Cover Story

Covid19 : Systems Failure, Situation Critical

The story of the government’s handling of the COVID-19 is that of callousness and incompetence at the highest levels, leading to a complete breakdown of governance at a time of a grave crisis. The impact of mishandling the situation will be disastrous and far reaching, which is already extracting a high price in human suffering and economic deprivation COVER STORY / Governance / Catastrophe / Vivek Mukherji
VOL. 14 | ISSUE 1 | MARCH-APRIL 2020

crowed-at-bus-stand-during-lockdownONE of most quoted allegories of incompetence for a person holding high office is that Nero played the fiddle while Rome burned might be rooted in a bit of inaccurate historical trivia. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, Nero, in fact, dressed in a ‘cithara player’s garb’ climbed on to the city walls and “wept copiously while reciting lines describing the conflagration that the Greeks put to the fallen city of Troy”. From 64CE to 2020, many a decisive leader, and strongman, in popular perception have shown shades of Nero’s proclivity for shed-ding tears, real or metaphorical, when confronted with a crisis.

The latest in line of such a perceived strong leader lamenting at the plight that has befallen on millions of Indians after virtually pushing them to the edge of precipice is Prime Minister Narendra Modi. On March 28, four days after announcing an unprecedented 21-day nationwide lockdown to contain the spread of COVID-19, Modi droned on in his monthly sermon, Maan Ki Baat, asking for forgiveness for the difficulties that the people faced due his 8 pm announcement on March 24. Like Nero’s lament on top of the city walls, Modi’s plea in front of a sterile camera is connected by a common thread of utter governance failure and knots of helplessness stretching over several millennia.

By the third week of the 21-day period, it became amply clear that the harshest lockdown in the world was an ill-conceived and a badly-executed exercise, exposing the massive governance failure of the Modi 2.0 government. No amount spin by the largely co-opted main-stream media, stenographer journalists, virulent trolls of the BJP’s infamous IT Cell and the government’s own dirty tricks department could stem the flow of facts to paper over the systemic breakdown of the governance machinery after early warning signs of COVID-19 emerged on India’s horizon even before the first case was reported from Kerala on January 30.

scientest-test-at-corona-virusIgnorance is not always bliss
A reading of the global and Indian timeline of COVID-19 (Snapshots of systemic failure) builds an irrefutable case against the Modi government for sleeping at the wheel. On January 28, the World Health Organisation (WHO), in its Situation Report No. 8 elevated the regional and global threat level for widespread transmission of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV 2) to “high”. The virus had spread to 14 countries outside China, where the infection originated. It implies in no uncertain terms that the WHO, which has come under harsh criticism for its handling of China, flagged a very real possibility for rapid spread of the virus in the region.

Exactly a month later, on February 28, the WHO bumped up the regional and global threat level to “very high”, which hitherto was used only in the case of China. According to the WHO’s Situation Report No.39, the virus had spread to 51 countries, infecting 4,691 people, resulting in 67 deaths outside China. These warnings should have cranked any alert government’s machinery into a higher gear.

By January end, it was conclusively established that COVID-19 was a highly infectious disease that transmitted through people-to-people contact. And international travel, in a highly networked world, was the primary cause for the extension of the transmission chain.

As these early warning signs that emerged in January, and more concrete evidence about the rapid transmission of the virus through people-to-people contact, and its virulence, piled up in different parts of the world through February, it should have put a well-functioning government in high-alert mode to deal with an imminent pandemic at its doorsteps. To its advantage, India had the benefit of learning from the experience of other countries; more notably, from those countries which failed to act timely and paid the price with human life.

doctors-corona-testingINSTEAD, February was spent in demonising the CAA-NPR-NRC protestors, building an anti-Muslim narrative that culminated in the deadly Delhi riots that claimed more than 50 lives and hosting Trump, for which over one lakh people were corralled at the Motera Stadium in Ahmadabad when the world was being advised to start practicing social distancing.

As late as February 26, the Government of India relied on self-declaration of international travellers coming into the India from COIVD-19 affected countries about the state of their health. A cursory reading of the various travel advisories issued by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MOHFW) during this period reveals a templated pattern of cluelessness at the highest levels of the government. Even as the enormity of the pandemic was unfolding in other parts of the world, the government did not deem it prudent to start testing all inbound travellers for asymptomatic carriers of the virus. At best, it advised self-isolation in case symptoms surfaced during the 28-day period of their arrival into the country.

February was spent in demonising the CAA-NPR-NRC protestors, building a narrative that culminated in the deadly Delhi riots that claimed more than 50 lives and hosting Trump, for which over one lakh people were corralled at the Motera Stadium in Ahmadabad when the world was being advised to start practicing social distancing

A report in the Frontline magazine, “Test not, Find Not”, quoted a peer-reviewed research paper authored by scientists at the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) pointed out, “…that in order for airport screening to have an appreciable effect on delaying the establishment of transmission of COVID-19 in India, it would need to have near-complete capture of incoming COVID-19 cases, including asymptomatic ones.” Yet, even rudimentary thermal scanning—which can only detect symptomatic people with fever, or, can be easily gamed by a person with fever going on a course of paracetamol—at international airports did not start until March 4. Though, screening of passengers coming in from COVID-19 infected countries started on January 18, it was not rigorous enough to detect asymptomatic carriers nor did the list of countries include major international travel hubs between the East and the West in the Gulf region. As Frontline noted, it was a system that was designed to fail.

THE tracking mechanism of those who were marked with the self-quarantine stamp at airports was weak. Multiple news reports surfaced in February and early March, indicating that people blatantly flouted the recommendations, continuing to travel across the country. Till date, the government has not provided any data on the number of people arrived in Indian between January 30, when the first case was report-ed, and March 22, the day all international flights into India were suspended.

narender-modi-donald-trump-at-ahemdabad

Modi and Trump in Ahemdabad irrespective of WHO caution on Covid19

According to publicly available, non-government data, in January alone, over 1.7 million people walked out of the Delhi airport and an-other 1.2 million arrived at various international airports in Maharashtra. These are just two out of over a dozen international landing ports in India. How many among the millions who landed in India during the 42-day period were asymptomatic carriers of the virus is any-body’s guess. Perhaps, the Modi government’s aversion to any data that does not fit with the conjured narrative of a decisive leader is perceived to be too spurious to be released in the public domain. Such data is either binned or fudged.

The lackadaisical approach of the government machinery at the first barrier of control made the contact tracing exercise a painfully slow reactive process, at a time when it ought to have been a pre-emptive exercise. These series of missteps, and many more detailed later in this story, rip away the fig leaf that the establishment’s spin doctors tried to wave by saying that the government did not have a working hypothesis for early containment of COVID-19 in India.

Head in the sand syndrome
As early as January 10, while the exact genomic sequence of the SARS-CoV2 was still being investigated, the WHO released the draft of interim guidance for laboratory testing of human suspected cases of novel coronavirus, recommending Polymerase Chain Reaction test based on the Chinese and Japanese experiences. Subsequently, on January 15, national laboratories around the world—ICMR in case of India—received detailed protocol for Reverse Transcriptase-Polymerase Chain Reaction tests (RT-PCR). The RT-PCR is not a new testing protocol; it has been around for more than a decade.

As on January 22, the global count of COVID-19 infections, outside China, stood at 580 cases. On January 30, this number went up to 9,823 and on February 15, the global count was 69,197. In span of 15 days, the infection headcount inflated almost six fold. Ideally, the galloping growth trajectory of transmission should have put the Indian government in operational readiness.

Effectively, after the WHO issued the draft of interim testing guideline for laboratories, India had a lead time of close to eight weeks to plan for stockpiling testing kits and ramp up capacities of the laboratories and put other preventive measures for containment in place. Instead, what we saw was quite the opposite. On March 13, the national news agency, PTI, quoted an unnamed government official stating that the coronavirus was not a serious threat to India.

TO start with, India with a landmass of 3.28 million sq km, relied on just 12 laboratories, including the one at the National Institute of Virology, for testing. By end of February, 19 more labs were designated as Virus Research and Diagnostic Laboratories (VRDL), and by March end, a total of 114 labs were authorised to conduct COVID-19 tests. This number might increase in the coming months. Still, given the size and breadth of India and its population, a count of 114 labs was just not sufficient to conduct robust testing. Consequences of being slow out of the block are evident now.

After a few independent media outlets raised reds flags at the government’s foolhardiness, the DGFT issued a notification on March 19, just five days prior to the lockdown, banning the export of 2/3 Ply surgical masks, textile and raw material for the manufacture of PPEs and ventilators

As the global numbers continued moving northwards, WHO head, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, implored countries to “test, test, test; test every suspected case”. In response, on March 17, Dr Nivedita Gupta, scientist, epidemiology and communicable diseases, ICMR, offered a bizarre counter-intuitive argument to WHO’s prescription of rigorous testing. “First of all, we don’t want to do any indiscriminate testing as now everybody is asking for a test, so somewhere you will have to rationalise the test,” she said.

Inadequate testing infrastructure to deal with a pandemic of this magnitude is only half the story. The narrowly-defined testing strategy that the ICMR is pursuing in its wisdom—and the guidelines it has issued to the States—is restrictive by design and prevents from casting the net wider, especially in detecting asymptomatic carriers. For example, the revised strategy note issued by the country’s apex medical research body on March 20 says:

  1. All symptomatic individuals who have undertaken international travel in the last 14 days.
  2. All symptomatic contacts of laboratory confirmed cases
  3. All symptomatic health workers, healthcare workers
  4. All hospitalised patients with Severe Acute Respiratory Illness (fever and cough and/or shortness of breath).
  5. Asymptomatic direct and high-risk contacts of a confirmed case should be tested once between day 5 and day 14 of coming in his/her contact.

The short-sightedness of this strategy is as apparent as daylight, and perhaps, driven by the lack of a stockpile of testing kits. It doesn’t consider an asymptomatic carrier as a vector of the virus, who might have spread it through casual contact. There is an implicit flawed assumption in this strategy: contact tracing mechanism is robust enough to track down anyone, and everyone, who has come in contact with a symptomatic carrier. It does not account for “contact diffusion” in a vast country like India, especially after the mass migration following the March 25 lockdown and millions who arrived in India through January, February and mid-March. Perhaps, that’s the reason for the government to launch the highly-intrusive Arogya Setu mobile app that elevates surveillance to Orwellian proportions.

The testing strategy pursued by the ICMR flies in the face of available evidence. On February 15, South Korea reported 28 cases, while Italy had three confirmed positives. That’s when South Korea adopted large-scale testing, while Italy waited for three weeks. A comparison of total testing, tests per day and deaths in the two countries—one that adopted early large-scale testing and the other late in the game—on February 29 and March 15 reveals a startlingly scary picture. The difference that a fortnight makes is equally stunning. India, instead of following the South Korean model, opted for Italian lethargy.

testing-analysis-of-italy-south-korea

Source: .jamewils.com. Data updated up to April 9

Now, consider another fact. Through most of March, India’s testing rate per million people remained abysmally low. As of April 12, India’s testing rate stood at 137 per million people, even lower than Pakistan’s figure of 291. Despite the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MOHFW) and ICMR being notoriously unreliable in releasing daily data, a few socially-spirited individuals have been painstakingly collating testing data released by the states every evening. James Wilson, a Kerala-based Civil Engineer, has mined countrywide numbers to present a coherent picture of Modi government’s tardiness about testing.

DESPITE health being a state subject, the States have to depend on the central government for testing kits and Personal Protection Equipment (PPEs). Among the many peculiarities of India’s infamous red-tape, a particularly tricky knot that only the ICMR is authorised to sanction new tests has posed as a serious roadblock. Some states such as Chhattisgarh, Kerala and Rajasthan have been proactive in responding to the complex challenges in containing the transmission of the virus.

These states have demanded Rapid Antibody testing kits from the ICMR to further widen the net. They have even sought for permission to import these kits directly.

On April 1, TS Singh Deo, Health Minister of Chhattisgarh, shot off a letter to the Union Health Minister, Dr Harsh Vardhan, asking him to expedite the procurement of Rapid Testing kits. “I would like to draw your attention to the fact that a few of the states have purchased rapid antibody detection kits. In this regard it would be helpful if ICMR could expeditiously lay clear criteria on use and purchase of these rapid antibody testing kits, especially looking into the fact that across the world many countries are also using these rapid tests quite effectively,” wrote Singh Deo.

The demand for Rapid Testing Kits (RTKs) had been piling up for some time. RTKs test for antibodies in a person. The presence of antibodies in the blood indicates that the person is or was infected. It’s a vital test for two reasons. First, the results of antibody tests are available in under-30 minutes, whereas the RT-PCR test takes up to five hours. Second, since the human body takes five to seven days to produce antibodies, it provides vital data in understanding how the SARS-COV2 virus works, providing valuable input for vaccine development and also helps in determining the extent of the contagion.
corona-testing-in-india

Like everything else we have seen until now about the Modi government’s inertia in dealing with an evolving crisis, the ICMR issued guidelines for Rapid Testing as late as March 27, after facing an avalanche of criticism from health experts. It then ordered for 700,000 antibody kits from China on March 30—at a time when the global demand for such kits was at an all-time high. It comes as no surprise that the RTS kits are yet to arrive (on the day of gfiles going to press) after missing three delivery dates of April 5, April 8 and April 9. On April 13, the ICMR informed that they would be arriving on April 15. There has been speculation that the kits meant for India were diverted to the US.

Compromised frontline at the battlefront
The litany of incompetence of the Modi government in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic is long. One day, it might, or might not, become a case study of how not to manage a disaster. But that’s in the future. At present, the acts of omission are extracting a terrible price in human suffering and economic catastrophe.

On January 30, the day India reported its first case, the WHO Director-General declared COVID-19 a “public health emergency of international concern.” Twenty-eight days later, on February 27, after assessing the impact of the pandemic in China, South Korea, Japan, Italy and Spain, the UN’s health organisation issued an interim guideline, flagging the importance of Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) for doctors and all associated health workers, who would be called to the frontline in the battle against the pandemic.

Following the lockdown, under pressure from the media, highlighting stories of PPE shortage faced by health workers, the government’s hand was forced to release the specification document publically. Some of the new technical requirements like taped seams of coveralls require specialised machinery that needs to be imported from China or Europe. But with most governments embargoing export of such machinery, Indian manufacturers were left scrambling to find alternative solutions

The guideline document defined PPE as, “gloves, medical masks, goggles or a face shield, and gowns, as well as for specific procedures, respirators (i.e., N95 or FFP2 standard or equivalent) and aprons.” Further elaborating the under the head, “Disruption of Global Supply Chain of PPE”, the document explicitly spelt out PPE shortage in the coming days. “The current global stockpile of PPE is insufficient, particularly for medical masks and respirators; the supply of gowns and goggles is soon expected to be insufficient also. Surging global de-mand − driven not only by the number of COVID-19 cases but also by misinformation, panic buying and stockpiling − will result in further shortages of PPE globally. The capacity to expand PPE production is limited, and the current demand for respirators and masks cannot be met, especially if the widespread, inappropriate use of PPE continues.” Remember this advisory was issued on February 27, i.e. 26 days ahead of the lockdown.

A perusal of notifications issued by the Directorate General of Foreign Trade (DGFT) pertaining to the export of PPEs from January 31 to March 19 giveaway the extent of confusion and lack of leadership that prevailed at a crucial time. DGFT notification No. 44/2015-2020, issued on January 31, banned export of all PPE: “Export of all varieties of Personal Protection Equipment including clothing and masks used to protect the wearer from airborne particles and/or any other respiratory masks or any other personal protection clothing (including Coveralls (Class 2/3/4) and N95 masks) under the above mentioned ITC HS Code is hereby ‘prohibited’ with immediate effect.” However, on February 8, the DGFT issued another notification, amending its previous order, allowing for export of 2/3 Ply masks and gloves. Did the Ministry of Commerce ease the restriction to appease the lobby of exporters, who benefited from the surge in global demand? No answers have been forthcoming.

police-wear-helmat-to-aware-indian-peopleBy mid-March, it was evident that India was in for tough times as more people started testing positive. As the global demand for medical equipment escalated, Indian manufacturers continued exporting crucial raw material used for fabricating protective gear and medical devices for the better part of March: the most critical period for building a national stockpile. Finally, after a few independent media outlets raised reds flags at the government’s foolhardiness, the DGFT issued a notification on March 19, just five days prior to the lockdown, banning the export of 2/3 Ply surgical masks, textile and raw material for the manufacture of PPEs and ventilators. Now consider this: till date, neither the ICMR nor the MOHFW have been able to provide any inventory of national stockpile of neither PPEs nor ventilators despite being asked point-blank at the press briefing conducted by the MOHFW.

BUT the twists and turns in the PPE shortage story gets more interesting. To begin with, a PSU, HLL Lifecare Limited, which was set up in the 1950s, essentially to distribute condoms, is the sole nodal body in India for the procurement of PPEs. It sources PPEs from manufacturing through a tedious tendering process.

According to a Reuters investigation, published on March 27, the MOHFW, the Textile Ministry and HLL met only on March 18 to assess the situation. The agency reported that the Ministry of Textiles, headed by Smriti Irani, acknowledged shortages based on the minutes of meeting that it claims to have seen. According the report, it was concluded at the meeting that India needs 725,000 coveralls and 6 mil-lion (60 lakh) N-95 masks to meet the demand up to May 2020.

coutry-wise-lockdown-situationHowever, this demand forecast has been questioned by industry bodies. Malini Aisola, the co-convener of a non-profit industry watch-dog called the All India Drug Action Network (AiDAN), told Caravan on March 22 that the real all-India demand is approximately five lakh coveralls per day. Coveralls are meant for one-time use only.

The shortage of raw material and textile for protective gear, which India was exporting until March 19, has created additional bottle-necks in the manufacturing of PPEs. This was further exacerbated by the March 25 lockdown that completely threw the supply chains out of gear.

That’s not all. MOHFW came up with new specification for the manufacture of PPEs in early March. Intriguingly, these specifications were not publically released to the manufacturers, according to the Reuters investigation that quoted Sanjeev Relhan, head of Preventive Wear Manufacturer Association of India and Rajiv Nath, coordinator of AiMED. Nath told the international wire agency that a tender for equipment was issued 16 days prior to March 26. The same was confirmed by Relhan in the report, “We sent daily emails from March 13 until March 21. If the tender was available why didn’t they share it?” gFiles has independently verified these allegations from other industry sources and found them
to be true.

FOLLOWING the lockdown, under pressure from the media, highlighting stories of PPE shortage faced by health workers, the government’s hand was forced to release the specification document publically. Some of the new technical requirements like taped seams of coveralls require specialised machinery that needs to be imported from China or Europe. But with most governments embargoing export of such machinery, Indian manufacturers were left scrambling to find alternative solutions. The shortage of specialised textile due to export prior to the ban added further bottlenecks. The whimsical functioning of the textile ministry and MOHFW at a time when the pandemic was poised to wreck havoc in India is callousness at best or criminal negligence at worst or both. The way the government played cloak-and-dagger with critical information for the manufacture of life-saving equipment gives wings to suspicion of criminal corruption.

Despite the best efforts of the Modi establishment, and its ecosystem of devout cronies, to deflect the charges of PPE shortages, social media timelines are swarming with videos, pictures and first-person testimonies of those who are bearing the brunt at the frontline of the fight against COVID-19. Even by the first week of April, there was no clarity about the government’s action plan for tackling inaccessibility of protective equipment for health workers in smaller towns and villages as the virus continues to surge into the hinterland.

food-distribution-queueMinisters of post-truth
The Modi government is extremely allergic to any form of questioning and equally averse to any criticism. Over the past six years, it has devised a finely-tuned machine of organised trolling, based on outright misinformation, twisted facts and out of context arguments, to pushback against critics and independent media outfits, outside the ambit of corporate media, who pose uncomfortable questions. On the political front, it deploys its army of trolls to vilify opponents and discredit any argument from the non-treasury benches that might hold the government to account.

The running joke in the upper echelons of India’s bureaucracy is that Modi’s ministers are a hardworking lot, since they have been as-signed three jobs: promoting the PM and his every word on social media, promoting themselves on social media and keeping the PMO constantly updated and full-time trolling of opposition leaders. And, no one elicits a quicker response than the former Congress president, Rahul Gandhi. He has a target painted on his back for special attention.

On the COVID-19 issue, it now turns out, despite all the trolling that Gandhi had to endure from Modi’s ministers and the allied eco-system, his warnings about the seriousness of the impending problem turned out prescient. On February 12, when India had reported three confirmed positive cases, Gandhi tweeted an article from the Harvard University website saying, “The Corona Virus is a very serious threat to our people and our economy. My sense is that the government is not taking this threat seriously.” As usual, like a lightning-rod, his timeline was swarmed by abusive trolls, including some verified handles that are part of the BJP’s IT cell eco-system and act as force multi-plies.

But, state-of-mind in which this government has been inhabiting in, was revealed on March 5 by the response of India’s Health Minister to a Gandhi tweet which said, “The Health Minister is saying that the Indian government has the #coronavirus crisis under control, is like the Capt of the Titanic telling passengers not to panic as his ship is unsinkable. It’s time the Govt made public an action plan backed by solid resources to tackle this crisis”.

Unlike demonetisation, the lingering effects of which panned out over a longer time horizon to a disastrous end result, the impact of the snap decision of the three-week lockdown sent seismic shocks of chaos rippling through the streets to the boardrooms. Modi in his monologue did not spell out any details of the government’s plan in dealing with the economic or human fallout of the lockdown

HARSHVARDHAN, an ENT specialist, who is the most important minister at this juncture, instead of engaging with the opposition leader in a constructive manner, replied like an IT cell troll. “It’s really sad that Gandhi family chooses to demoralise countrymen by likening a serious global crisis as #coronaoutbreak to one of the deadliest peacetime marine disasters in history. @RahulGandhi obviously ‘knows’ better than @WHO which is saying there is no need to panic.” The minister’s answer is illuminating. For one, he assumed that any suggestion coming from the opposition is worthless, and second, when it suits the purpose, selectively use the words of the WHO to fit the narrative, while ignoring all other alarm bells that the global body had been sounding for more than a month.

Harshvardhan’s behaviour is not an isolated instance. Rather, it fits with the modus operandi of the Modi government. Apart from Gandhi, other opposition leaders, including some of the non-BJP Chief Ministers, who have been critical of Modi’s handling of the pandemic, have also been dumbed down by the eco-system that acts as a message amplifier for the ruling regime. These messages are then broadcast to wider audience during prime-time television by the pantheon of co-opted news anchors in some of the biggest media houses.

growth-in-positive-casesBut some home truths remain inescapable. Despite deploying heavy resources in trying to build the perception that the most draconian lockdown served the country well, facts demolish the claims of spin doctors. One such uncomfortable number that challenges the crafted narrative is for five consecutive days in the third week of the 21-day lockdown, India recorded more 700 positive cases every day. A brief summary of numbers clears the fog of obfuscation.

Lockdown Blues
On March 19, Modi addressed the nation for the first time on the looming COVID-19 crisis. He beamed through televisions screens dur-ing his favourite 8 pm time-slot. Remember, he announced the disastrous demonetisation also at 8 pm. Also remember, during important debates in the Parliament, he usually deigns to speak around 8 pm, coinciding with prime-time news television. Nobody can accuse the PM of not having a sense of timing.

His March 19, 8 pm speech, lasted for around 30 minutes. He advised billions of Indians to handle the crisis with a sense calm and patience; moralised on the importance of social-distancing, preached the importance of washing hands regularly and offered other extra classes of banality. It was a speech high on homilies, rich in platitudes, peppered with clichés, but remarkably short on an action plan, roadmap or short-term or long-term implications on the economy triggered by the pandemic or the country’s preparedness to meet the challenges.

His call for observing one-day “Janata Curfew” on March 22 and banging pots and pans at in evening to show gratitude to the health workers was a mindless, and infantile, attempt at headline management. On the given day at the appointed time, millions came out to unleash a cacophony of unreason, while the extra enthusiastic ones descended in the streets in hordes for a session of pot banging and dancing.

confirmed-cases-of-covid19FIVE days later, on March 24, he appeared on TV once against for yet another 8 pm sermon. In his second address to the nation within a week, Modi dropped the bombshell of a 21-day nationwide lockdown, effective from midnight, as the way forward to contain the forward transmission of the virus. As it turned out, it was the most stringent lockdown in the world was announced with a mere 3.5-hour notice.

Modi seems to revel in delivering snap decisions that cause enormous disruptions, perpetuating governance crisis that overwhelm the bureaucratic machinery. Unlike demonetisation, the lingering effects of which panned out over a longer time horizon to a disastrous end result, the impact of the snap decision of the three-week lockdown sent seismic shocks of chaos rippling through the streets to the board-rooms. Modi in his monologue did not spell out any details of the government’s plan in dealing with the economic or human fallout of the lockdown.

Within minutes of the announcement, pandemonium reigned in the streets, shops and stores as people scrambled to stock up essentials. The extent of the panic can be gauged that Modi was forced to tweet within minutes of his address assuring people about continuity of essential supplies. What followed over the next few days is a matter of record. Millions of migrant labour, across the country, who are the backbone of the unorganised sector that constitutes up to 60 percent of the economy, were milling in the streets, trying to find their way back home.

Within a matter of hours they lost their livelihood and food security. All norms of social-distancing got trampled upon by the chaos un-leashed by the monumental mismanagement of the crisis. In a span of approximately 25 minutes, Modi exponentially escalated the probability of virus transmission into rural India as the teeming millions jostled at border towns across the country in their attempt to get back to their native places.

stop-corona-campaignWith train and bus services suspended, thousands of poor, undernourished, young and old and disabled and able-bodied men and women were forced to take the long walk back to their homes for basic human survival. The fact that this was the biggest internal mass exodus since the bloody and brutal partition of India, escaped the armchair analysts and Modi acolytes.

The epic confusion that prevailed in the upper reaches of the government is scripted in the five modifications to the lockdown guidelines notifications, issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs, between March 24 and April 10. Each update validates the belief that the government was improvising as it went along, instead of creating a broad masterplan before shutting down the country. Till date, nothing has been heard from the Economic Task Force that the PM said would be constituted. After announcing a financial stimulus package of Rs 1.72 lakh crore, which was more of an accounting jugglery than a concrete effort to put money in the hands of the people, the Finance Ministry has maintain radio silence.

Modi once again appeared on the tube in the midst of the lockdown through a recorded message to give Indians another task: this time, people were asked to light candles, diyas or switch on the flashlight of mobile phone on April 5 for nine minutes at 9 pm. The purpose: to dispel the darkness cast by the corona virus. Some people went beyond the call of duty to take out torchlight processions and burst fire-crackers.

IT became apparent, by the end of the third week of the 21-day lockdown; it had failed to contain the pandemic or flatten the curve. On April 13, the total number of positive cases breached the 10,000 barrier and the graph showed no signs of plateauing. It was a lockdown without a plan; a textbook example of governance failure at the highest level. On April 14, the death count from COVID-19 was 398, but another grim figure, on the same day, escaped the nation’s attention: over 200 people had died across the country due to the impact of the lockdown, mainly due to starvation. It’s now a mere blip in the jumble of COVID-19 statistics.

The economic cost of Modi’s mismanagement of COVID-19 pandemic will take some time to be assessed. But the emerging contours point towards a financial holocaust. International credit rating agencies have downgraded India’s GDP growth for the current fiscal to be-low 1.9 percent, while the Barclays Bank predicted that growth will plummet to zero percent. For this monumental blunder, the buck stops at 7 Lok Kalyan Marg. gfiles end logo

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