New Delhi: In light of an unfolding humanitarian crisis in which thousands of daily wagers have been attempting to reach their native villages on foot, former Congress president Rahul Gandhi urged the government to adopt a nuanced approach in enforcing the 21-day lockdown.
Acknowledging that a lockdown is necessary to flatten the COVID-19 curve in India, he said that the Union government could not overlook the “unique condition” of India, and indicated that enforcing a complete lockdown of economic activity may heighten the risk of the pandemic’s spread to Indian villages.
“It is critical for us to understand that India’s conditions are unique. We will be required to take different steps than other large countries who are following a total lockdown strategy. The number of poor people in India who are dependent on a daily income is simply too large for us to unilaterally shut down all economic activity. The consequences of a complete economic shut down will disastrously amplify the death toll arising from the COVID-19 virus,” he said.
His statement came soon after Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in his monthly ‘Mann Ki Baat’ programme, apologised to the common man for taking the hard decision to implement a 21-day lockdown that has led to an unprecedented situation of mass in-migration of distressed workers who have gone almost entirely broke.
Gandhi said that the Congress party was doing its “utmost to cooperate with the steps the government is taking to fight the Coronavirus outbreak in India” but “it is important that the government consider a nuanced approach that takes the complex realities of our people into consideration”.
“Our priority must be to protect and isolate the elderly and vulnerable from the virus and to clearly and strongly communicate to the young the dangers of proximity to older people,” he said.
While saying that he suspects that the government may extend the lockdown further from its three-week deadline, he said that a complete lockdown will result in “a catastrophic loss of life”.
Talking about the mass migration of daily wagers, he said, “Millions of India’s elderly live in villages. A complete lockdown and the resulting shut down of our economic engine will almost certainly ensure that millions of unemployed youth rush back to their villages, increasing the risk of infecting their parents and the elderly population living there.”
Calling for urgent attention to “strengthen the social safety net”, he said that all public resources should be used to “support and shelter the working poor”.
“The sudden lockdown has created immense panic and confusion. Factories, small industries and construction sites have closed, tens of thousands of migrant labourers are trying to walk home to their villages and are stranded at various state borders. They are rendered totally vulnerable without their daily wages or access to nutrition and basic services,” he said.
“Large population centres will require big dedicated hospitals with thousands of beds and ventilators. It is critical that we start setting up these structures and manufacturing the equipment that would be required, as fast as is humanly possible. At the same time, we need to dramatically increase the number of tests that we are carrying out to get an accurate picture of the spread of the virus and to contain it,” he recommended. He also said that some financial support should be extended to the poor immediately.
To protect India from a shock wave that is bound to come as a result of the economic paralysis, he said the government could think of setting up a “defensive wall around our key financial and strategic institutions”.
“Our informal economy and immense network of small and medium businesses and farmers are going to be vital to any rebuilding effort. It is crucial that we engage them in a conversation, build their confidence and protect their interests with correct and timely action,” he said.