How to manage the pandemic: Delhi’s Covid surge has been further enabled by a sick and irresponsible political culture


Many believe that the recent spike in Covid cases in Delhi is because of the reckless opening up of all social activities during a festival season, when climatic conditions were not conducive. Countering charges of mismanagement, AAP’s party spokesperson stated that political compulsions made reason based policy making difficult.

In this case, it was striking a balance between the need to impose restrictions on citizens and addressing concerns of the opposition parties – BJP and Congress – demanding the right to celebrate Diwali, perform chath puja and so on. This is bizarre. The singular duty of government is to protect lives and ensure the well-being of its people; putting science and evidence above superstition and populism; and having the courage to take unpalatable decisions beneficial to people’s welfare.

We are compelled then to question the relationship between politics and governance. While both involve aspects of power and accountability, governance is about the manner in which such power is exercised through laws, norms and actions that have to be accountable. How have these variables played out in the management of Covid-19?

The AAP government has a three quarter majority in the legislature. Yet, the fact that it had to accord primacy to religious sentiments of those with power to distort and disrupt rational conversations, instead of being guided by data and evidence, is disturbing. It reflects an irresponsible political culture – of the opposition pressurising a government from governing and of the government being intimidated and putting the lives of so many at risk. In so doing the AAP government can be held guilty of having betrayed the trust people put in it.

The spike in cases and the resultant demand for hospital beds has strained the health system and stressed citizens in desperate need for medical help. That even after eight months into the pandemic, the Centre and state governments should be fumbling on this score is unacceptable.

Warning signals were clear from January. Covid was benign to India in making a late entry, felt only from April and hitting in waves, giving respite to recoup. Besides, the latest surge has been along expected lines, given the onset of winter and accompanying air pollution. How is it then that we are now surprised?

The key problem is that guidelines for unlocking by a ministry disengaged with health concerns are neither contextualised against a detailed national plan nor state specific realities. Set in general terms, they fail to acknowledge the vast differentials that exist on the ground and give scope to local pressures and lobbies, often hard to resist. Such an approach isn’t in sync with what a sound public health expert may advise.

For example, when the curve hadn’t been bent, the positivity rate is 13%, the disease far more widespread than officially declared, an indisciplined people prone to disregarding regulations and weak capacity for enforcement, then it falls upon the government to come up with clear policies, rules, laws and massive information campaigns to calibrate, guide and regulate individual and social behaviour. Instead, we have swung from an extremely restrictive environment bordering on cruelty to a permissive one where public transport, markets and temples are functioning to capacity and life is back to the old normal.

The economic imperatives are real. Traders and shopkeepers have suffered. Such circumstances demand strong leadership, where the leader is visible, guiding, nudging, persuading, scolding and empathetically shepherding the people through consultative, participatory and open processes, to accept self-restraint, adopt healthy behaviour and assist the government in enforcing the guidelines. Brute force and punitive measures have limited value in public health.

A fatal mistake in the policy muddle has been the obstinate denial to acknowledge community transmission despite clear evidence. We have lost valuable time in recalibrating our strategies. Under community spread, the only effective option is early diagnosis and treatment alongside massive information dissemination, instead of exhausting staff with house visits and contact tracing.

Call centres and centralised information kiosks, mobile information and testing labs for reaching the unreached, a strictly regulated opening of markets and schools, closure of temples and targeted, strategic use of lockdowns effectively enforced with people’s participation in a decentralised manner in order to disrupt transmission is the way to go. Key words here are people’s participation and decentralisation – spectacularly missing in this pandemic.

Unlike other states, Delhi has distinct advantages to implement such a comprehensive strategy. That the government – at the Centre and state – lacked the imagination to pull in all these strengths to provide a coherent response to the emerging crisis will forever be remembered as a tragedy.

Pandemic management, like the PM said, was a war to be fought and won. Clearly, our political culture is impairing the much needed nimbleness of decision making by state governments due to the constant sniping of the opposition parties and a central government wanting credit and apportioning blame.

Since the vaccine is still far away and we will need to live with the virus for years, it is imperative that a National Strategy Plan be prepared to ensure greater synergies within and among states and outcomes be rigorously monitored by a central authority, ensuring standardisation of key components and policy interventions following scientific evidence, not political calculations.

DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.

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