This week I would have liked to write about the draconian methods being used by the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh to crush dissent and public protests. Thirteen people have been ordered to pay the government compensation of more than Rs 1.55 crore. They face going to jail if they do not pay. If they did damage public property during protests against the citizenship law, then they should be punished, but in a country that believes in due process, their guilt must be established in a court of law. Not arbitrarily by a bunch of officials. This subject will have to wait for another week as the only thing that we need to worry about at the moment is whether our government is capable of handling this modern pandemic that spreads across the world like an ancient plague.
So far so good. The Prime Minister is leading from the front. Last week, he made one of his rare televised addresses to the nation urging us to take COVID-19 seriously. He asked that we spend today under curfew in our own homes. Technically, this is supposed to be a voluntary ‘Janata Curfew’, but in these times of anxiety and dread, few will venture out unless there is an emergency. Personally, I am not sure what the purpose of this curfew is, but I suppose it is to get us used to the idea of social distancing. How this can happen in the crowded slums of our cities is not clear, but there is no question that it is necessary. In the past week I have seen Mumbai come to almost a complete halt and a silent sort of panic take hold. As citizens, we have to do our bit, but there are some things that only the government can do.
The Prime Minister has announced the creation of an economic task force. This is good. But, will it take responsibility for compensating ordinary, desperately poor people who live off daily wages? Will it compensate those whose small, fragile businesses are likely to die before the virus does? Will the economic task force urge the government to cut spending on itself? Will ministers give up some of the privileges that we pay for in normal times, like vast homes and huge retinues of flunkeys? Will airlines, hotels and restaurants be compensated for the losses that already stare them in the face? Since there is an economic task force, these are tasks it must be made responsible for.
The Prime Minister has called a meeting of chief ministers. This is good because health care comes directly under them. But, will the Prime Minister order them to take urgent steps in public hospitals to meet basic international standards of hygiene? This does not require extra funds so much as political leadership and the sort of iron resolve the Prime Minister has shown in implementing the Swachh Bharat campaign. Our best government hospitals do not meet basic standards of hygiene. In our small towns and villages it is normal to see rats, cats and other stray animals wandering about in public wards. They have been known to maim newborn babies. In small town hospitals it is normal to see filthy toilets and compounds filled with dangerous medical waste. It is also normal to see doctors ignore the protocol that ensures that they wash their hands before moving from one patient to the next one.
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Speaking of water leads immediately to asking that other vital question: what are we going to do about water? Clean water and soap have become necessary safeguards against this virus and yet this is not possible in a country in which clean water is such a luxury that 20 per cent of the world’s population living without access to clean water are believed to be Indian. In rural India there are villages in which water is so scarce that it would be impossible for people to wash their hands many times a day. The Prime Minister has made water the most important mission of his second term and a special ministry has been created to ensure that every Indian has access to clean water before the next general election. But, so far this goal remains a distant dream. So that most basic tool to fight the virus remains unavailable to millions of Indians.
Then there is the problem of myths and bizarre beliefs. Last week, I saw pictures of a large group of men bathing in cow dung in the belief that this would keep the virus away. The Hindu Mahasabha, meanwhile, organised a party in which the only available beverage was cow’s urine. And, there have been sundry other godmen promising equally bizarre medicines that they promise will prevent the virus from coming close. There is a limit to what the Prime Minister can do, but he can stop his ministers from propagating theories like sunshine being a cure.
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In the six years that Narendra Modi has been prime minister he has never faced a test of his leadership more serious than this. There are no signs yet of the virus disappearing in the near future, so this is a chance for him to get together with chief ministers and use this crisis to urgently improve our abysmal health facilities. For once health care has become an important political issue. It could make or break a prime minister.
This article first appeared in the print edition on March 22, 2020 under the title “COVID-19 must be defeated”.
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