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Saturday, June 12, 2021

We can defeat the virus. All of us must put shoulders to the wheel

The national leadership needs to set up a war room comprising top medical experts and corporate leaders to ramp up supplies of oxygen and necessary drugs and mobilise logistics to deliver these to last mile.

Written by Ashok Gulati
Updated: May 10, 2021 8:57:50 am
Can our corporate leaders adopt primary health centres (PHCs) in rural areas and second and third tier towns, pump in resources from CSR funds and bank loans, and upgrade health facilities? (Illustration: C R Sasikumar)

With Covid infections touching new peaks at about 4 lakh per day and daily deaths at around 4,000, India seems to have landed right into the eye of the storm. With a dire shortage of oxygen and beds in hospitals, and long waiting hours at crematoria and graveyards, panic amongst the public is natural. Unfortunately, governments at the Centre and in most states seem to have lost control. While political rivals are busy blaming each other, black marketing of oxygen and remdesivir injections is rife, indicating a collapse of the governance machinery. Questions on whether election rallies triggered all this or whether the Kumbh congregation was culpable can be settled later. But who could predict in February-March of 2021 that a tsunami of Covid would hit India in April-May? The total number of daily infections had been coming down since the peak of September 2020 (See Graph 1). That led to complacency, at the government level as well amongst the general public. Recall how thousands of farmers thronged Delhi’s borders in November 2020 to protest against the new farm laws. Such protests had begun weeks earlier in large numbers in Punjab. Very few people, at that time, cautioned that these protests could be potential super-spreaders. In fact, several opposition parties supported the agitation.

Graphic: Ritesh Kumar

Then came New Year’s Eve, and about 45 lakh people are reported to have visited Goa to celebrate. I know of some who came back infected. Still, no one raised any red flags. Makar Sankranti, Lohri, Pongal celebrations in mid-January were followed by Holi in March-end. Maharashtra had started giving distress signals, but the situation was not as alarming in other states. Come April, and hell seems to have broken loose. And that’s when politicians were busy with elections and Hindu saints in Kumbh. Should there have been a nationwide lockdown at that time, as was done last year by the Prime Minister with four hours notice on March 24, 2020, will remain an open question. Right now, we have to do our best to save as many lives as possible.

The first task is to calm the public. Our elected representatives need to be in their constituencies, calming and helping people. The national leadership needs to set up a war room comprising top medical experts and corporate leaders to ramp up supplies of oxygen and necessary drugs and mobilise logistics to deliver these to the last mile. They need to address the nation at least twice a week and disclose the facts about the disease — number of tests, rate of infections and fatalities. People are losing trust in politicians and bureaucrats, who are trying to hide the reality. We are losing more people to Covid than we lost in any war. So, the response has to be like in war times, as ICRIER Chairman Pramod Bhasin said in a recent interview. If there is any consolation, it is that deaths in India per million population are still way behind Brazil, UK, USA, France and even the World average (see Graph-2).

Graphic: Ritesh Kumar

Nevertheless, given our sheer numbers, it is time for every one of us to put our shoulders to the wheel. The corporate sector has already come forward, diverting oxygen from steel and cement manufacturing for medical use. The government can issue directives to the corporate sector to use at least half of its CSR funds for ramping up the country’s health infrastructure in the next two-three years. The RBI has come up with a loan package of Rs 50,000 crore, which will be treated as priority sector lending. Remember, Covid has now reached the rural areas, where health facilities are very poor. The devastation in there can be much more than in mega cities like Mumbai, Delhi or Bengaluru. Can our corporate leaders adopt primary health centres (PHCs) in rural areas and second and third tier towns, pump in resources from CSR funds and bank loans, and upgrade health facilities? And state governments should allow them to have an equal say in managing these PHCs. Can social reformers, NGOs, religious leaders, and medical students come forward with financial and physical help and also convince people that there is no alternative but to get vaccinated as soon as possible?

People in many rural areas still resist getting vaccinated. There is a dearth of knowledge and trust. Corporate, social and religious leaders have ample experience in managing large outfits. They can come handy in collating information, giving better medical advice, enabling vaccination and saving lives and livelihoods. But the government needs to provide a framework for their effective participation in this difficult hour. There is no dearth of good people and organisations in this country which can contribute their bit, provided they trust that it will be used for the good of the people. By joining hands, we can turn the tables and the crisis can help India emerge stronger.

This column first appeared in the print edition on May 10, 2021 under the title ‘Second wave, double challenge’. Gulati is Infosys Chair professor for Agriculture at ICRIER

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