Modi frozen under COVID-19 headlights, India locked but he needs to move

Modi’s corona strategy so far has been based on asking people to do things he wants, but what has he offered in return?

Invoking the Mahabharat during his speech before imposing the first COVID-19 lockdown in March, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had said that people have to defeat coronavirus in the next 21 days. Photo: PTI (file)

Since epics are back in vogue, it would be apt to compare Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s coronavirus strategy with the story of Abhimanyu in the Mahabharata. Like Arjuna’s warrior son, Modi has been able to figure out an effective opening move against the pandemic, but he doesn’t know how to get out of the coronavirus chakravyuh.

Everybody would broadly agree with Modi’s decision to extend the ongoing lockdown in India until May 3. The past few days have proved the pandemic is yet to peak in India. On Monday (April 13), the number of new infections rose by 1,242, recording the highest daily rise in India. Hotspots like Maharashtra and Delhi registered huge spikes, proving that the spread has not been controlled in spite of the lockdown.

Several myths about the virus have been shattered in the past 21 days. Indians are as vulnerable to the virus as people of any other country. As the ministry of health pointed out last week, the number of infections in India would have been around 8 lakh — the highest in the world — if a lockdown had not been ordered. The mortality rate in India is also in line with global trends — so far 340 persons have died, pointing at a rate of 3-4 per cent among confirmed patients.

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Those who had hoped the virus would recede once the temperatures rise have been disappointed. Other theories about Indians being immune because of several factors —natural causes, BCG vaccines, genetic and environmental factors — have not been vindicated. The only reason India has done far better than Europe and the US is because of just two factors — the disease hit Indian a little late and by then many states had locked down.

French President Emmanuel Macron has called the pandemic a “war against a hidden enemy.” In a war where a hidden enemy can strike at will, the only sensible strategy is to stay out of its reach and bide time. In all probability, a treatment would be found in a few months; vaccines would be developed by the end of this year. The only option till the world has an effective answer to the crisis is to give its scientists more time, ensure the disease curve is flattened and hospitals are not overwhelmed.

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Ending the ongoing lockdown in India after just 21 days would have been like declaring victory when the enemy is pounding the gates and the casualties are increasing. Except for Donald Trump, who is turning out to be a bigger problem than the pandemic, no leader in the world would have even imagined reopening India and asking people to walk into booming cannons of coronavirus. So, Modi has taken the right decision by extending the ongoing lockdown till May 3.

Yet, Modi’s approach is flabbergasting.

If you have noticed, Modi’s corona strategy so far has been based on asking people to do things he wants — stay home, wear masks, strengthen immunity, download app, bang utensils, clap, and light up lamps. But, what exactly has Modi offered in return? What is he doing to mitigate the pain of the people, save jobs, businesses and the economy? What is his exit strategy from the corona chakravyuh? So far he hasn’t dropped a hint.

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Modi’s role in the corona fightback has actually been ceremonial. The lockdowns he is ordering would have been anyway implemented by state governments — as they have done. Implementing lockdowns is also the responsibility of the state governments and Modi can do very little in places where law and order are not under the Centre’s control.

By now Modi should have gone beyond ordering restrictions. He should have taken decisions to ensure cash reaches people who are starving because of the lockdown, businesses that are on the verge of shutting down and take proactive decisions to save the economy and, consequently, jobs.

Modi’s only intervention has so far been the ₹1.70 lakh crore package announced on March 25. His critics have added the numbers and argued that the actual relief package was of just about a lakh crore. But, even if the math may be different, the unanimous view is the government has done very little. And now that the lockdown has been extended for another 19 days, the impact of the lockdown in the absence of a relief package could be disastrous.

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The coronavirus pandemic has led to a classic dilemma across the world. If Shakespeare were alive, he would have captured it with a ‘to lock down or not, that’s the question’ soliloquy’. If Joseph Heller were to write a book on it, he would have called it Corona-22. The predicament before every country is this: Do they save lives at the cost of the economy, or do they risk lives to keep the economy alive? Smart leaders are trying to strike a healthy balance.

Many countries have intervened by injecting huge amounts of money — the US has spent 10 per cent of its GDP, its Federal Bank has injected another 2.3 trillion dollars to help the government and industry. In Japan and Malaysia, the governments have been pumping money regularly to keep the country going, businesses floating.

India, of course, can’t compete with Europe, Southeast Asia and the US. But, Modi’s inability to spend even a single penny since March 25 is beyond comprehension. His silence on the financial impact of the lockdown and the repercussions on the lives of the people points to a government undergoing a brain-freeze: it just doesn’t know what to do
other than ordering a standstill.

There could, of course, have been more pain. Thankfully, we did not hear the PM say: Mitron, on April 15, I want you to gather in your balconies at 6 o’clock and sing for six minutes.

Thankfully, we can watch the Mahabharata in peace.