Here are ten steps to guide the nation’s path back to functional normalcy amid a pandemic with the hope of being prepared to fight the contagion comprehensively
It is undeniable that COVID-19 has caught the world by surprise and waylaid the most robust plans and governance systems. The value of expert advice still holds a premium in these uncertain times and these 10 steps, broken down into stages of an action plan form a roadmap of sorts to handle the various impacts of this harrowing pandemic.
Tackling the virus
Communicate clearly: With over 1,12,000 cases and nearly 3,500 deaths in India as of May 20, 2020, it is inconceivable that the virus is not in the community-spreading stage. The Government continuing to insist that there is no community spread is misleading and gives people the false hope that they are protected. If people cannot trust their government when there is a relatively low number of cases, how will they trust their government when the number of cases starts increasing? It is better to plan for the worst and hope for the best.
Test wisely: The current increase in testing is useful but has come too late. We wasted our resources by focusing only on people coming home from abroad or on known contacts of existing cases and left out high risk, low-income populations amongst whom the virus was spreading rapidly. If we had started testing in early February when we had our first cases, this level of testing would have been adequate to contain the virus in clusters. Now we have to assume that the virus has spread across communities and we can only identify the infected by mass testing high-risk citizens, which includes anyone over the age of 50, and those with other morbidities.
Prepare for more cases: If we are not prepared even now after eight weeks of a nationwide lockdown, we are never going to be prepared. The Government should spell out what it has done in terms of procurement and preparedness during these past eight weeks, that will help us when the number of cases increases.
Allow states leeway to respond: Allow states to designate which districts need special 'hot spot' intervention. Focus national efforts on providing help to states with medical equipment and supplies rather than assuming that experts in Delhi have a better understanding of the situation than the public health officials on the ground. COVOD-19 cannot become an excuse for the Government to take over the role of the states.
Listen to science: There is troubling evidence that decisions about lockdowns and plans are being made without listening to the best scientific minds in the country. The purchase of antibody testing kits was a mess because it was done without sufficient validation or consultation. Even today, we don't know how many people have already been infected because India has not done a serological survey like has been done in many other countries. We need more openness and transparency in how we are using science to fight COVID-19. Science is about truth, trust, reason, rational, repeatability, reliability and open debate.
Lifting the lockdown & dealing with its consequences
Lift the lockdown at the earliest: The lockdown was useful as a way of getting some time to prepare but no country can afford to use it as a permanent solution for fighting the virus. We have to set down a timebound plan for coming out of the lockdown.
Provide food rations and allowances to the poor: Crores of Indians have lost their livelihoods in both rural and urban India. Many are starving. If and when they contract the COVID-19 virus, they could be at a greater risk because of their weakened state. The current level of support for our citizens is simply unacceptable. A national programme that provides food rations to every citizen, with or without a ration card, for six months, is easily achievable given our ample stock of food grains. Much of the financial support that the government has promised is yet to reach many citizens. We must remove all bottlenecks to make sure what has been promised is delivered without any further delay.
Allow activities that kick start the economy: Prioritise activities that will allow the economy to recover. Allow freedom of movement for work including public transport but ban mass religious, social and cultural gatherings for the next few months. All offices, businesses and markets should be allowed to open. We know that the virus spreads with or without a lockdown. But we cannot fight the contagion on an empty stomach.
Recovering from COVID-19
Turn the crisis into an opportunity to invest in health for the 21st century: The current crisis can become an opportunity if we use it to invest in public health infrastructure. The health and wellness centres that were promised under the Ayushman Bharat programme have not yet come into existence at scale. It will take less than Rs 1,00,000 crore to build a world-class health system that will serve us in the years to come. This is an investment that we have to make to secure our future.
Plan for the next two years: National and international experts have indicated that we have to live with this virus for at least another 18 months. The Government should spell out a clear two-year plan rather than providing guidance week by week. Citizens and businesses need to know what to expect. We should hope for the best in terms of containing the disease but plan for the worst. Without a plan, there is confusion and no economy can recover under a cloud of uncertainty and lack of direction.
The writer is former advisor to PM Rajiv Gandhi & PM Dr Manmohan Singh. Views expressed are personal