New Delhi: Most English newspapers commended Prime Minister Narendra Modi for exhorting the Indian public to take the coronavirus pandemic seriously, but also noted that his address was lacking in specifics on the government’s role in combating its spread in the country.
On Thursday night, Modi addressed the nation, where he spoke about the need to understand that the COVID-19 epidemic was a critical challenge and that it requires the public to make sacrifices. He then called for a ‘Janata curfew’ in India on March 22 between 7 am and 9 pm. The Indian PM also urged citizens to express appreciation for essential service workers by clapping and banging their utensils at 5 pm.
Nearly all the major English newspapers ran editorials on the Modi’s speech in their Saturday editions.
In its edit titled ‘What Janata can do, but don’t neglect what government must do for it”, the Times of India appreciated the Indian PM’s ability to distil complex information into effective mass communication.
But, the editorial also noted that the coronavirus pandemic will have a serious economic fallout, which has led to other countries and states like Kerala to announce expansive economic packages. This was the missing note in the PM’s speech. “On this front, the Centre has fallen behind. After having laid out what citizens should do, in the coming days the PM must also elaborate what the government will do for them,” wrote the newspaper.
Their Delhi rival, Hindustan Times, also prefaced their mild criticism with praise for speech as being “correct in its tone and messaging” and hoped that Modi will continue communicating with citizens, transparently.
The editorial observed that the curfew on Sunday was probably as a test to see “if India enters the stage of community transmission, there may be periods when citizens will have to do this for longer”.
Noting that the PM was candid in recognising that there would be economic distress across sectors, the HT editorial added, “The one element the PM should have addressed more substantively in the speech however, was the responsibility of the State — that is as critical, if not more, than that of the citizens”.
Elaborating this point, the editorial stated, “But the PM would have done well to enumerate all the measures that have been taken; outline strategies for additional testing and why the government has been somewhat conservative in this regard; explain how the health system will be ramped up to meet additional challenges; how different layers of government — the Centre, the states and local governments — would coordinate better; and specific economic measures — including possibly a stimulus and direct cash hand-outs — which are becoming increasingly urgent.”
Titled “The Missing Notes”, The Hindu wrote that the PM Modi’s speech was timely and communicated a sense of urgency, “but beyond that it did not achieve much”.
“The States are at the forefront of the fight against the virus, and their capacity is frustratingly uneven across the country. Marshalling all resources available, and launching a complete spectrum defence against the virus is the need of the hour. There are measures that the governments, at the Centre and the State levels, have been taking. For those who expected to hear some reassuring words from the Prime Minister on this, the address was a tad disappointing,” stated paper’s editorial.
It said that while the PM urged people to stay at home, it did not “adequately put them at ease on the looming questions of economic insecurity”.
“It is one thing to instil a collective purpose among the people to meet a common challenge and quite another to do what the governments are supposed to do, and communicate that. While Mr. Modi’s address was very forceful on the first, instead of explaining the government’s plans to deal with the crisis, he exhorted people to clap for the frontline responders against the coronavirus, who are doing a splendid job, at a particular time,” wrote The Hindu.
The newspaper observed that in most parts of the world, the pandemic has led to leaders to put aside political differences and join hands. “It will be a tragedy if India cannot do the same. To this end, the Opposition should play a more constructive role, and the government must send out a message that it is taking control of the situation”.
The Indian Express applauded the PM for having “struck the right chord as he delivered some larger cautionary notes, some much-needed assurances”.
It termed the janata curfew and the “audible demonstration of respect” on Sunday evening as “imaginative ways of nudging the people towards a sense of solidarity when they may feel pushed to isolate themselves, or worse, turn on one another”.
The Express also added that his message “could be said to lack specifics” on the economic aspect. “He did not talk of waivers and relief proposals and programmes, safety nets and transfers, interventions that could soften the virus’s disruptive blow to the most vulnerable, who make up a vast section of the economy, and who are already affected by its slowdown”.
The newspaper said that the announcement of a task force to handle the pandemic came a little late. The editorial concluded, “Yet, despite the silences, in the end, the PM’s speech was more important for what he did say, as it served to lay out the crisis and set the larger stage”.
“Brilliant in style”
Among the English papers based in South India, Deccan Chronicle had a laudatory editorial about PM Modi’s speech.
“It was brilliant in style, using simple storytelling devices, ensuring that the crux was not missed by the masses he was reaching out to: ‘Covid is deadly’, ‘we all face high risk’, ‘there are no cures’ and ‘prevent to protect’. The second part of his enunciation was magnetic, and in stark contrast with others in the genre, like reach-out of other global leaders, or chief ministers of Indian states. Instead of announcing a slew of measures his government would enforce, Modi turned to voluntary citizen action to combat the pandemic, betting on his personal charisma, a sui generis factor in this political generation, self-assured that his invocation of a direct appeal to citizens would yield desired collective positive response, yet again,” said the Chronicle’s editorial.
The Deccan Herald’s editorial pointed out that while Modi’s words are welcome, his silence on India‘s strategy, which has come under ﬁre from the World Health Organization as well as public health experts in the country, is worrying”.
Unlike other papers, the Herald highlighted the need for aggressive testing. “Only those who have returned from abroad in the past 14 days or those who are in contact with them or those who show symptoms of Covid-19 are being tested. The latest guideline expands this ambit to those with Pneumonia. This testing protocol is ﬂawed as in many cases people do not show the symptoms at an early stage,” said the editorial.
The Kolkata-based The Telegraph said, “The prime minister told the people what to do, how to look after the old and the poor, how not to overburden hospitals, but was rather reticent about the steps the government is taking”.
It noted that Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau cited figures and methods of supports to be given to vulnerable sections, while emphasizing that the people’s efforts would be matched, step for step, by his government.
“Mr Modi, convinced that the middle and lower middle classes and the poor will be affected, has asked the rich and those in business to look after their employees. He wishes to put the people’s solidarity and resolve on display on March 22 in a 14-hour ‘janata’ curfew, during which at five in the evening, everyone is to clap or bang utensils from windows and balconies for five minutes to thank all those working at the front lines of the crisis”.
The editorial concluded that “the clapping is a Spanish import, but the rest is unique. And uniquely meaningless”.