Modi is right to prepare India for a deeper crisis, writes Barkha Dutt
There are no two ways about it: Prime Minister Narendra Modi is preparing us for the worst, while obviously trying to avoid panic.
Listening to his address to the nation on Thursday, I was grateful for one thing. There was no attempt to play down the gravity of what the coronavirus could mean for India. This was in stark contrast to the army of his followers online who think it’s a political and personal affront to even suggest that India could be on the precipice of a coronavirus tumble. Apparently, if you ask why we are not testing more aggressively (at last count, of 14,376 tests, less than 900 are random tests done on those with respiratory disorders; all other tests have been confined to those who have returned from abroad or come into contact with someone who has the virus), you are a fear-monger or, worse, a traitor.
It took the PM to set the record straight. Though he didn’t get into numbers and specifics — and I do wish he had— he was unequivocal: Anyone who thinks the worst has already unfolded is being delusional. On the contrary, Modi was using the grammar and rallying spirit of wartime, down to the analogies with blackout sirens from a previous era and the call for visible national bonding on Sunday evening. You can choose to be cynical, as some did, about clanging your thali (plate) from your balcony or doorstep — personally, I’m fully in support for some collective sentimentalism in the age of social distancing — but the debate over the thali is needless and is missing the larger takeaway. The Modi government is taking us through a rehearsal of a people’s curfew on Sunday, as part of preparing us for wartime hunkering down. And frankly, the battle against the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) is precisely that grave; it needs modern, scientific warfare and mobilisation. It must be said. Modi struck the right note.
The government, is, in fact, nudging us incrementally in the direction of a longer, more formalised set of restrictions and shutdowns. The building blocks for this inevitability are already in place — the advisory for those above 65 years and below 10 years to stay at home, the suspension of board examinations, prohibitory orders in cities, the shutdown of gyms, the appeal for one-arm distancing on public transport — we are probably days away from a much bigger shutters down on life as we know it. The “janta curfew” (people’s curfew) is for us to get used to the idea, and for us to feel like it’s voluntary, in national service, and not the consequence of an enforced diktat. In terms of handling the psychology of more than a billion people, this is an astute approach. So when supporters of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) shout down all those asking for an aggressive ramping up of testing, they are doing the PM a disservice. When they congratulate the government for already winning the war against the coronavirus, they are undermining the urgency Modi has invoked.
Countries that have managed to contain the coronavirus have done so with scaled-up mass testing. South Korea shines by example, where life is limping back to a semblance of normalcy, without any long-term lockdowns in a country that originally had the second largest outbreak in the world. As things got bad, South Korea was testing up to 10,000 people a day including at drive-in centres. In India, we are still well below our capacity of 5,000 tests a day and, according to the Indian Council of Medical Research, this is to avoid panic and paranoia. But countries that have struggled chaotically are those that haven’t sorted out their testing protocols and are now scrambling to do so — the United States is an example.
The PM’s address should be a clear cue for greater testing. And I hope that, in his next address, we can learn much more about that data. His speech has finally forced the Yogi Adityanath government to suspend the Ram Navami congregation in Ayodhya where hundreds of thousands would have gathered. The same restrictions must apply to all religious congregations and places of worship. I hope in his next national address, the PM will sharpen his focus on the millions of Indians who cannot afford social distancing — household help, street vendors, taxi drivers, daily wage labourers — but need immediate cash interventions to help them tide over the next month or so. As also on the aviation industry that is tottering on the verge of collapse and whose Air India pilots have been the unsung heroes of this crisis. The next critical phase of this war will need the government to provide protective shields to a deeply-exposed economy.
And, in the meantime, some of his over-enthusiastic online supporters need to read between the lines and allow people to freely question our government.