A roadmap from the Congress: Four pillars to fight the coronavirus
On May 28, the Union government announced that it will vaccinate all Indians by December 31, 2021. Nearly 10 million doses must be administered every day to achieve this target. Last Monday saw over 8.6 million vaccinations. The daily rate has since fallen to the five to six million range.
A cumulative vaccination deficit is ballooning as there are massive vaccine shortages. The government did not place timely and adequate orders, perhaps because of its “smart vaccination strategy” that did not entail universal vaccination as it announced to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Health in October 2020. It was later dropped, heeding the advice of scientists to adopt universal vaccination.
Cynical headline management and announcements without a detailed roadmap distract from crucial measures that the government needs to implement immediately to prevent devastation on the scale seen during the first two waves.
The Congress, in contrast, continuously provided concrete policy suggestions, and party workers provided crucial relief throughout the pandemic. Recently, Rahul Gandhi released a comprehensive “White Paper on the Management of COVID-19 by the Government of India”, and suggested four pillars to undergird the government’s pandemic response going forward.
The first pillar is to identify mistakes and correct course, which the white paper does by holding a mirror to the government about its management of the pandemic.
The second pillar is to prepare for third and future waves by focusing on ramping up vaccination, health care infrastructure and genome sequencing. Free, universal vaccination must be implemented in mission mode, not used as opportunities for self-promotion. We need systematic processes that ensure that procurement and distribution happen transparently, efficiently and equitably. Critical errors such as announcing victory before containing the pandemic cannot be repeated.
This also requires setting up oxygen beds, increasing testing capacity and availability of doctors and paramedics, especially in rural areas. We need extensive genome sequencing to keep track of emerging variants of concern, to provide early warnings and ensure rapid responses. Effective risk communication must convince people to observe safety measures continuously and overcome vaccine hesitancy.
The third pillar recognises that Covid-19 is both a public health and an economic crisis. While the economy was on a downward spiral before Covid-19, the pandemic led to a severe contraction in FY 2020-21. Estimates suggest a sharp rise in poverty and unemployment, and a shrinking middle class. Loss of incomes will impact demand thus slowing down recovery. Economic assistance through cash transfers for the vulnerable is a moral imperative and makes economic sense. A minimum income guarantee scheme will provide succour to those hurt and boost demand. Such interventions, along with wage subsidies for micro, small and medium enterprises, will revive businesses and regenerate employment.
The fourth pillar involves a Covid-19 compensation fund to assist families of those who succumbed. In March 2020, the Union government centralised the fight against the pandemic by invoking the provisions of the Disaster Management Act, 2005. It also notified ex-gratia relief but inexplicably reversed it within hours. The government must reinstitute relief of ₹4 lakh for bereaved families. India has the economic strength to do this. It will also help our country arrive at accurate assessments of the Covid-19 death toll, which has been tragically, perhaps deliberately, undercounted.
A vibrant democracy requires the Opposition to hold the government accountable through constructive criticism of its policies. It also requires the government to be open to sound advice, whether it comes from experts or the Opposition. We are all together in this national mission to combat the pandemic. That is the essence of the white paper and the Congress’s constructive approach.
MV Rajeev Gowda is chairman, AICC research department and a former Member of Parliament
The views expressed are personal