On March 11th, 2020, when the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 as a global pandemic, little did we realize that life as we know it would cease being the same again. Having witnessed the devastation caused by the Coronavirus in the developed world led by Italy at that time, it was natural to fear the extent of havoc the pandemic would wreak on a developing country whose massive population exceeds 1.3billion and whose per-capita GDP is well below the global average. Oblivious to the global situation then, panic started gripping the society the moment a COVID-19 positive case was reported on 30th January 2020 on Indian soil. As consequent actions of the government were being speculated, our fears were assuaged when the largest democracy in the world quickly went into a national lockdown starting 24th March 2020, with relief plans and mitigation efforts taking the limelight in steps and leaps through the course of this mammoth lockdown along with gradual lockdown extensions.
Taking proactive and pre-emptive steps towards healthcare early on in January helped India to not just stay ahead of the COVID-19 curve as the crisis evolved, but also prevented the country from spiraling into the depths of economic and emotional turmoil. With the first travel advisory being issued on 17th January (before India’s first reported COVID-19 case), there was a prior screening of all flights arriving from China and Hong Kong at various airports. From one lab in January – Pune’s ICMR-National Institute of Virology being the referral laboratory for the entire Southeast-Asia to over 250 labs nationwide currently, more than 2 million samples have been tested to date.
Anticipating the swiftness of the spread of the virus, the government realized that the battle could not just be won with government initiation alone. Increasing production manifold, about 52 domestic companies were roped in, currently producing over 2lakh personal protective equipment(PPE) kits per day. Through the National Rural Livelihoods Mission (NRLM), away from the spotlight of the cities, the government effectively managed to include even the grassroots level of society in the national struggle, with over 80,000 self-help group members, majority of whom are women to produce more than 20million masks and over 100,000 liters of affordable sanitizer.
Delving into core medical supplies, India has had a six-fold increase in the supply of oxygen for medical purposes since pre-lockdown times, has prepared over 625,000 isolation beds from public and private hospitals solely for COVID-19 treatment, and has tapped into all forms of relief avenues available, such as converting over 5000 railway coaches into isolation wards and a number of 2/3 star hotels into quarantine-zones for abroad returnees.
International partnerships have been inherently woven into the fabric of Indian society. At the helm of international relations, India has been supplying essential medicines to over 120 nations and staying true to its diplomacy, morphed President Trump’s threat to a generous offer by amping-up production of the unproven “wonder drug” Hydroxychloroquine to 30crore tablets a day currently, without compromising domestic needs. In early May, a massive evacuation program called mission ‘Vande Bharat’ was conceived; simultaneously deploying naval ships and national and commercial aircraft, the government brought back Indian citizens from around the globe. This served the dual purpose of reviving debt-ridden Air India along with bringing solace to distressed Indian citizens whose lives have been upended due to the pandemic. Spearheading the upskilling of medical workers to treat COVID-19 patients, India arranged a capacity building program for healthcare professionals of the SAARC nations on April 17th and is en route to synthesizing Remdesivir, with 5 Indian firms creating the drug known to inhibit the virus-spread.
The Oxford COVID-19 Government Response Tracker, having scored India a perfect “100” for its strictness, reported that the Indian Government had responded more stringently than other countries in tackling the pandemic, noting the government’s speedy action, emergency investment in healthcare, fiscal measures, and active response through containment zones. Leveraging the technological acumen of the Indian populace, the Union government disseminated all COVID-19 case information through the Aarogya Setu app for effective contact tracing, with states individually developing their own apps in regional languages, along with announcements of innumerous Covid-19 case-prediction Hackathons, competitions for low-cost ventilators, supply chain optimization, etc.
All visas for foreign nationals were suspended mid-March and soon, the Government issued an advisory urging all Indian states to take social distancing measures as a preventive strategy. Along with the Union and State governments setting up national and state helpline numbers, a COVID-19 Economic Response Task Force was also formed. By late March, the government had ordered the closure of all educational institutes across the country and restricted companies remote work. A nationwide color-coded zonal division for cities was undertaken, demarcating them as Green, Orange and Red Zones respectively, indicative of the number of active cases at the time.
Realizing the importance of boosting public morale in difficult times, a step in ameliorating the lockdown’s monotony was a call for the “Janata Curfew” wherein Prime-Minister Modi suggested that Indians assemble at their windows or balconies and clap their hands, ring bells or make some sound, lauding the efforts of all frontline professionals against the COVID-19 battle – nurses, doctors, cleaners, police personnel and others.
Bringing the economy to a standstill is detrimental to any country and comes with its own set of costs. To keep the financial ship of the country afloat, the RBI has helped provide cash infusions to struggling financial institutions, persuading banks to lend funds by lowering the repo rate and allowing a three-month moratorium on payment of all loans due between March 1st and May 31st, 2020.
On May 12th the government announced an economic relief package of ₹20 trillion, nearly 10% of the country’s GDP for an ‘Atma Nirbhar’ Bharat targeted at laborers, farmers, MSMEs, cottage industries and all others who have severely borne the brunt of the pandemic. The rudiments of a portable architecture for the provision of healthcare are in place with RSBY (Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana) and ESI (Employees’ State Insurance)schemes and ₹3500 crores being spent on providing free food grains and pulses for two months to 8 crore migrant workers without ration cards. As part of the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana(PMGKY), an ex-gratia payment of ₹500 is credited to women Jan-Dhan account holders for three months, starting from April.
Just like the two-headed God Janus, every country’s ups certainly have its downs. A particular field where the government’s efforts have been inadequate is the aversion of the migrant crisis. Marginal workers staring at dwindling food-supplies and empty bank accounts are often the unspoken collateral damage. Images of hundreds of migrant workers stranded at various bus-stops and railway stations, trying to make their journey back home on foot clearly show the ineffectiveness of the government’s communication. Restarting trains, asking states to coordinate on their own led to a chaotic indecisiveness.
The fact that we have a smaller-than-global incidence rate of COVID-19 with a much smaller community transmission is testimony to India taking the most necessary steps well in time. While the lockdown restrictions are currently being relaxed, with ever-increasing cases being reported every day, the government’s efforts and people’s cooperation are indeed the pillars on which the mitigation of this pandemic’s aftermath stands.
Note for viewers: The author was chosen as a winner for the above article depending upon the participation and quality in the ‘Essay Writing Contest’ organized in May 2020. The opinions expressed in the article are purely of the author.