Why India’s Pandemic Challenges Are Pretty Critical?

Till a medical science breakthrough materializes social distancing is the fundamental and complete lockdown the most effective preventing measure. Given the size of India’s economy, health infrastructure, and socioeconomic vulnerability of its population neither of the two measures can be extended over a period of one year, argue DrJavaid Iqbal Khan and Saeed Owais Mushtaq

Modi Cabinet 2.0

Shocks and surprises in the guise of exhortations seem to be a regular feature of the Government of India. It does it willingly, and rarely as the Government found itself with no other option but to surprise the people. BJP came to power by overthrowing Congress in 2014, cemented its power politics in 2019, revealed big schemes – Jan Dhan to Jan Suraksha, managed to captivate an ill-thought-out shock process of demonetization, hurried introduction of GST, and callous removal of Jammu and Kashmir’s Article 370. The only debacle in the recent past which this political dispensation has faced was its loss in Delhi elections, notwithstanding a tailored run over elected state governments in Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh.

Modi is as a charismatic leader. His grip over the public opinion is unthinkable and unexplainable. He has been mining words and acronyms at a great pace to uphold this influence. His oral artistry and presentation is appealing, appeasing and unparalleled. This makes space for his political dispensation, the BJP to take quick and all-encompassing decisions.

Promptness of decision making and public acceptance of the same under the Modi Spell has emboldened the state machinery to an extent that large scale intervention on the economic front has gone unnoticed if not unopposed. Consequently, India has been facing lowest growth rate in output and employment creation. Industrial production is flat. Inflation has recorded increases. There have been large scale fluctuations in all macroeconomic aggregates so much so that a riskless disinvestment plan had been pursued. Hence, even in the absence of external shock like the pandemic-Covid-19, Indian economy had been fishing in troubled waters.

Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, flanked by her deputy Anurag Thakur (L) and other officials pose for a group photograph at Parliament House in New Delhi

With the exogenous shock of Covid-19, the internal fallibility of Indian economy in the backdrop of farce decisions is wide open. On March 25, a 21 day lockdown was pronounced by the Prime Minister. Unlike the demonization announcement 2016, it was a knee jerk reaction to the inevitable. For most of the Indians glued to their TV screens and radio sets, it was no surprise. Panic buying and large scale migrant worker displacement had already stormed the rural and urban space across India.  At the receiving end of this announcement were the millions of migrant workers populating some of the worse hit state’s. Beeline of these workers, daily wagers, and contract labourers are witnessed across railways and bus stations, even today, many days after lockdown.

The millions of people are on the roads still guessing how to reach home which is hundreds of kilometres away. Many of them have started such long unending journeys on foot amid scorching heat and humidity of northern plains. The lockdown may soon result in a humanitarian crisis wherein people will starve for food and shelter. Community kitchens have been set up across states, migrant worker rush is however unmanageable and unsustainable at least from the logistics perspective.

The government of India on March 26, has come up with a comprehensive 1.7 lakh crore package to mitigate the negative impact of Covid-19 with a huge focus on availability of food via an income support strategy for the poor. Given the fact, that the economy is suffering a supply shock it cannot be stimulated by way of transfer payments only.

In the near future with factories, industries, tourism, and remittances negatively affected, revenue for the state is expected to fall. Such shortfall is generally thought to be offset by austere measures, which prohibit an exponential increase in the fiscal deficit. However, treading on such a path in current circumstances would be tantamount to putting the square pie into a round hole. The government has taken the dangerous path of running huge fiscal deficits which as of now seems to be the only way out.

However, as has been witnessed over a period of time the last mile delivery of all interventions that have come from the top miss the mark by a good margin. In the current circumstances such missing can backfire and turn suicidal both on the economic as well on the health front. From announcing a lockdown to rolling out a detailed economic package, the central government dispensation, it might appear has done a commendable job. However, it is just the beginning of a very long journey.

At the instant, the major challenge is unfortunately witnessed by what Modi referred to as “health warriors” and by the very system which is intended to alleviate India out of this pandemic. It is the healthcare system in general and the health care professionals in particular. With regard to the infrastructure and quality of healthcare, India stands at dismal rank 140 in the world. The number of hospital beds per 1000 stand at 0.7 for the country. The number is abysmally low compared to other countries. South Korea has 11.5 hospital beds per 1000 people. France, China, Italy, UK, US, and Iran record 6.5, 4.2, 3.4, 2.9, 2.8 and 1.5respectively. Further, the ratio of doctor availability in India is 1:1445 which is lower than WHO prescribed norm of 1:1000.

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Diagnostic kits, personal protection equipment (PPE) are still dangerously constrained. This explains the actual preparedness of India and its response system.  After the SOS letters from Doctors across the country, on March 18, Government claimed to have asked for the manufacture of 7.25 lakh safety covers. But safety gear manufacture companies have denied having received any order from the government. The caretakers are at risk, and the indispensable supply of medical equipment’s is not forthcoming.

Dr Javaid Iqbal

The economic challenge of this pandemic is more serious and will unfortunately be long lasting. Notwithstanding the seemingly huge economic package intended for the poor, it is a daunting task to actually suffice bare necessities of 80 crore people on a daily basis for about 100 days. Intended flattening of Covid-19 curve seems to be getting positively correlated to the flattening of the social welfare curve. This dangerous correlation can lead to a trivial outcome. For instance, the agriculture distress coupled with a blockade of forward and backward linkages across related sectors is going to insulate the defensive measures against Covid-19 of the present in the very near future.

Saeed Owais

Headways made in containing the pandemic today might go futile tomorrow precisely on two accounts. One, there is no guarantee of a vaccine being made available over the next one year to contain the virus. And till a medical science breakthrough materializes social distancing is the fundamental and complete lockdown the most effective preventing measure. But with the size of India’s economy, the weakness of its health infrastructure, socioeconomic vulnerability of its population neither of the two measures can be extended over a period of one year. That would essentially mean living with the virus, if not today but from tomorrow. That leads to the second and a critical situation: either the state has to keep on handholding for a longer period of time or the economy has got to go into a low level equilibrium trap.

(Dr Javaid Iqbal Khan is Assistant Professor and Saeed Owais Mushtaqis a Research Scholar at the Department of Economics, University of Kashmir. Ideas are personal)

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