One foolhardy action by the Tablighi Jamaat has given a boost to the Hindutva brigade. They have seized the opportunity with both hands to blame the entire Muslim community for the spread of COVID-19. This has also helped draw public attention away from the official mismanagement of the pandemic and the monumental blunders involved in planning and implementing the lockdown announced by Prime Minister Modi on March 24 and now in its 16th day.
Notwithstanding the imprudence of Jamaat in not evacuating their hostel – the ‘markaz’ in Nizamuddin in Delhi – where more than 3,000 members were housed in March, there is technical merit in the argument they have been making.
The Union government, till March 13, had not considered the novel coronavirus a serious threat and had not implemented any measures to restrict congregations which continued to occur at various religious places as well as in the form of private gatherings. When the lockdown and other measures were suddenly put into effect, a lot of people staying in the markaz were stranded. That apart, the government had full information about the fact that there were thousands of people present in the complex, which functions as a hostel. Hence, their inaction in getting people to leave for their respective places once the Delhi government’s March 16 restrictions were announced is an unpardonable act of omission. In fact, the Maharashtra police refused permission for a congregation by the Jamaat near Mumbai for March 16. This raises the question of lack of foresight on the part of the Delhi Police and administration. If the Maharashtra police could act to prevent a gathering, why not the Delhi Police?
Reports suggest that the first COVID case in India was detected on January 30. Several people had rung alarm bells about the serious turn that COVID might take. The government itself, like the US and many other countries, imposed a ban on Chinese visitors on February 2. Yet it continued to deceive itself that India would remain unaffected and its machinery remained in slumber.
Had the government acted proactively, India could have procured personal protective equipment (PPE) for its health workers both domestically and from abroad, put restrictions on export of any protective gear that was in short supply and enhanced their production – a step which they are only now taking. In fact, reports suggest that India exported not just surgical gloves but also masks and coveralls to Serbia till the end of March. Even as the prime minister has called health workers ‘frontline warriors’, it is doing little to provide them with PPE and prevent their exposure to the dangerous virus. It is in this context that the “thali and taali” fest on March 22, ostensibly to honour health workers and celebrated at the behest of the prime minister, was bizarre to say the least.
No serious screening at airports
Tourists including those from countries which were seriously affected continued to come to India with just cursory screening before the lockdown. I am myself witness to the casual manner of screening at Delhi Airport when my flight from Mumbai on March 8 landed on the international side of arrivals. There were only a couple of desks near the entry before immigration and I found most people casually walking past them. The few who went up were perhaps given a cursory screening depending upon where they were coming from. Most arrivals were put through the formalities of measuring temperature through thermal scanners and asked to fill a self-declaration form. It was only much later that efforts were made to trace such persons and quarantine them. Clearly, no protocols for isolation/quarantine were in place even as late as the first week of March, when some of Tablighi Indonesians are believed to have entered the country.
The crux is that India, having failed to assess the severity of the impact of COVID-19 on its people and economy, also failed in initiating proactive measures to gear up its health infrastructure, or isolation and quarantine protocols. Granted we had never faced such a massive pandemic in the recent past and did not have any protocols to follow. However, we could have drawn lessons from the mistakes committed by countries like China, Italy, Spain and even the US. Our experts should have analysed the lacunae in their handling of the pandemic and planned properly.
At the outset, stricter norms should have been adopted for screening of all international arrivals from at least the end of January when the WHO first sounded the alarm. A lot of time was available to the government to get an app-based registration system in place for all international arrivals. The app could have been downloaded at the airport and basic questions especially relating to likely places of stay in India could have been submitted through the app. This would have made the task of tracing these people and with whom they interacted much simpler.
No planning for lockdown
The Government of India’s stand that “COVID is not a major health threat” even till as late as March 13 is perhaps responsible for the lack of preparation.
Progression within 10 days to a complete and sudden lockdown from 24th March onwards, therefore, represents nothing but a complete lack of professionalism and incompetence.
Besides better screening, the almost two months available to the government since the first detected case should have been gainfully utilised to plan for the eventuality of this complete lockdown. China had done it and instead of preparing for the eventuality we were busy ridiculing them.
It is ironical that the nation was given four days warning for one day of the ‘janata curfew’ but less than four hours for a three-week lockdown. That a lockdown at some stage was necessary is not in doubt – the PM knew this was so when he told people on March 19 that he would want some weeks of their time – so the government could have planned it properly.
The fate of migrants
In particular, the Centre should have visualised the implications of a complete lockdown and made arrangements for people to be able to leave for their homes like they have done for the stranded pilgrims at different religious places and also from abroad. The sudden decision left little time for the states to coordinate efforts to mitigate the problems of people on the road. The argument that any advance measure would have led to leakage of information is specious as it would have obviated the misery that the poor are suffering.
That COVID-19 in India is still under control is perhaps thanks to the immunity developed by Indians due to various factors and not because of our efforts. It is also likely a reflection of the fact that very few tests are being conducted.
The government likes to say it is fighting a war against the coronavirus. In the military conduct of operations, the commander gives a “warning order” about what is required to be achieved. This is followed by a reconnaissance by junior commanders and then the issue of detailed orders before the plan is executed. Every plan caters for contingencies too. The handling of the pandemic appears to indicate that the sequence of action has been reversed, with action preceding planning.
It is a travesty that instead of fighting COVID-19 unitedly and rectifying the government’s mistakes of commission and omission, vested interests have successfully communalised the tragedy, as can be seen not just be the incessant media propaganda but also disturbing accounts from around the country of vigilante violence against Muslims.
Sanjiv Krishan Sood retired as Additional Director General BSF.