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Mask behind the mask

The issue is not about swine flu. The issue is about the collateral damage we will cause to Brand India and the economic components thereof: we are just experiencing a mild turn-around in the tourism and aviation sectors: this will be seriously impaired, writes Suhel Seth.

india Updated: Aug 13, 2009 23:07 IST
Suhel Seth

Over the last few days, we’ve seen hysterical television reporters, clueless government ministers and random doctors commenting on the advance of swine flu. For me it’s been a weird personal journey. I was in New York on April 22 when swine flu was first confirmed in Mexico. So it’s not as if we never knew it would also travel to India. The World Health Organisation deemed it a pandemic within two weeks of the first detected case. And only now some terrifying figures are coming to light: conservative estimates suggest that the loss to business and government in Mexico was $55 million a day: yes, per day, and the cumulative loss to business in the United States is going to be in excess of over $100 billion.

India can neither afford the price nor the pain. This week, sitting here in Bombay, the damage continues to make us balk: the city’s schools have been shut down for a week; movie theatres have been ordered to close for three days; malls and shopping areas will follow suit; the ensuing Ganesh Chaturthi festival will also see a huge scale-down. More than the virus, what the Government (both at the Centre and in the the states) has managed to do is spread panic rather than H1N1. And like what happened in the case of 26/11, we have once again exposed our enduring apathy to public good or, for that matter, to taking meaningful steps in creating and providing for an over-arching crisis management infrastructure.

The Information & Broadcasting Ministry has issued an advisory to news channels to not exaggerate the issue, which is fine. But how do you prevent anyone from seeing an army of mask-wearers while moving around in Bombay? The issue is not about swine flu. The issue is about the collateral damage we will cause to Brand India and the economic components thereof: we are just experiencing a mild turn-around in the tourism and aviation sectors: this will be seriously impaired. With malls and complexes being shut down, there will be a direct impact on manufacturing and distribution, not to mention the effect on the poorest of the poor who live on daily wages and daily business as it were. The shutting down of schools has its own impact on those middle-income homes (where both parents are working), which will now have to provide for help for home-staying children. In addition, we will see pressures on basic economic indicators such as investment in trade; a collapse in consumer confidence; the failure of suppliers to meet their credit needs and bankruptcies, not to mention the over-stretching of government funds, which are already bloated thanks to the deficit inherent in our budget. And while this government will laud itself for seeming to manage the crisis, each day that someone is unable to work because of this illness, there will be a loss to livelihood.

I believe the lessons we still haven’t learnt are that there is no point in spreading panic but instead in ensuring preparedness: we seem to have failed on both counts. The previous health minister was content with fighting harmless doctors and the current one has woken up too late. The tourism sector, which is the largest employer of both skilled and unskilled workers, will be the hardest hit and the severity of this will be felt through cancelled events; both business trips and daily life will suffer.

At this stage we cannot be in denial about what is going to happen. But can we at least accept the realities and move towards creating a crisis management structure with alacrity and integrity?

Suhel Seth is Managing Partner of Counselage India

The views expressed by the author are personal