One must admit that most Indians were apprehensive with mixed opinions and conjectures during the whole day when they received the breaking news of Indian Prime Minister’s second address to the nation at 8.00 PM again on 24 March within a spate of just ten days. In fact, ever since the fateful demonetization event on November 8, 2016 in the same time slot, both the millions of fans as well as detractors of PM Narendra Modi take his every futuristic dialogue or address to people with a pinch of salt in their own way and a lot of light-hearted humour as well as hard-hitting criticism keeps circulating in the media on such occasions. This time some people thought he will announce a national emergency due to Covid-19 outbreak while others speculated that it will be some kind of economic package to buttress the government’s stake on failing economy, or some image building speech with cosmetic measures taken, and so on.
However, none of the aforesaid speculations held good as the Prime Minister announced the complete lockdown across the country for 21 days effective from the midnight of 24 March, 2020 in a firm but polite tone, which is his own words would be like a strict three weeks curfew necessary to break the cycle of coronavirus to stop further spread of the pandemic in the country.
This would perhaps be for the first time in the history of India that every state and Union Territory right from the mega cities to tiny village level have been put under the lockdown to fight the invisible enemy which has already spread over the entire globe claiming more than 31 thousand human lives. Gravity of his move could be sensed by his explicit warning citing the opinion of the experts that the social distancing is the only answer to breaking the cycle of the corona infection. The gravity of situation could be sensed from his impromptu words, “Step outside the 'Lakshman Rekha' of your house in the next 21 days and you will set the country back by 21 years".
Key Points of the Prime Minister’s Address
With the rapid spread of coronavirus across the globe as also World Health Organization (WHO) formally declaring the Covid-19 as pandemic, the Indian government had virtually quarantined the country from the rest of the world even without formally declaring a lockdown or national emergency. As the disease in various parts of the world spread through international travel, the government had already suspended all visas including overseas Indians except for the diplomatic/official/UN-international organizations/employment and project visas till 15 April 2020. All travellers from more affected countries like China, Italy, Iran, South Korea, France, Germany and Spain were essentially quarantined for a minimum period of 14 days. Similar measures were also taken for the international traffic through land borders at the designated posts with robust screening facilities. As the public health is subject on the concurrent list, respective state governments too have been taking measures including selective lockdowns in cities more prone and affected with rising numbers of infected people.
The schools and colleges in many states had been closed up to 31st March 2020. Public gatherings, cinema halls, gyms, swimming pools and public parks were shut down at many places. Big sports national events like the popular cricket Indian Premier League (IPL) scheduled from 25th March has been postponed to 15th April 2020 and the Indo-South Africa cricket series cancelled. Indians stranded in other affected countries were rescued and the target people regularly screened for the virus in large numbers. The IPL may now face further postponement or even cancellation. To put it in a nutshell, the respective State governments too in tandem with the Union Government responded with necessary speed, scale and determination to fight the COVID-19 disease. Despite all these measures, the numbers of infected people were multiplying though at a slower pace compared to the US and Western Europe. It was in these compelling circumstances that the apex leadership considered it necessary to go for a nationwide lockdown knowing well that it would undoubtedly have a compelling economic cost in the short as well as long run.
In the above background, PM Modi’s decision for a national lockdown appears sound and well-meaning though it came more like an appeal to fellow countrymen. “No doubt this lockdown will entail an economic cost for the country but saving the life of each and every Indian is the first priority for me... therefore, I request you to remain wherever you are in this country," Modi urged Indians with folded hands, "Jaan hai toh jahan hai (the world exists only when we live)." The Prime Minister also announced that the only focus at the moment for both the central and all state governments should be to improve healthcare facilities, simultaneously declaring a special Rs 15,000 crore package to equip healthcare sector with the necessary protection, training to healthcare workers and paramedics, and to procure necessary medical equipment and other facilities. The key points of his speech are given as under.
- Lockdown of the whole country from the midnight of 24 March 2020 for 21 days in a bid to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus in the country.
- The aforesaid period is considered necessary by the experts to break the chain of the virus spread; if not controlled in these 21 days, India might go 21 years behind.
- Social distancing very important and it applies right from the prime minister to a worker at the grass root level. Irresponsible behaviour of few people who think social distancing is for Covid-19 patients could cost the country heavily.
- Everyone must stay at home and forget what it's like to go out durig the aforesaid period. This is the only way the country can break the chain to win the battle against coronavirus.
- Symptoms of the Covid-19 disease may take many days and the person can unknowingly infect all those who come in his contact. Hence it is necessary for all to stay in isolation.
- India is at a stage where steps taken now will determine whether it could beat outbreak or not. Worldwide, it took 67 days for the number of patients to reach one lakh, the next one lakh took 11 days while another one lakh were added in just 4 days.
- Where there is life, there is hope and every Indian should appreciate and salute those who are engaged in various ways to fight the disease and sacrificing their lives for the sake of national duty.
- All state governments must prioritize healthcare as first priority and the private sector too stand united for the cause during these tough times.
- All citizens should follow advisory of the central, state and health care institutions and do not take medicines or med-care without proper prescription.
- Follow the rules and laws of the country and take care of loved ones.
PM Modi also mentioned that even developed nations were struggling to fight the novel coronavirus and if the situation got out of hand, India would have to pay an unimaginable price. Two crucial warnings included in his address were: One, stay away from rumours and superstitions flooding social media these days; and two, if people suffer from any symptoms of the disease, they should avoid taking any medicine without prescription of the doctor. Following the address, the Union Ministry of Home Affairs issued a detailed guideline to be followed by all during the lockdown period, inter alia including what will remain open and what will stay closed.
What Will Remain Open!
- All hospitals, nursing homes, police and fire stations;
- Banks, insurance offices, ATMs, print and electronic media;
- Shops dealing with food, groceries, fruits, vegetables, dairy, meat, fish and animal fodder;
- E-commerce of essential goods such as food, pharmaceuticals and medical equipment;
- Petrol pumps, LPG, piped gas and gas retail outlets;
- Capital & debt markets as notified by SEBI;
- Telecommunication, internet, broadcast and cable services; and
- Cold storage and warehouses.
What will Remain Closed!
- All public and private transport services including air, rail and roadways;
- All hospitality services except ones accommodating tourists and people stranded due to lockdown, medical and emergency staff, and people used for quarantine;
- Industries not involved in manufacturing or production of essential commodities;
- All places of religious worship;
- All educational, training and research institutions; and
- All social, political, cultural, sports, entertainment events and gatherings.
In addition, government, public and private sectors have been advised, as for as possible, to work from home and deploy staff in offices on rotational basis.
Economic Package by Union Government
India is the second most populous country after China with a significantly high percentage of population comprised of the poor and economically weaker sections, a large number of which are engaged as daily wagers or on low income jobs in small industrial and business establishments. With the majority of such establishments closed, a large number of such workers, small business owners and low-income households are already in a lurch and with no means of any other source of livelihood, many of them have started leaving mega cities in herds despite clear instructions for the people to stay put where they are during the national lockdown. It is important that this migration from the bigger cities to small cities and villages needs to be stopped forthwith to curtail spread of the disease to other areas as some of these people, though without symptoms on date, may be infected, hence might serve as carriers at the community level.
While the respective state governments have endeavoured to mobilize their all available resources to address the problems of the target populace but action taken so for is clearly not enough. Therefore, to mitigate the hardship of the common man and such eventualities, the union government has announced a relief package of Rs 1.7 trillion ($22.6 billion) to the underprivileged, poor and migrant workers affected by a lockdown amid the Covid-19 crisis under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Scheme on 26 March 2020. The scheme has combined features of the direct cash transfers and food security measures. The Finance Minister has also simultaneously announced that workers like nurses, paramedics and sanitation staff, who are on the frontline of the fight against the virus, would be provided a medical insurance cover of Rs five million per person and an estimated two million of such workers would be covered under the insurance scheme.
Important highlights of the aforesaid economic package are as follows:
- About 60% population (about 800 million) will get 5 Kg wheat or rice and 1 Kg pulses for the next three months in addition to their existing quota of similar quantity;
- Nearly 90 million farmers will receive Rs 2,000 in April 2020 with the total estimated cost of about Rs 170,000 million;
- Approximately 204 million women of Jan Dhan account holders will get Rs 500 per month for the next three months;
- Free gas cylinders to about 80 million families for three months with maximum 3 numbers;
- All eligible senior citizens to get Rs 1,000 per month for the next three months;
- Wages under MNREGA increased by Rs 20 per day from April onwards for targeted about 136 million families;
- The Government to pay the EPF contribution of both employee and employer for the next three months for all those establishments which have up to 100 employees, and 90 per cent of whom earn less than Rs 15,000 a month; to allow the withdrawal of up to 75 per cent of their corpus of EPF as non-refundable advance, or three months' salary, whichever is less;
- Limit of the collateral-free lending has been raised from existing 1 million to 2 million;
- Rs 5 million insurance for over two million health workers to include eventualities that occur while attending Covid-19 patients at government health centres, wellness centres and hospitals covered under the scheme.
- State governments asked to utilize welfare fund of construction workers and district mineral fund for the medical screening, testing and healthcare of workers during the corona crisis.
These measures are in addition to several other measures taken by the respective state governments with their resources. These measures include the aforesaid target groups only; some other concessions to middle class and corporate sector including on loans, may follow separately. Few days back, relaxed compliance deadlines for the filings of the goods & services tax and income tax were also announced. Just a day after the Union Government’s economic package, the Reserve Bank of India too has inter alia taken two-fold action of the cut in the interest rates by 75 basis points and release of Rs 3.74 lakh crore of additional liquidity to banks to ensure business remain afloat, NPAs are not piled up and economic activities flourish as usual despite temporary moratorium on loan repayment.
The Pattern of Covid-19 Spread
The following table presents a comparative position of the spread of disease in just two weeks in nine worst affected countries and India. As it appears the virus has dramatically shifed its potential impact and carnage from East Asia to the US and Western Europe. The US which was among the bottom three affected countries 14 days back has now topped the list corona patients with Italy and Spain occupying next two slots with 8,582 and 5,786 deaths, respectively. From the existing trend, it appears that the US is heading for major crisis in days to come.*
(Dynamic position subject to everyday change)
Due to immediate measures taken for necessary quarantine and travel restrictions, constant review of the postion and needful done by the respective State and Union governments and now complete lockdown at national level, the virus has largely been contained at stage 2 so far but next two weeks shall be very crucial to decide the ultimate fate of the disease.
Lockdown is Essential to Achieve Social Distancing
Despite the sharp exchanges and continued blame game between China and US, it is now pretty clear that the coronavirus responsible for the Covid-19 disease has spread to the US and Western Europe through uninterrupted travel of people from Wuhan, China despite signs and symptoms being known for nearly two months before the Chinese government officially informed and the WHO took its cognizance in January 2020. Unlike the past viral pandemics, this strain of the coronavirus spreads very fast through mere contact among the people. As the humanity does not have previous exposure of this novel virus, our information is largely based of the behaviour of other known viruses, the Chinese experience and opinion of some scientists and experts. Hence it is necessary to take measures based on logical and rational assessment of all available information.
The China, Italy and Spain have already experienced its full blown infection and impact while USA and Germany are now heading for perhaps the worst ever epidemic in the country on account of this novel coronavirus. Though initially South Asian countries appeared not much affected but now the number of patients is growing rather fast in India and neighbouring Pakistan. Even the heads of state are not exception, the prime minister and a few cabinet ministers as well as Prince Charles in UK have tested positive during the last few days. Strangely enough only few days back, PM Boris Jhonson claimed to have shaken hands even with corona patients in utter violation of the concept of social distancing and now he is down with Covid-19 disease. All these experiences suggest that this virus infection escalates in the following four typical phases.
- In the first phase, virus is imported from the affected countries by international travellers with known or unknown symptoms, who test positive for the disease but there is no local spread.
- In the second stage, local transmission of the virus takes place in other people who interact with the infected travellers socially or otherwise. These people are usually those who come in close contact with the patient such as family members or anyone unknowingly coming in contact. Here the source of origin is known and virus could be contained through self-quarantine. Currently, India is in this stage.
- The next stage i.e. the third stage is characterized with the community transmission of the disease and by this time the source of a person’s infection cannot be identified and isolated. This is an alarming stage as the disease starts spreading fast in clusters. Many European countries are currently passing through this phase.
- In stage four, the viral disease assumes the shape of a dreaded phenomenon with many clusters of the infection and the disease taking an epidemic proportion. The spread of disease becomes difficult to control and a large number of people are infected putting severe constraints on healthcare services leading to numerous casualties.
Apparently China has already come out of the fourth stage and countries like Italy, US and Spain are passing through it with many other facing similar threat. Mere hand shake of PM Jhonson led to infection despite his alleged precautions of washing hands after all such occasions. India is big and the second most populous country with over 1.30 billion people and so for the disease is under control despite the number being around a thousand patients distributed over nearly 30 states and union territories. However, if the people are not stopped forthwith voluntarily or by force from intermingling and migration from cities continues unabated, the country runs a for greater health hazard due to a rather weak healthcare infrastructure to deal with the epidemic. Hence the current lockdown and its strict compliance is paramount to achieve necessary social distancing to break the coronavirus cycle.
China is Accountable for Covid-19
Only two weeks in March 2020 have changed the entire global scenario on Covid-19 disease. Around 15 March, the coronavirus had peaked in China, largely localized in Wuhan, Hubei province with other major cities and states having only few cases, and only two other countries Italy and Iran were badly affected. By 29 March, the disease has gone berserk and almost beyond control in US, Italy and Spain; many other European, South American and Asian countries including India are also showing grave signs of corona outbreak threatening their population and economy. Almost similar position exists in Canada and Australia too across their wide geospread. On the other hand, China has almost overcome the disease, healthcare workers returned, other related infrastructure restored back and the country appears in a celebration mode.
Being a communist country and closed society, nobody really knows what has actually happened or is happening now in China at the coronavirus front. Due to inherent secrecy and rigid government control over the electronic and print media, the external world would know only what the Chinese government shares with other countries. The global search engine Google doesn’t work there along with the thousands other foreign websites; the universal social media like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are not allowed and so is the case with popular messaging applications such as WhatsApp, Telegram, Snapchat, Line, and so on. The whistle-blower doctor reportedly died of the same disease and at least another 3-4 persons who dared to talk about the disease, were reportedly punished or simply vanished. Hence the world has to rely on what the Chinese government has officially shared with WHO and other global agencies despite many allegedly leaked videos and reports suggesting a different scenario.
The truth becomes the biggest causality in the aforesaid scenario, so much so that at times even the reality is visualised with riders and skepticism. While the Chinese official data on the havoc caused in Wuhan by the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 and their meticulous fight to control the disease is much publicised, some conspiracy theories have also simultaneously come up in the media citing anonymous sources from the mainland China itself. One such report from Robert Morningstar, an investigative journalist of Ufospotlight E-magazine, citing an anonymous Chinese military intelligence officer suggests a project on secret development of a potent biological agent gone haywire with disastrous implications. The sensational report looks like a a dark science fiction with the details of Chinese efforts to develop a biological agent to make people more docile and obedient through mental retardation, its experimentation on "Islamic radicals" in alleged training camps in Xinjiang province using them as human guinea pigs, and eventual transportation and accidental release of the dreadful agent in Wuhan causing havoc on local population, which the officials allegedly tried to cover up by mixing it with seasonal flu data. Another report has suggested an angle of unleashing a potential biological weapon to gain world supremacy through an economic war. Now yet another bizarre report has surfaced citing Chinese officials that the patient zero from whom the first case of coronavirus originated had contracted disease after having sex with several animals, including bats.
Obviously, such reports can at best be taken as speculations or opinion of people, or even misinformation, and cannot be officially endorsed or accepted by the world community. Also there is inconsistency as Morningstar's report talks of almost 100% mortality rate while world over it is much less with flu-like symptoms; of course, there is also a reference of two alpha and beta agents (strain) in the report. Besides, the global community has largely avoided any formal blame game in the days of crisis, a fact also vindicated from the outcome of video-conferencing on Covid-19 global outbreak by the G-20 nations organized few days back. It is not long back that China had blamed US military for unleashing the virus in China during the Military World Games in October 2019 in Wuhan, while some US officials nicknamed it a Wuhan virus. The American President Donald Trump had repeatedly called it a Chinese virus holding China responsible for its global spread at public forums and press conference yet, conspicuously he not only avoided blaming China during the aforesaid conference but also appreciated them for their successful efforts to contain virus and proposed US-China joint cooperation to fight the disease. Notwithstanding political and diplomatic overtures, there is no doubt that Chinese response and action has remained shrouded under mystery since inception of the disease and they owe an explanation to the world community on many counts.
Now the reports have come that the first case of coronavirus was reported in Wuhan as back as 17 November 2019 and China did not inform the world community till 30 December 2019 despite thousands people being infected. It was on 31 December that the WHO was officially informed of the disease by China but even after this the international travel was not restricted and thousands of Chinese people kept traveling from Wuhan to other countries across the globe. Flights to and fro Wuhan were suspended only on 31 January 2020 and it was too late by that time as coronavirus cases had already started showing up in countries like Italy, Iran and South Korea. The first case of the coronavirus patient in India was reported on 30 January 2020, originating from Wuhan, China, although some other reports also claim its origin from Italy.
Some of the actions of China are really worrisome and cause of concern for the whole world community. While all available data and information suggest that the origin of the coronavirus was in Wuhan, Hubei province, China deliberately indulged in spreading misinformation that the virus was brought to their country by the US military and also that it had already spread in Italy before being reported in the Wuhan city. There are reports that at least 4-5 whistle-blowers in China were either arrested with the charges of rumour mongering and sedition; the doctor Li Wenliang who was first to make it public was arrested and is stated to have died later of the same disease. The role of WHO is also under cloud now and its head is being trolled world over for delaying declaration of Covid-19 as pandemic supposedly acting under pressure from China. While the entire world is now reeling under the threat of the global pandemic, the United Nations General Assembly and Security Council have not even deemed it necessary to discuss global situation under corona pandemic. China is designated president during the month and reportedly they did not consider it necessary to have a discussion in the Security Council.
In the same context, it reminds me a book "Unrestricted Warfare" authored by Qiao Liang & Wang Xiangsui of China in February 1999 that underlines the tactics of China as a developing country to compensate for their military inferiority vis-à-vis United States during a high tech war. The book inter alia suggested the country to use money power to prepare an army of loyal people in America who could constantly criticize and oppose the federal government in an endeavor to paralyze their normal functioning; wage an economic war targeting financial institutions and target the network system through hacking into websites and other available means. In essence, rather than entering into direct military conflict with the superior adversary, it would be desirable to resort to all known subversive tactics including terrorism and urban warfare. One is not surprised with the duel standards of the Chinese leadership on Islamic radicals in their country and Islamic terrorism in rest of the world. China continuously sabotaged efforts to ban Jaish-e-Mohammad and its Chief Masood Azhar by the United Nations for almost five years. I do not wish to derive any conclusion out of all this but this certainly reflects poorly on the ethics and perverse thoughts of leadership in that country. In the time to come, people across the globe will for sure debate if the coronavirus causing Covid-19 was actually natural or manmade.
China has now self-quarantined and is reportedly not allowing its own citizens keen to return home from other countries for now. Successfully overcoming the disease at home front, it has even offered help and cooperation to other countries. The outbreak of disease in the United States has almost brought them to knees in just two weeks as the country which was blaming China for the spread of disease is now talking of reconciliation and cooperation with them to fight the disease. Only some time back, a case was filed in a US court against China seeking $20 trillion as compensation for corona spread. However, the stated Chinese help is not without riders; there is a report that Spain has placed an order on China worth 35,000 million seeking medical equipment such as ventilators, testing kits, face masks and gloves. Already there are reports that US is critically facing shortage of the medical protective gear to fight corona disease and many medical workers have fallen sick, hence no one should be surprised if they too resort to similar and far greater deal with China. In a way, one’s crisis is another’s opportunity.
The Chinese establishment certainly owes following explanation to the world community before they could be trusted on the current pandemic:
- Reasons for delaying complete lockdown of Wuhan and other areas of potential risk;
- Why the whistle-blowers were punished and what happened to them;
- Reasons for the alleged destruction of vial samples of the virus before testing; and
- Why initiative has not been taken in the UN Security Council so far to discuss the issue despite worldwide carnage and fear on account of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Ever since coronavirus infection was reported In India, action was taken by the Union and State governments to declare Covid-19 an epidemic and other necessary preventive and curative measures in phases. Now considering the global outbreak and gravity of situation in several states, a complete 21 days lockdown has been enforced across the country by the Union Government. Being the second most populous country, even the WHO and other nations are watching developments in India which may also have an enormous impact on their ability to deal with the virus globally. Undoubtedly, it will have a massive negative impact on Indian economy as also devastating effects on daily wagers, small and medium scale industries, including the farmers and other self-employed, who are left in a lurch due to stoppage of all transportation and access to the markets. Another challenge before the government is to control migration of people from large cities to small cities and villages, which might not only create confusion and chaos on roads but also carries a potential risk of spreading disease in villages.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that the Covid-19 disease has put the entire global economy under ICU. With ever spreading infection across the country, the United States is now worse affected on economic front and it is increasingly losing its control over the disease. Situation of the entire Europe is equally bad but the worst affected countries are Italy, Spain, Germany, France, UK and Switzerland. All this is bound to put the world economy including US, Western Europe and India under another phase of severe recession following the painful experience post 2008. On the other hand, China has totally quarantined itself from the world and appears to be rejoicing their victory over the virus. All civil activities, malls, cinema, business establishments, capital and debt markets etc. in China are returning to normal, investors have resumed their activities and the country has even offered assistance to other nations. In a nutshell, it appears as if one virus outbreak has changed the complete world order and its control from US & Western Europe to China.