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Covid & Chaos: India #Withstood!

Critique is a piece of writing that describes the good and bad points of somebody/something; Criticism is an expression of what one thinks is bad about somebody / something. This is a critique about the Covid handling in the Indian “Black month”. Yet #IndiaWithstood

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The Black month 
When one is upset or hurt or grieving, anger is a common emotion. Similar was the public sentiment in India, in the month of April and much of the month of May. It was triggered by the countless prayers, anxious calls, desperate attempts for getting a hospital bed / oxygen bed / medicines / ambulance and so on. It also saw a spontaneous demonstration of humane values; of the kindred citizens sharing and forwarding messages on their various whatsapp groups, social media etc - messages of those whom they never knew or will ever meet. Volunteering to reach out and amplify the plea for help !

It was also evident of the sense of frustration and citizen anger that we had to go through these “lack-of-basic-infra” suffering in the very first place. And not a public figure apologised or voiced remorse for it !

5th April 2021 to 17th May 2021 is that Black month, that all of us have lived through and felt like it was a lifetime. Sadly when many lives were lost and far greater number of families, their hopes and happiness destroyed. 5th April was when India touched one lakh covid daily new infections, a figure that rose to 4.14 lakhs before falling and continuing to fall. For anyone who has studied basic statistics or economics will recognise the almost perfect bell-shaped curve being formed. Statistics, one may say, hides the real value of life because each individual though only a number, is actually so much more. Every single life matters !

It’s another “touchy” topic that currently is a black-hole at best. “Real” number of deaths across the country is one subject that will haunt us if we don’t address them soon enough and raise above policy / polity narratives and look at it from human angle; and bring those human expectations to build a policy framework with our digital capabilities for real-time real-statistics. Despite these, it is time to recognise that India Withstood the black swan event, the tsunami or any other adjective we can use for what will remain in our lives a marker. And an evidence of what each of us individually, and collectively as India, withstood in spite of all that we might have read and seen.

Frontline vaccination & backroom leaders
The Indian death toll has been a high count; if is any solace, it is one of the lowest & lowest proportion per population in the world; even the harsher critics like The Economist accept this. After much criticism, including from the foreign media and WhatsApp university experts, one wonders why nothing positive has been written about how the bureaucracy recouped and met this unprecedented challenge.

The health infrastructure, in spite of the sheer numbers held up, with immediate redressal of the cracks. A ventilator or a ECMO machine (terms we become familiar with), is just the hardware; it has a human interface requirement. That human interface is the doctor, paramedic staff and support staff.  This human interface held up, not because the virus was friendly but because the vaccination to front line workers had been done.

Vaccination saved and will continue saving lives. Without vaccines, if this wave was in 2020 (which it was averted due to the lockdown), the death toll and the collapse of health infrastructure would have happened, as frontline staff would have been vulnerable to the virus, with resultant outcome catastrophic.

India withstood, not because of any miracle, but because there were concentrated efforts made, responses deliberated, decisions taken and followup done by more than a few good women & men, officers who were not in the limelight and never will be - the unsung heroes. While we saw minute by minute updates and commentaries on the oxygen crisis, not many of us heard the backroom war room stories. It would be just if the larger media chronicles such stories, more to capture what worked and what did not work. A good society is judged by the way it archives its learnings for future generations.

To put it in perspective, India does 2 million RTPCR tests a day today in over 2500 laboratories, which has risen from 1 in January 2020 and will rise further to 4000 laboratories by the end of the year. The Police Commissioner of Noida, Mr Alok Singh, ensured that any and every appeal went answered, on any social media platform. Mr. Rahul Kumar, DM in Bihar ensured that oxygen didn’t fail and as a result his district did not go from crisis to disaster. The collector of Hyderabad Ms. Sweta Mohanty, led from the front , because of whom Hyderabad managed Covid situation better than Bengaluru. The examples are innumerable, each helping ensure that the India did not collapse.

The Empowered Group for Oxygen that was notified by the Government worked every day, to ensure & coordinate supply of medical oxygen and essential medical equipments. This was a task easier said than done, considering that the logistics of it in a geography like India and with the Centre-State coordination challenges. The group headed by Dr Guruprasad Mohapatra, an IAS officer who heads DPIIT (Department for Promotion of Industry and Internal Trade) worked till he was wheeled into the hospital, where he is still recovering.

These Empowered Groups themselves were established early on, in April 2020 just as the crisis began, on the directions of the Prime Minister, allowing for quick decision making. There have been countless followup or review meetings with stakeholders including the PM, CMs, and even District Magistrates participating; which provided a platform for sorting out constraints in public services delivery and for speedier decision making; and serves as a framework for institutional leadership.

Another case study would be that of Mumbai’s Covid general Mr Iqbal Chhal, Commissioner of BMC, who led from the front and yet away from the limelight. Another name one hears from reading Mr Chahal’s interview is that of Mr. Rajiv Gauba, Union Cabinet Secretary. Until that interview, not much was known about the functioning and silent backroom leadership provided by the Cabinet Secretary. Like the 24-hour real-time decisioning with WhatsApp groups with every Secretary level officer and every Chief Secretary across India. This is similar to how corporate honchos stay in touch with leaders of their large diversified multi-sectoral businesses.

To say nothing is or was done, is often the easiest course of action, Doubting Thomas’s have had an appeal since time itself because it requires no action, just questioning. Further more, the stunning silence from the current dispensation, which actually created the way in how the social media engagement & amplification should be, provided fodder for more Naysayers. Proactive regular public briefing would go a long way in assuaging frayed nerves.

Critique is democratic backbone
In public services arena, the ultimate accountability rests with the bureaucracy and polity’s executive decision makers. Lack of right information at the right time, or lack of relevant data or not collating of data or sharing it are gaps that could create further panic amongst the citizens. The black month may seem like infinitely long in todays age of instant gratification, yet in public policy space is a good checkpost for evaluation and shaping future narrative.

Our planning could do with better learning from what we missed. Classic example and a to-be-case-study in many a B-schools would be our vaccination purchase behaviour. We missed the boat and semantics saved us from optics. Yet we bounced back to set the detailed vaccination drive back on track. We should forgive, but not forget. Use these learnings to quickly build a National disaster management Playbook !

Similar is the urgency to build robust healthcare system across India and not waste the learnings from this crisis. Hopefully we will be humble enough to accept and acknowledge that we do not have all the answers, but we shall always strive in finding the answers soon enough! That could be a game changer for the societal tolerance towards accepting responses to major calamities.

It may be a good time to recognise that we as a nation are resilient in the face of adversity; that we have systems that deliver however rickety they might seem, maybe not as perfectly as we would want it to, yet neither as badly, as social or vested media makes it out to be. The focus has to remain in building-capacity, so that we can overcome any third wave. And to increase and deliver on our vaccination-for-all promise. I am sure like India Withstood, scarred yet resilient, battered butbreathing, India will rise back on its feet, sprinting to its rightful place.  

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

Srinath Sridharan

Independent markets commentator. Media columnist. Board member. Corporate & Startup Advisor / Mentor. CEO coach. Strategic counsel for 25 years, with leading corporates across diverse sectors including automobile, e-commerce, advertising, consumer and financial services. Works with leaders in enabling transformation of organisations which have complexities of rapid-scale-up, talent-culture conflict, generational-change of promoters / key leadership, M&A cultural issues, issues of business scale & size. Understands & ideates on intersection of BFSI, digital, ‘contextual-finance’, consumer, mobility, GEMZ (Gig Economy, Millennials, gen Z), ESG. Well-versed with contours of governance, board-level strategic expectations, regulations & nuances across BFSI & associated stakeholder value-chain, challenges of organisational redesign and related business, culture & communication imperatives.

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