When Covid-19 first appeared, the Indian government took a proactive approach to the disease caused by the new coronavirus that has infected tens of thousands around the globe.
There were a large number of Indian students in Wuhan, China, where the initial breakout happened, so the government made vigorous efforts to airlift them back to India. It did the same for around 300 Indians stranded in Iran, where the virus has led to nearly 1,000 deaths.
But as the scale of the challenge has become clear, the Indian government’s actions to tackle it have become less certain.
India had canceled all flights from Iran, and so the government assured the hundreds of citizens who wanted to return that they would arrange for an airlift. The Indians were given accommodation, but no effort was made to quarantine positive cases. It now seems that more than 250 of them have tested positive and do not know when they will be able to return or where they will be treated.
One tweet by the Indian ambassador to the country also added to the impression that the government was leaving citizens to fend for themselves.
The same approach seemed to be scaled up to deal with Indian citizens in the European Union as well as the United Kingdom and Turkey this week.
Last week, India prohibited the entry of nearly all foreigners, with a few small exceptions, from any part of the world. This meant that almost all in-bound travel to the country were Indian citizens.
Yet this week, the government announced a complete travel ban from the European Union, the United Kingdom, Turkey, Afghanistan, Philippines, Malaysia and Afghanistan. No flights will be permitted to take off from these countries for India until March 31. Since foreigners were anyway prohibited, this seemed like a straightforward effort to stop Indian citizens from returning to their own country.
Naturally, many panicked.
There was a mad scramble to return before the new ban came into effect, leading to large crowds at airports – precisely the sort of situation that should be avoided at a time of infectious diseases. Meanwhile, many others were left dangling. What about students who had been asked to return home? Or those whose visas were expiring?
Eventually, after many concerned Indians raised questions, the High Commission to the UK offered an answer:
It was not until a day later, during a press conference that the government offered a little more clarity. “We are in talks with European missions for those Indians who are stuck and need visa extension,” an official said. “You cannot have well defined plan for such a situation ... Indians abroad should stay put where they are. It is safer for them there.”
There might be a good clinical reason to prevent the flow of more Indians from Covid-19 affected areas to India. The country is struggling to carry out contact tracing and to ensure that the people infected do not spread the virus further. But even as the government makes these difficult choices, it is important for its spokespersons and representatives to act with compassion and communicate clearly.
Why couldn’t the ministry have said, even as it announced the new travel ban, that it would work with foreign governments to resolve visa problems? Why did the High Commission say Indians could return home from other countries, while the ministry asked Indians to stay put?
A call for compassion and transparent communication isn’t just a bleeding-heart demand. It is also important strategically. A huge challenge like the coronavirus cannot be tackled just by government action alone.
Trust and co-operation by ordinary citizens are as important: people need to know that they can look to public officials for advice, empathy and transparency. If they feel abandoned or, worse, potentially penalised for asking questions – whether it is about testing or the conditions in isolation wards – then they are less likely to come forward to report symptoms or cooperate when the government needs them to.
The government needs to coordinate its outreach and communications to ensure that it is concise, transparent and compassionate. Else, it runs the risk of Indians avoiding public systems rather than pitching in to collectively tackle this massive challenge.