All across the world, leaders have been addressing their citizens on how to tackle the spread of the Coronavirus. Some prefer to use the confrontational, accusatory and racist language of defining the virus by its source of origin (‘foreign’ or ‘Chinese’ as US President Donald Trump has called it), others such as Angela Merkel and Justin Trudeau kept their addresses focussed on the steps their governments are going to take. Merkel’s address was particularly reassuring because in the current time of nationalist responses to the global pandemic, she chose to emphasise the values of regional cooperation (the European Union) and more importantly stressed the role of measures within the fabric of democracy. In a way, she informed the people rather than speaking from the pulpit of power.
India’s prime minister also addressed the nation on March 19. The hype was created by an early pre-announcement that he would address the nation. While some would try to justify the hype as a form of awareness, the current eco-system of media and politics in India turned a serious issue into a publicity event, causing a lot of unnecessary anticipation about the content of his address. This could have been avoided. Sobriety is definitely preferred over self-absorption when the nation might go through a collective phase of crisis.
There were some good rhetorical points that people want to listen from their leaders although more as a participant citizen than as a moralising figure. Modi’s call for resolve and restraint was noteworthy. It lacked concrete content but was nevertheless needed to remind the citizens to take the imminent or possible spread of the virus seriously.
The second noteworthy point he raised was that those who hire daily service workers – maids, drivers, cleaners, etc – may think of relieving them of their work/duty temporarily without cutting their wages.
On this point, Prime Minister Modi could have used his popularity to a much more emphatic effect than he did. He almost pleaded and requested the hiring class to think about their employees. In a way, he indirectly addressed the most important class who could be the most severely affected if the pandemic spreads across India exponentially.
Almost 93% of India’s working force is in the informal sector, without legal security of work. In all big cities and in many small towns, the service sector is manned by this large vulnerable class which can’t afford to maintain social distancing by shutting themselves off in their houses. Wars, epidemics, and natural disasters hit all, but they hit the underprivileged hardest because of this social structural imbalance.
Exceptional is the role of the Kerala government in constituting a financial package of Rs 20,000 crore (2.457 billion Euros approximately) which includes health provision, free ration, loans to needy families, disbursement through rural employment guarantee programme, and social security. The Delhi government has also followed with its own announcement. The Centre, which has the greatest resources at its command and the greatest responsibility has, so far, remained silent on this key aspect.
Modi appealed to the benevolence and generosity of the hiring class rather than directly telling the large underbelly of the urban and rural poor how the government plans to take care of them. In many countries, financial packages have been formed to help small and medium range business owners, freelancers, and self-employed people. None of this featured in the address to the nation of PM Modi.
A future concrete measure which he mentioned was of the constitution of a Covid-19 Economic Task Force. He said that this task force would take some measures in the future. This was disappointing. Given India’s bureaucratic culture, committees and commissions are formed and re-formed in a time-consuming manner. Similar task forces would perhaps be formed at state levels, which might lead to tedious paperwork.
Rather than leaving it to the future, Modi should have come prepared with concrete steps that this task force would undertake right now. The government had sufficient amount of time between the day it first put out travel restrictions and the day Modi spoke the nation. In his address, he should have announced concrete measures to assure the nation of the pathway the government has chosen to follow internally in relation to public health infrastructure, expansion of testing facilities, better provisions at quarantine centres, an increase in the number of hospital beds, support to low-income families, and a financial package for informal urban and rural poor.
Instead, he suggested two concrete steps that required the people’s participation. One, to observe a Janata Curfew on March 22from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Social distancing – or rather ‘social solidarity through physical distancing’ – must be seen as a necessary process because the incubation period of this virus is up to two weeks. It is baffling as to how a self-imposed curfew of 14 hours will help contain the spread of the virus. If Modi had some other plan, that is, to run it as a trial to see if social distancing measures can be adopted in the future, then he needed to inform the nation about his plan. Secrecy is not desirable when public health planning and security are at stake. Creating suspense is exemplary to his style of communication. The need of the hour is to practice transparency. In the absenc of any logic behind this exercise of inflicting a 14-hour long ‘curfew’, the best way to understand its relevance is to accept the fact that Modi has turned the need to consolidate a sustained process of observing social distancing to whichever extent possible into a media-managed, single-day public event.
The second concrete action which he demanded from the nation was to show solidarity for people such as medical workers who are at the frontline of this battle. This is an appreciable gesture. In Italy, this happened rather organically as it is one of the worst affected countries globally and the people there wanted to show their support for the doctors and nurses. Perhaps in imitation, Modi asked people to go to their balconies, doors, and windows and clap hands, bang plates, and ring bells for five minutes at 5 p.m. on March 22to show their solidarity.
If the Janata Curfew (People’s Curfew) is a way to turn a pandemic condition into an event management exercise then the five minutes of organised and popularised noise generation is nothing more than turning the nation into a hysterical collective. The show of solidarity is not the issue here. The issue is the unfortunate fact that this one and only ‘concrete measure’ PM Modi requested in the battle against the virus will be the most zealously observed act throughout the nation. And the unfortunate fact is that this is the most concrete step which Modi’s government has so far offered to the nation.
People can find different ways of showing solidarity. There are associations in neighbourhoods in many different countries helping the elderly get groceries, for instance. In India, some housing societies in Gurgaon have given a call to residents to come to their balcony and switch on their mobile phone torch to show solidarity with health workers, police and security personnel, airline staff, and all those engaged in providing emergency services. But people have a right to know from the government how institutions and structures are being overhauled to deal with the impending crisis. People’s initiatives – agreeable or disagreeable – should not become the myopic vision of a leader and a nation.
But then this is typical of Modi – to create a ‘mob frenzy’ and engulf the nation into doing the unnecessary. The effect of this call needs no more explanation than the image below which tells its own story. Mark the effect of the call on social distancing as people stand overcrowded on the moving carrier with a banner hanging on the side, reading Janata Curfew. This is sheer propaganda, not public health.
Every country is constantly taking administrative decisions and letting the public know about them. How ironical it is that a number of people cram together inside a vehicle to announce the message of social distancing!
Modi mentioned in his address that he has never been disappointed by the people whenever he has asked them for something. He is right. The nation is actually responding along predictable lines. Journalists and celebrities are tweeting about his ‘masterstroke’ and ‘bold’ initiative. Unless the dictionaries have changed the meaning of these words, it is difficult to grasp what is bold about banging steel plates.
Posters of calls for global prayers are circulating on social media. The power of the word ‘Om’ is marketed as an antidote to the negative effects the planet is undergoing. The mix of sound produced by conch shells and cymbals is being shared on social media as an audio file to be played during those five minutes on March 22.
To be fair to Modi, such religious chants (Gayatri Mantra) and mass singing (Hum Honge Kamyaab, We Shall Overcome) had started appearing even before his address. Swanky high-rise apartment blocks with a few microphone wielding individuals took the lead and people followed them from their balconies.
There is no denial that faith is often invoked in times of crises. Indian culture abounds in examples of deities ascribed with the power of healing. The question is not on faith but its organised public performance. The problem is with vigilante enforcement. And the rush to brand as ‘traitors’ those who wish to raise questions on the institutional preparedness of the government to cope with the risk. When demands for extensive testing in line with the WHO’s call are labelled ‘India bashing’, then the optic of a staged and enforced public event is nothing but a smokescreen to cover up concerns about public health.