Brig Anil Gupta
At the risk of being labelled an alarmist, I would like to standby each and every word spoken by the Prime Minister during his nationwide 8pm address on Tuesday, March 24. It is very unusual for the PM of a nation to address the nation twice within 96 hours unless there is a grave emergency. With a very low literacy rate in our country, we are used to live with “Chaltahai” (Couldn’t care less) and “Ram Bharose” (Leave it on God) attitude but are failing to recognise the gravity of the situation this time which is something our generation has not faced. After independence, this is perhaps the first time when the nation is being put to a test collectively with every part of the country affected. Not only that, it is not confined to India alone but the entire neighbourhood of South Asia is being engulfed by this pandemic. A day before the PM made this announcement Dr Dara Singh, the renowned orthopaedic surgeon of Jammu, wrote to me thus, “I feel we are late in understanding Covid-19. In other words we failed to take the required steps so far. Being a surgeon I believe in spot decision and Quick Action. Considering the present situation and future expectations from the disease behaviour, the education and understanding level of ours as a whole I would not shy in suggesting to the policy makers to plan and act immediately taking a note of one line ‘everyone in India is Covid+ unless proved otherwise’, I may sound too aggressive but it will prove to be least damaging. Good luck. Jai Hind.” I being an army veteran could not agree more than him because I had always been a votary of quick decision making in case of an adversity and against those who preferred to remain as “fence sitters.”
It appears the Doctor and the PM had a telepathic connection because the sum total of what the PM said was the gist of my friend’s aggressive advice. The Government advisories insisted on Social Distancing as the best way to avoid the spread of the deadly pandemic in our country but the public at large either didn’t understand the meaning and purpose of Social Distancing or were still overwhelmed by the “Chalta Hai” attitude. It was evident from the nation’s response to the PM’s earlier call of one day voluntary “Janta Curfew” on Sunday, 22 March. Though the response was overwhelming as far as remaining indoors was concerned but an apology to the concept of Social Distancing as was evident from many videos flashed on the electronic media. The fine difference between Isolation and Social Distancing is what the majority countrymen failed to realise. PM in his address also emphasized on this aspect when he said that social distancing is not meant only for the affected persons but each and every one including the Prime Minister himself.
PM in his address also said, “If we are not able to manage next 21 days, we will be pushed back by 21 years. For 21 days forget what it means to step out of your homes.” He stressed on treating the doorstep of houses as a “LaxmanRekha” and not violating it.Why 21 days? Corona Virus spreads exponentially. The urgency is to break the chain of its spread. This flu is like an avalanche, slow moving snow initially but then a wallop. The end effect of avalanche is well known to all. We have to worry because due to very limited testing facilities available initially, the testing of suspects in our country was restricted. Hence, it is presumed that actual figures may be much higher than declared and once we enter phase 3 which means that transmission is not restricted to personnel returning from foreign countries but begins to spread more rapidly within communities. Considering, India’s population and limited availability of health infrastructure such stage would be catastrophic for us. Hence prevention is better than cure. Thus the need for 21-day lockdown to break the cycle of exponential spread.
Why it is the last hope? The figures of infected persons released so far indicate that despite Government advisories and many pro-active measure taken by State/UT administrations in many parts of our country, the virus is spreading. The table below illustrates the fact:
The medicos and analysts feel that if number of cases double in more than five days, as is evident from the above chart, it would not take more than a month to reach the phase of unmanageable number of cases and deaths. Thus, next 21 days are very critical. India has been quick to learn from the happenings in countries like China, Iran, the United States and Western Europe countries and draw lessons from successful models of containment followed by countries like Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore. India under the dynamic and visionary leadership of PM Modi has come out with its own model of 21-Day lockdown and the entire world including WHO is waiting with bated breath to see the outcome of this unique model. India is not only trying to combat the pandemic through control measures but is also actively involved in promoting indigenous efforts to manufacture testing kits (in which it has succeeded) and in research (succeeded in isolating the virus). Thus, India is emerging as a major nation to lead the fight against pandemic and continue to be part of research community. India earlier has also shown the world the path to fight two pandemics like small pox and polio. 21-day lockdown will slow down virus transmission. India is developing capability and capacity to isolate, test, treat and trace. But isolation is the most critical to prevent the surge and ultimate outbreak.
The model no doubt is harsh but with self-control and self-discipline Indians can ensure success of this model and provide lead to the world and become real “Vishaw Guru”. The task is gigantic because we have a very low literacy rate and a very high number of workers in “informal sector” depending on daily wages. A lot would depend on how they behave or how the Government ensures the compliance from them. Can daily wage earners afford to remain indoors, is a moot question? With eateries and Dhabas closed how will the stray cattle survive? With large number of people staying in over populated Jhuggis and one-room dwellings with shared unhygienic public toilets, unhygienic living conditions and dirty water supply, how will the social distancing be maintained? While, the Government is busy with its hands full in combating the Covid-19 pandemic, it is the responsibility of civil societies, political parties and NGOs to come forward and address these issues.
“The Gods didn’t sentence death for the hungry, and death visits even the one with full belly, the giver never diminishes. One who doesn’t give, doesn’t even find a giver (no one forgives a non-giver)” [Rigveda 10.117.1}
As quoted above, even the Rigveda says, don’t let anyone die of hunger! Gods have not given death sentence to the poor, hungry, unfortunate and it is not as if those who eat full belly will never die! Then why not share your excess, give and live and let live?
In all probabilities, these sections of the society will continue to venture out to seek livelihood and remain exposed to the threat of Corona Virus and be a potential threat to the society until the earlier mentioned organisations do not accept their social responsibility to look after these people.
Another issue is the disposable of bio-waste being generated daily in numerous quarantine and isolation centres built across the country. If the waste is not disposed of scientifically, it could prove to be another source of spread of the deadly virus. The administration needs to take a serious note of it and ensure zero-error in the same.
To sum up, it would not be out of place to quote the assessment of Ashish Jha, the Director of Harvard Health Institute. Jha predicts that as many as 40 percent of Indians could get infected with the coronavirus, which could mean between 300 million and 400 million infected, up to 70 million needing some hospital treatment, and as many as 8 million to 20 million needing intensive care in hospitals. “That’s not fathomable in terms of what the hospital system can possibly accommodate, a lot of people could die outside of health care facilities,”predicts Jha. To prove his prediction wrong, 21-day lockdown is the last hope.
(The author is a Jammu based veteran, political commentator, columnist, security and strategic analyst.)
Brig Anil Gupta