy or the US. The relatively smaller number of identified cases in India can somehow be attributed to the ‘no test, no case’ syndrome as India has one of the lowest COVID-19 testing rates in the world. Moreover, the reliability of any data usually provided by the Indian government has come under suspicion in recent years.
India spends less than 1.5 per cent of its GDP on healthcare, one of the lowest rates in the world. Besides the lack of proper medical infrastructure, as a recent report in the British Medical Journal suggests, even more than half of the health professionals in India, including doctors and nurses, don’t have the necessary qualifications.
Lack of basic education for the large Indian population makes them susceptible to belief in witchcraft and superstition. Adding to all these, it is not just several Hindu organizations that have been propagating cow urine as a cure for coronavirus, but even the Indian government’s ministry on alternative medicines has been recommending the use of an anti-malarial Ayurvedic drug and Yoga for the cure. The terrible health of health and education in the country are long-term challenges, which has made the densely populated India more vulnerable to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Usually, governments of the countries, particularly Iran and Italy who have already faced the wrath of coronavirus, are being blamed for not taking preemptive steps and effective measures to stop the virus spreading to the larger population and making the health facilities available to cope with the number of COVID-19 patients coming in. However, in India, it is not inaction, but the actions taken by the government that have brought serious worries not only about their effectiveness to control the virus but also these steps might spread the pandemic further and faster within the country.
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Despite repeated warnings from medical experts, the World Health Organization and even from Opposition leaders, Indian government was late to react to the coronavirus crisis when it had even started spreading outside of China. India had no checks at the airports to detect infected travelers coming from foreign countries till the first week of March, nor did it try to procure medical supplies like masks and respirators to be able to prepare for the eventuality. Even some Indian companies were allowed to export masks and ventilators till 19 March 2020. Not surprisingly, India, like many other coronavirus affected countries, faces a serious shortage of basic medical equipment if the pandemic takes full force in the sub-continent. More than these acts of omission, it is the Indian government’s acts of commission, which have brought real worries of on the spread of the virus all across the country at a much faster pace.
On March 19, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed the nation on the issue of coronavirus for the first time and asked his countrymen to follow the precautions to avoid the spread of the pandemic. However, going beyond giving this medical advice, he called the country to show solidarity in this fight against Covid 19 and to show that he asked Indians to voluntarily observe a lockdown (which he called Janta Curfew) between 7 am and 9 pm on Sunday, March 23 . Adding to that he also urged people to come out of their homes and clap and ring bells at 5pm that day to thank medical workers and professionals. This appeal for 14 hours of isolation on Sunday led to various rumors in the country, which primarily gets the news these days through WhatsApp forwards. The country was fed with rumors that the life of the coronavirus is only 12 hours and this 14 hours isolation would be sufficient to make India free from the virus. Modi’s call for ‘clap to thank’ at 5 pm was enough for many Indians to come out in large processions in patriotic fervor, ignoring the basic medical advice of maintaining physical distance and therefore likely facilitating the spread of the virus further.
If those ill-thought out calls were not enough, Modi again addressed the country on March 24 evening and announced a 21-day complete lockdown giving only four hours of notice. It is a mammoth task anyway to put a country of India’s size on siege for three weeks, but to make it worse the announcement was done hastily without proper and elaborate planning. Immediately after Modi’s address, a large number of Indian families ran to food stores in the middle of the night to buy in bulk and nearly creating a stampede, ignoring physical distance among them. The real problem arose when millions of India’s migrant workers became jobless and homeless overnight as factories and business establishments they used to work in closed down for the lockout.
The lack of government support, absence of shelter and fear of hunger have forced many of them even to walk in groups hundreds of kilometers to go back to their villages as buses and trains stopped running. Despite police brutality and lack of transportation, many of these desperate migrant workers are on the move and that has led to a certain possibility of spreading the coronavirus faster and particularly in interior parts of India, where medical facilities are almost non-existent. India is most likely staring at a major outbreak of coronavirus and if that takes place, a large share of the blame has to go to Narendra Modi and his government.
Ashok Swain is a professor of peace and conflict research at Uppsala University, Sweden