India’s war against Covid-19
India doesn’t lack resources. It lacks a strategy to join dots, monitor execution, bridge gaps. But there is a way out
We are facing a war on three major fronts — medical, financial, and a strained internal and external environment, which predates the pandemic and persists.
To wage a successful war, the entire national capacity has to be leveraged. Resources, energies and mindshare of leaders have to be synergised and concentrated on the point of decision, which, in this case, is minimising the damage of the pandemic. Synergy has to be shepherded through a series of negotiations, persuasion and coordination. Like in any war, this has to be achieved while incurring casualties within the very machinery tasked to execute these complicated manoeuvres.
We have some strategic advantages. Though belated, a sense of national emergency is kicking in among citizens. We have an excellent communication system with deep penetration of mobile phones, which is useful for planning. Aadhaar is a robust mechanism to coordinate and control vaccination and lifesaving drug delivery. Our technology prowess can help solve resource allocation problems and guide policymakers. Our top 200 corporates have the muscle to reach every nook and corner of the country in terms of logistical and management bandwidth. We also have a fair amount of idle aviation capacity to cart resources between cities.
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Our challenge, thus, is not at an absolute resource shortage but the ability to join the dots, monitor execution and bridge gaps quickly. If we have to fight a war against the pandemic, then we might as well follow the ten principles of war.
The first principle is the selection and maintenance of a singular unambiguous aim. We must have the aim of fighting the health and financial crisis, and maintain it throughout. In wars, contradictory aims have to be managed with compromises. Wartime decisions can seldom satisfy all stakeholders and hence statesmanship is needed.
Second, the maintenance of morale. This has three elements. Citizens have to be given the true picture, no matter how grim; shown the roadmap for the way out; and demonstrated quick wins. If there is dissonance between the narrative and reality, the credibility of the narratives and narrators gets diffused, diminishing unity of purpose.
Third, offensive action, or a series of practical steps that seize initiative, maintain momentum and create advantageous positions. Resources must be allocated proactively and initiative left to local leaders to implement the strategy. Higher formations focus on provisioning of resources and lower ones deploy those on the ground. There will be compelling and unsatisfiable demands from lower formations but that is the nature of war; hence, higher formations will need to make strategic long term priorities. Towards that end, cities which are strategic, financial and industrial hubs will need to be safeguarded first. If those nodes fail, everything else will collapse.
Fourth, security — defined as provision and maintenance of an operating environment that affords necessary freedom of action to achieve objectives. Imbalance in supply and demand, especially of lifesaving resources, breeds moral and material corruption. Any blockage of resources, be it because of bureaucratic hurdles, apathy or greed, sabotages the war effort. The government should leverage capacity of institutions created specifically for fusing thousands of databases that can provide visibility of resource allocations and dispensation, preventing leakages and delays. The mandate of such organisations needs to be changed but that too is the nature of war. Entire assembly lines convert to producing war material in times of existential emergencies.
The fifth principle — surprise — acts in reverse in this case. There must be second and third order of thinking so that surprise is minimised. Every decision has unintended consequences, for instance the exodus of migrants following the lockdown. In wartime, decisions are often between one wrong and lesser wrong. Red teams must evaluate the implications of major decisions and create credible implication flows that allow decision makers to evaluate the lesser evil. These teams must be populated by imaginative thinkers pooled in from every ministry and the corporate sector.
Sixth, concentration of forces. Prioritising frontline workers for vaccination was an example of this principle. Often leaders spread their resources too thin so they don’t make a decisive impact.
The seventh principle, economy of effort, recognises that resources will always be short in war and therefore every effort must be leveraged to its fullest. This implies strict watch on wastage, cold chain storage, and ironing out process delays to ensure that there is least friction in the system.
Eighth, flexibility. Once there is an overall strategy, implementation must be delegated down with adequate empowerment and oversight. For instance, local leaders may find that their population can be more easily vaccinated as a family unit, rather than age criteria. Such changes must be allowed on ground.
Ninth, cooperation. This involves teamwork and a sharing of dangers, burdens, risks and opportunities in every aspect of warfare. This key principle is often the Achilles' heel of most campaigns as dangers, burdens and risks are often borne by the majority while a smaller cohort seeks the opportunities and glory. Such campaigns usually lose steam, morale and consequently their efficacy.
The last principle, sustainability, is to generate the means by which fighting power is sustained and freedom of action maintained. Which is where the larger issue of the economic front kicks in. Without that engine grinding back, the war against the pandemic will start sputtering.
These principles of war give us a road map. The only silver lining of a nation at war is that despite internal bickering, there is an opportunity to unleash its full potential. It is not the absolute lack of resources or knowledge that defeats nations but hubris of past victories, underestimating the adversary, and not altering strategy when required.
Raghu Raman is founding CEO, Natgrid
The views expressed are personal