COVID-19 Is a Unique Test of National Decision Making the Modi Govt Can't Afford to Fail

There is a lot that the prime minister needs to decide on. And once these decisions are taken, he needs to communicate them with clarity.

India enters a new phase in its battle against COVID-19 when it eases its lockdown selectively after 26 days of an extremely stringent lockdown.

Given the enormous uncertainty, national-level decision making on the scope and scale of relaxations and restrictions is best described as dharam sankat.

For a nuclear power, dealing with unimaginable uncertainties where the stakes have to do with your very existence is a scenario that is enacted during national-level war games. There too, it is always a dharam sankat.

The COVID-19 situation, while seemingly dire, is hopefully nowhere near, for while the unknowns abound there are several knowns that can provide guidance. Basing decisions on the knowns and taking precautions against unknowns is a sound principle for national decision making which must always be holistic in its perspective.

What is now known with certainty is that COVID-19 can also spread through people who are asymptomatic; it is spread through droplets and contact and can enter the body through the mouth, nose and eyes and attacks the respiratory tract and it is difficult to treat at later stages if the viral load is significant.

Further, indirect infection from contact with surfaces also takes place; the old and those with existing morbidities are particularly vulnerable in terms of mortality and the young are relatively more resilient; for the masses, masks provide some protection and PPE is required for protecting healthcare workers.

There are other knowns which is the yield of the scientific community, providing advice at the national level. The extent of our knowledge of COVID-19 has to be applied to India’s existing conditions about which we know a lot.

Also read: Lockdown Gives Centre Power Without Responsibility, Easy to Pass Buck for Failure to States

India’s conditions in the domains of political, social, economic, scientific, technological, psychological, information, human capital and resource availability are known, though imperfectly. Holistic perspectives require the widening of the horizon beyond the immediate that is envisioned in meeting this national-level threat while minimising its impact on India’s human security and the welfare of its citizens.

The process of widening the horizon is deeply complicated because of the deep uncertainties that pervade all these domains. Scientific opinions are based on databases that cannot possibly measure the true extent of the infection spread.

Realistically assessing the levels of asymptomatic transmission relating to a population of 1.2 billion which has an extremely dense urban profile with a vast majority residing in rural settings that are heavily crowded in terms of dwelling space, is nearly impossible.

This profile cannot be changed. Stemming the spread through increased surveillance, testing, tracking and treatment would require the hand of providence and therefore national planning decisions must be based on the possibility of community spread in some areas, though in different periods, even when we hope that it will not come to pass.

One can also be reasonably certain that with the relaxations effective from April 20, there is a real possibility of a rise in infections both known and unknown.

The revival of agricultural activity, restricted industrial and certain other activities are national imperatives that would surely entail a rise in infections. India’s public health medical infrastructure may have been strengthened as much as feasible during the lockdown but could be overwhelmed beyond its capacity in some areas.

If it happens or is seen as going to happen, the major political decision would be exercising control over the scale and scope of the permitted and restricted activities.

Also read: Perennial Lockdown Is Not a Remedy. India Must Isolate and Insulate

To be sure, the political leadership will then be bombarded by mathematical models that are the staples of the scientific and technological community. Colourful graphs and impressive powerpoint presentations at the national level, in this particular situation, may conceal more than they reveal and worse, distort reality more than they intend to, because in most cases the basic point of the extent of the infection would remain unknown.

The weakness of mathematical models lies in the assumptions that deal with uncertainty.

These models are useful, but political decision-makers must use them more as a decision support tool. Ultimately, the political leadership must listen to all the domain experts but in this case the decision to deal with community spread must come from the gut of the prime minister and once taken, he should among many other steps, speak to the nation. The issue is, what should he communicate?

The primary target audience should be taken as the poor of the nation and the talk should be slanted towards them (in both urban and rural settings) whose main concerns are food, homelessness and destitution. For them, COVID-19 matters but pales in significance relative to their future. Providing reassurance on their major concerns will have to be accompanied concomitantly by measures that will provide them food, shelter and cash, if not already done.

A man stands as buses are seen parked at a depot during lockdown by the authorities to limit the spreading of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in New Delhi, India March 23, 2020. Photo: Reuters/Adnan Abidi

A specific call to the so far neglected migrant workers to stay on in their work settings to facilitate quick reopening of economic activity is essential as long as necessary provisions are made. Since some places are likely to experience labour shortage for the harvesting season – an assurance that where necessary, the Army with its intrinsic logistics, could be made available.

Stranded migrant workers must be allowed to choose between returning to their homes or to their workplaces, and transportation should be accordingly organised. In these matters, though the Centre could provide resources and guidance, it requires execution by the states and therefore the need for cooperation, untinged by political colour must be solicited.

The PM’s reassurance must seek to mitigate the element of fear that has gripped the nation as it has done even globally.

Also read: How India’s States Can Read COVID-19 Data to Make the Most of the Lockdown

That India in comparison to the bigger nations to the world has performed well against COVID-19 is a good start point. The reassurance must be based on the fact that COVID-19 causes mortality, mostly with the old and in people with co-morbidities. The young by and large need not be unduly apprehensive. India is advantaged in being a young country with only 6% of the population over 60 years of age. Protecting the elders would now be the concern of their families and the government.

An appeal must be made to maintain social stability and therefore our differences based on caste, class and religion must be dealt with gentleness, humane approach, and maturity to obviate frictions and divisiveness. Political and religious leaders have a special responsibility for this. All religious gatherings have been banned and it is likely to stay so for a longer period. People of all faiths will have to respect the ban.

The PM must ready the nation for the long haul that may stretch for more than a year with varying and different intensities of restrictions becoming the norm.

His decision making and therefore national decision making will have to be responsively quick but not of the knee jerk variety. It has to be done with the realisation that the known and unknown will remain as perennial challenges and gaze that should frame decisions must be as broad as possible with India’s long term future in mind.

The PM can take heart that it is the COVID-19 button in his hand and not the nuclear one.

Lt General (Dr) Prakash Menon, PVSM, AVSM, VSM, is Director, Strategic Studies Programme, Takshashila Institution, Bengaluru.