We want leaders who seek solutions but often elect politicians who look only for enemies. A virus makes a bad enemy. We cannot focus our hatred and anger at a microscopic entity devoid of emotional motivation, nor can we declare a pathogen guilty of a crime. As a result, it is impossible to build a successful us-versus-them narrative in which “them” is viruses. Without a viable enemy in this pandemic, we are left with scapegoats.
I could not have imagined a time when the World Health Organisation would be made a scapegoat, but we are in such a time. The US President Donald Trump has lashed out repeatedly at the WHO during the daily Covid-19 press briefing which he often dominates. India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi has not appeared at such a briefing in Delhi. In fact, he has not convened a press conference of any sort in six years. The Indian public, evidently uninterested in difficult questions being directed at its head of government, is content to take the prime minister’s statements at face value.
That face value has been impressively high during the pandemic. Modi has kept his tone lofty, above the fray, what Americans liked calling “presidential” before Trump changed all the rules. He has spoken in the most general terms, and added a dash of symbolism to each speech. He asked Indians to bang thaalis and clap at 5 pm on March 22, and to light lamps at 9 pm on April 5. It can be argued that these symbolic gestures brought the nation together and helped it better endure the ordeal of the lockdown.
Creating an enemy
The prime minister also underlined in a tweet that, “Covid-19 does not see race, religion, colour, caste, creed, language or border before striking.” Yet, daily briefings by India’s health ministry provide a separate figure for cases traceable to a meeting of the fundamentalist Sunni Tablighi Jamaat in Delhi’s Nizamuddin neighbourhood in mid-March. Without making excuses for the irresponsible Tablighis, the fact remains that India would be facing its most challenging public health crisis even had that meeting in Nizamuddin never happened. To keep drawing attention to the Jamaat at this point only serves to demonise an entire community. It creates an enemy, a scapegoat. It is the opposite of good governance.
Good governance involves helping all citizens through the pause in activity and the economic contraction that is bound to follow. It is too early to judge if Modi’s symbolism, and the scapegoating practiced by some members of his party, is being paired with effective ameliorative action on the ground. I am disappointed, however, at the size of the stimulus enunciated so far. India has put in place the most radical lockdown by any nation, while, at the same time, committing the smallest portion of its GDP to alleviate the pain. Unless comprehensive welfare measures are announced soon, it will too late for many farmers, labourers and entrepreneurs.
Time is not a friend, and we lost too much of it in February. We were not alone in that respect, but the complacence is costing us dearly nevertheless. As late as February 22, Health Minister Harsh Vardhan was saying, “India’s robust health surveillance system has been able to stall novel coronavirus from entering the country.” On March 13, his ministry put out a statement that the virus was “not a health emergency”.
Had the ministry seen the danger in time, perhaps it could have arranged enough personal protective equipment for frontline medical workers. The United Resident & Doctor’s Association India has complained that its members face shortages of masks, gloves and coveralls. The two largest associations of safety gear manufacturers in the country have both alleged delays and opacity in the tendering process for PPE purchases. The Ministry of Textiles acknowledged a dearth of safety equipment in a meeting on March 18, but it was too late by then, because the lockdown closed most factories.
There are errors that go further back than February. The Modi government has consistently promised to raise budgetary allocation for health as a percentage of GDP, but made no move in that direction. Had it done so, we would have had a slightly more robust public health care system today.
The government’s animosity to NGOs is not helping, either. It is ironic to read that NITI Aayog has recently contacted NGOs across the country to help identify SARS-CoV-2 hotspots and assist the elderly. After all, in its first four years in power, the Modi administration cancelled the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act licences of over 20,000 NGOs, blocking their access to funding from abroad.
The NGOs thus hobbled included the highly regarded Public Health Foundation of India, the child-focussed Christian charity Compassion International whose $45 million annual programme made it the single largest foreign donor in the country, and hundreds of grass-roots organisations whose upholding of the rights of marginalised communities was interpreted as anti-national.
Mocking Rahul Gandhi
I hope measures being taken now will compensate for some of these missteps. I hope the the Aarogya Setu contact-tracing mobile app will work efficiently and will not be misused for authoritarian ends. I hope expenditure by the new PM CARES fund that is hoovering up public donations will be audited by the Comptroller and Auditor General. I hope the government is consulting the task force of experts it has set up, which one investigation suggested never met in the week before the lockdown was announced. I hope our leaders have a clear idea of what benchmarks are to be achieved before the lockdown is eased and finally lifted.
When the Congress leader Rahul Gandhi assembled a press interaction about the pandemic last week, the BJP quickly put out a supercut showing him saying the words “strategy”, “strategic” and “strategically” 34 times during the meeting. Gandhi’s lack of eloquence is always painfully apparent and often amusing, but I wish the BJP would take his advice about evolving a strategy more seriously, for if the government has one, it has kept it well hidden.
The figures about infection rates provide little cause for optimism, and yet extending a lockdown indefinitely is untenable. We find ourselves in the toughest spot imaginable and are in desperate need of a coherent practical strategy, with no time to waste on symbolism and scapegoating, on lighting diyas and blaming miyas.