Prime Minister Narendra Modi made one of the shortest speeches of his career on Tuesday (October 22). The English version of his address to the nation on being watchful against COVID-19 was about 900 words. However, what it lacked in length, it made up in content. If anything, the speech was replete with information, advice and a splash of congratulation. At important places, the prime minister urged people to take care of themselves with folded hands.
He made a passing reference to the revival of economic activity and the arrival of the festive season and cautioned people to continue to be on guard against the coronavirus. Perhaps, the most important part of his speech was when he said, “We must not forget that even though the lockdown has been lifted, the virus is still present.”
In all his speeches, the prime minister falls back to data to reinforce his argument. In this case, too, he congratulated people for rallying around in combating the virus. Specifically, he referred to the number of people who have contracted the disease (5,500 people per 10 lakh), the death rate in the country (83 per 10 lakh), the number of beds made available for the infected, the number of quarantine centres and laboratories established, and the number of tests conducted (10 crore). He concluded this part of the speech by saying, “The increasing number of tests has been a major strength in our fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Interestingly though, while making these observations, he compared India’s current position to resource-rich countries such as the USA, Brazil, Spain, and the UK and said India has done better than them. These countries are indeed doing badly on several counts. Coronavirus cases there continue to rise, their death rate exceeds that of India’s by a factor of eight or more, and some of them like Spain and the UK have been forced to impose a partial lockdown in their country to arrest the unbridled growth of cases. Not only is their economy in doldrums, but their population has not taken kindly to some of the strict government measures.
However, we do not have to compare India with resource-rich countries in Europe, Latin America or America. Instead, a more useful or helpful comparison can be with either resource-poor countries in Asia or even rich countries in the same continent. To do this, we can analyse the current coronavirus situation at two levels. First, India’s performance with countries around us, especially SAARC countries. Second, India’s performance vis-à-vis other Asian countries that are somewhat distant from our shores.
Comparison with SAARC countries is important because India had initiated a dialogue with these countries to jointly combat the emerging virus threat. In mid-March, the prime minister pledged $10 million towards a COVID-19 emergency fund and announced that India was putting together a rapid response team of doctors and specialists for the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) nations. No other country took such a unique step the way India did.
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When we compare India’s numbers with other SAARC countries, it has been revealed that except Maldives, no other country has so many infected cases of coronavirus per 10-lakh population as India has (5,500). Sri Lanka has the lowest (271) and Maldives has the highest (over 20,000).
The picture does not change materially when another indicator of performance — fatality rate per 10-lakh population — is used for comparison. Here again, Sri Lanka has the lowest rate (0.6). Afghanistan (38) and Maldives (68) fall in between along with other SAARC countries. India’s performance is disappointingly low (83 deaths per 10 lakh).
When it comes to the test conducted, the prime minister does not choose to use per 10 lakh data criterion. Instead, he uses the total number of tests conducted — an admittedly impressive 10 crore. Only the USA exceeds this number — 13 crore. The UK is a distant third with three crore tests. India’s performance on this count is impressive because it started with a low base.
But the per 10 lakh criterion upsets the picture dramatically. With 70,000 plus tests, India falls behind not only Brazil and the UK, but also Bhutan (2 lakh) and Maldives (2.75 lakh). India has done well on its own, so why shy away from using the 10-lakh criterion?
India has also done remarkably well in strengthening its COVID-19 testing laboratories. Until October 1, it had 18,969 labs reporting to ICMR. However, several of these labs are located in urban areas. Tamil Nadu is a case in point. It has 188 labs of which 60 are in Chennai alone. The rest are dispersed across 37 districts, which, on an average, means that each district has about four labs! A similar pattern is also seen in other big states of the country.
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When other Asian countries enter the COVID picture, India does not stand apart. Singapore, South Korea, and China have performed more tests per 10-lakh population than India has. In fact, with a little less than six lakh tests, very few countries in the world have performed as many tests as Singapore has.
The three Asian countries have far fewer cases and far fewer deaths per 10 lakh than India. Their fatality rate is in the single digit category (less than 10), India’s is in double digits (83) and the developed countries, the USA, the UK, Brazil, and Spain, have it in triple digits — upward of 600.
That several developed countries are struggling to manage the pandemic shows how difficult it is to contain it. India has to do more and do it all right if it aspires to lead by example.
(Pradeep Krishnatray is former director, Research and Strategic Planning, Johns Hopkins Center for Communication Programs, New Delhi)
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