Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Thursday evening delivered a prime-time address on the coronavirus, reassuring the country about India’s preparedness to take on this challenge. He urged Indians to take part in essential social distancing measures to prevent Covid-19 from spreading.
From the get-go, Modi made it clear that Indians will be called upon to do much more. “I need your [cooperation in the] coming few weeks and your time,” the prime minister said. “In the last few days, a complacency has crept in. This is not correct. It is essential that every Indian is aware and alert.”
Calling on Indians to exercise restraint, Modi said it is important to not step out of homes unless necessary, and in particular it was crucial for older citizens to avoid meeting people. He then called for a “janta curfew” – a self-imposed lockdown – on Sunday, March 22, comparing it to the blackout drills that took place in war time in the past. He suggested that Sunday’s curfew be punctuated at 5 pm by Indians taking to their balconies to clap or ring bells to express gratitude to the doctors, nurses, transport workers and others who provide essential services during the pandemic.
These were helpful ways to use Modi’s immense popularity: he reminded Indians not to be complacent and gave them clear social distancing imperatives.
However, there is the fear that the one-day self-imposed curfew will be too gimmicky – that people will declare “victory” right after. But it needs to be seen and explained as a trial run, rather than the day of battle. The government must also ensure that the “self-imposed” portion of the Janata curfew does not mean social vigilantism or mob rule, which has been encouraged by the Bharatiya Janata Party in the past.
Modi also noted the economic challenge that faces the nation. He made it clear that there are no shortages of food, milk or medicines. He called on the rich to keep in mind the needs of the poor, asking them not to cut wages or fire anyone unable to come to work at this time. He also announced an Economic Task Force to handle the impact that the virus will have.
This is where his speech came up short.
India has known about the potential dangers of the coronavirus since January, when China made it clear just how infectious the disease was. It has been a week since the World Health Organisation has declared it a pandemic, and even that came after well over a 100,000 had been infected all over the world, with thousands of deaths.
The potential impact of the virus on the global economy has been clear since at least early February. As countries the world over have impose social distancing rules or gone into complete lockdown, the economic punch that ordinary people will take because of these became evident.
Similar addresses to the nation by the leaders of France and the United States, where, to be fair, the infection counts are much higher, included specific announcements about how the government will mitigate the difficulties citizens will face, whether that is by directly sending them cheques or a moratorium on evictions and the halting of utility payments for small businesses.
In India, the government of the state of Kerala has already announced a Rs 20,000-crore financial package, including free rations, loans and pumping of money into the employment guarantee scheme. Uttar Pradesh’s government has announced that it will transfer money directly into people’s accounts.
This makes Modi’s announcement of a Task Force seem belated. The Indian economy was already struggling to grow because of his government’s mismanagement. It has been clear that the virus presents an economic challenge on a massive scale, hurting both supply and demand all over the globe. There is no sign that things will go back to normal anytime soon.
It may not be Modi’s job in a primetime speech to assure people that India will test more individuals – though his government must answer these 10 questions about testing. But the Economic Task Force needs to move quickly and announce support for ordinary Indians and affected sectors as soon as possible.