Prime Minister Narendra Modi is famous for his oratorical skills and his deep connection with the Indian audience. Yet soon after his prime-time address to the nation on Tuesday, announcing a 21-day lockdown to battle the coronavirus crisis, Modi had to post a tweet saying, in all caps: “THERE IS ABSOLUTELY NO NEED TO PANIC.”
That is the sort of message that only needs to be delivered, in that fashion, when people already are panicking.
Indeed, across India, grocery stores and neighbourhood shops were inundated by residents rushing to buy essential goods before the three-week lockdown began at midnight. In doing so, they were also endangering the very aim of the shutdown – social distancing to prevent the spread of the virus.
Modi and other politicians tried to calm nerves after the speech, but it was hard not to lay the blame at the prime minister’s feet. Over a 30-minute address, Modi told Indians over and over again that they would have to stay at home for the next three weeks.
He repeated this point several times, while only once referring to essential items for households, and never making it clear if people would be permitted out of the house to buy food during the lockdown.
This was one of the biggest speeches of his time in public office – a nation of 1.3 billion going into a lockdown for three weeks is no small matter – and Modi flubbed his lines.
What’s worse, any politician, bureaucrat or speechwriter who has been paying attention and saw the panic buying that took place on Friday before to Modi’s last primetime address could have spotted this coming a mile away.
No one doubts that this is an extremely challenging moment. No one believes that any choices right now are easy. Policymakers are having to pick between shutting the economy or overwhelming the healthcare system, and are being forced to make these decisions with little data and no certainty about how the next few weeks will play out.
India is taking a big preventive gamble with its lockdown plan and hoping that the cure is not worse than the disease. Modi’s choice to shut the country down is a massive one, and he has undoubtedly considered the tradeoffs.
That is why the panic-buying slip up is so worrisome. Modi’s speech was announced at noon, but only delivered at 8 pm, and was pre-recorded. How come no one in his team over all that time pointed out the glaring failure to properly address concerns about being able to go buy food?
The same applies to last week’s events.
Any policymaker worth their salt in India would know that the minute there is whiff of a lockdown, two things will happen: panic buying, as noted, and migrant labour rushing to travel home.
Both would involve crowding and the potential to spread the disease, and so should ideally be avoided. Yet last week, huge numbers descended on train stations in hopes of getting home until the Indian Railways decided to cancel all passenger trains.
A day earlier, it had announced special trains because of the extra rush. Eventually, in some cases trains stopped mid-way, leaving passengers stranded. Why wasn’t this done in a smoother fashion?
From the hindered supply of Personal Protective Equipment needed by health professionals to the belated export bans of masks and ventilators to the fact that Modi’s Economic Task Force had, as of Monday, not even been constituted, the lack of planning to deal with the Covid-19 crisis seems evident.
Again, no one is diminishing the unprecedented scale of the problem. Yet India had its first case on January 30. By mid-February, it was clear that the virus had expanded well beyond China.
That would have been the time to prepare the healthcare system, work out potential modalities with private organisations, ensure sufficient stocks of key material and equipment, and work with the states to prepare a graded plan for various scenarios.
Even early March, when the death toll was beginning to mount in Italy and in Iran, might have been a good time for this planning. Yet the first Cabinet note seems to have gone out on March 8, and the actual wheels of government seem to only have spun up a week late.
It is crucial for Indians to observe the government directives right now, and stay at home to prevent the spread of the disease. It is important also to work together as a national community, since government alone cannot take on this challenge.
But that doesn’t mean we don’t also ask questions and expect better of our elected representatives. Yes, locking down may have been an absolute imperative, but could the last month have been spent working out how to deliver food to the needy? It is true that the situation is unprecedented, but does that mean the government gets a free pass for not planning better – and for causing panic?
Modi has asked the people of India to support the government in this massive endeavour in the hopes that we will venture out in 21 days having made the chances of mass infection less likely. But, while people listen to their government, it is crucial that government listen to them as well – for representatives and officals to be open, available and receptive to the needs of the public in this time of crisis.
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