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Ensuring Health And Welfare In A Crisis - Lessons To Learn From A Pandemic

There are many arguments on how we could have managed things better and some of these are valid, but the lessons we learn through this journey are important too.

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The COVID-19 pandemic is upon us and the priority at this stage is to galvanise the nation to defeat it. If we don’t unite now to fight the spread of the novel coronavirus, the consequences could be catastrophic. I am optimistic, however, that we will overcome this pandemic. Our country and citizens should understand that we need harsh measures to counter its spread. Compliance to guidelines is paramount today. There are many arguments on how we could have managed things better and some of these are valid, but the lessons we learn through this journey are important too. I will try and list some for policymakers, politicians and citizens to reflect on.

· Invest in a national healthcare infrastructure - The need has never been more acute for infrastructure that can gear up at short notice to be available with all the necessary support equipment. We must also consider infrastructure in the broader sense. We may need not just hospitals but community halls, food distribution points and local material storage depots, as well as human resources in the form of field workers, community coordinators, etc to be a part of this composite response infrastructure. We must build community halls in every school, ideally on stilts above possible flood lines. We also need to improve hygiene at government facilities so as to avoid resistance by the public to visit and self-report.

· Forge a unified, transparent and autonomous communications process that keeps everyone informed and through which state advisories are transmitted. We also need to assemble a team of experts who will validate decisions on scale of testing, lockdown durations etc.

· Recognise that these outbreaks can cause massive displacement and we have to cater to the transient population in our cities. The needs can be diverse and often require housing, medical access and food. The government should have the ability to use facilities like schools as temporary housing facilities for such vulnerable groups.

· Understand that sanitation and hygiene are pre-requisites to defeating widespread pandemics. Highly dense areas like our slums do not lend themselves to measures like social distancing and they necessitate aid to come in by foot to administer surveys, deliver provisions, fumigate, enforce quarantine, etc—effectively putting these frontline workers too at risk. We need to take a long-term view here to resolve this.

· Protect end-to-end supply chains. In the early days of the lockdown, shortages caused by mass shutdowns and absence of staffing caused a rush to stockpile. Some of the crowding was absolutely unnecessary and likely did more damage than help. This is a key piece to making any lockdown work. I know there will be differing views on this but maybe we should consider the deploying of the military or para-military forces to manage the supply chains of essentials. Perhaps even consider in the long run creating a National Disaster Recovery Army, like the Territorial Army, that is trained for and can help with hotspot administration and support to the local enforcement machinery. This is distinct from the National Disaster Relief Force, which is more rescue-oriented.

· Clarify lockdown exemptions and have a clear ID mechanism understood by all concerned, especially the law enforcement agencies. There is a people challenge in scaling up a nationwide e-commerce support and delivery infrastructure.

· Engage with institutions of faith and religious orders to desist from calling large gatherings and pass necessary guidelines to believers. Most folks are reasonable and will comply in the broader interest. Those being deviant must be dealt with appropriately and made examples of. The Government can only do so much. If the citizens don’t play their part it becomes impossible to contain such outbreaks.

· Increase investment in national communications bandwidth to enable scaling at short notice and facilitate work from home, including for our education system.

· Create a national support fund encouraged with tax dispensations for rewarding, compensating and supporting on an ongoing basis all the categories of staff who work and keep essential services going during such crises. They put themselves through so much to keep the basic infrastructure going and we have to ensure that they are taken care of in every way.

· Co-opt the private sector into the campaign efforts. The prime minister has already set up a task force to create a bridge between the public and private sector at such times.

· Secure the health of our financial institutions. Early announcements to support them with liquidity, credit dispensations and lines must be made and rolled out. Similarly, the small businesses and the unorganized sector see huge impact, which we must anticipate to some extent. Damage to these sectors is often long-lasting and irredeemable. Yet they form the backbone of our economy and we have to be cognisant of their vulnerabilities.

· Offer social security to the poor and displaced. Given the decent penetration of the Jan Dhan program and access to the banking system, we must use the same to create a sense of security, as well as spur demand.

· Scale up and strengthen the government’s Integrated Disease Surveillance Program (IDSP) and National Disaster Relief Force (NDRF). The government must consider national and state level DR drills by enforcing lockdown-like situations, even after we return to normalcy. The preparedness will hold us in good stead. Maybe we can even consider one Sunday every month as a national lockdown day, driven by the belief that the well-being of society is as important as GDP and other economic barometers.

· Develop a firm plan that helps our society navigate the post-lockdown period with the systematic and controlled reopening of public spaces and facilities. Support this with

intensive testing and predictive technologies. Flattening the curve further will help the system cope with demands on medical care facilities and increase the time available to research vaccines, cures and antidotes.

Last but not the least, we have to recognise these cardinal truths:

1. We are this Earth. We need nature on our side. We need to constantly reinforce the learning that we can’t keep plundering natural resources and not hope to face any consequences.

2. We are a society with deep-rooted inequalities. The harsh truth is that measures like social distancing are a factor of privilege. We must work towards a fairer world where resources are seen as belonging to all and not just to the few.

3. We are an interconnected world. No ‘othering’ is possible anymore. Being a global interconnected world has its advantages but it also means that somebody else’s problem can soon be ours too.

4. We need to consume consciously. We need to revisit our perceptions of what we really need to live and be contented.

5. We need our support systems. We need family, friends and community. Let us recognise that, invest in them and make time for the bonds that sustain us in a crisis.

The central government and some state governments are doing exemplary work. The PM’s decision to go for a 21-day national lockdown was decisive. States like Maharashtra and Kerala have shown the way in handling situations on-ground. A common platform for sharing best practices is the need of the hour. We as a nation have to believe that we will win this battle.

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.

Tags assigned to this article:
health wealth crisis COVID-19

Paul Abraham

President, Hinduja Foundation

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