Rough Times, Tough Measures

08 May 2020 | Posted by OP Singh, ADGP Haryana


In a month time that felt like an aeon, there is at last something to smile about. Indian prime minister has been rated in a survey as numero uno among global leaders in taking timely and effective countermeasures to prevent coronavirus outbreak. A moment of pride! But World Heath Organisation, the global health body, is strident. The threat held out by COVID19, it warns, is real, grave and ongoing. 

Detected in December last year in Wuhan city of China, it is the seventh subset of coronavirus and has unique characteristics. Instead of DNA, it  uses our RNA. It has spikes on the surface and it heads for our lungs right-away. It has reportedly skipped from bat to human in Wuhan’s WET market. The symptom ranging from dry cough, fever and fatal viral pneumonia is mild. Most of the infected do not even seek medical help and thus do not get  registered in the system. With incubation period of upto twenty-four days and puzzling feature of  asymptomatic transmission, the wily virus is hard to detect and contain.

Alanna Shekh, a public health expert, says that it is not the worst or the last pandemic we are battling. Climate change is making our planet more hospitable to virus and bacteria. Transgressions like clearing forests for land and hunting wild animals for food expose us to diseases against which we have no immunity. Our response in the form of quarantine protocols and travel restrictions cannot be put in place quickly enough for logistical and medical reasons. 

Death attributable to COVID19 is nearing 1.75 lakhs with no respite in sight. WHO, accused of shielding China’s irresponsible handling of the situation, is crying hoarse that relaxing lockdown in a huff will annul gain made over months in a matter of day. Anyone trying to play down the threat is being greeted with hell and fire. Elon Musk, the poster-boy of electric cars and Mars mission, was angrily trolled for suggesting that death-rate is exaggerated as ‘there is a difference between people dying from corona and dying with corona. 

One thing is sure. The jumpy virus will keep us stuck in a cleft for quite some time. Social distancing is an agonising demand for reversal of lifestyle we are so used to. Lockdown is destroying economies worldover. If we don’t take these measures, healthcare system will be overrun. Thousands and thousands will die preventable death. As we roll back lockdown, we have no idea how things will pan out. More than efficiency, on test will be system’s  resilience - its ability to thrive in a volatile and unpredictable environment. We may, however, take solace in the fact that we have a long history of outliving and even thriving with killers. Smoking kills 2740, drinking 720 and driving some 400 people every day in India alone. Most of the felled are young and productive. Yet, these killer sectors are booming and so are we. 

Let there be no doubt that COVID19 is not an angry goddess that has been propitiated by a month-long lockdown. It is a fast-moving virus, illing and killing us at will and there is no vaccine to calm it. Lockdown is suspension of normal life to buy time to arrange for more ICUs, ventilators, hospital beds, PPEs, test-kits, doctors and healthcare workers and keep the number of infected manageable. How effectively this period of tactical retreat is utilised to rev up healthcare system and how proportionately economy is restarted without spiking rate of transmission is a big challenge. People can help  by voluntarily avoiding unnecessary travel, wearing  masks, washing hands and observing social distance. Failing that, it will be ‘lockdown returns’. This time, it will be self-driven and inside-out with hotspots expanding its circumference wider and further. There will be preventable deaths. 

Police in India is facing a situation it is not used to. As area-bosses and incident-responders, life was  predictable for them. Power-equation with people was one-sided. Escalation meant requisition of more forces, more counter-violence. Pandemic is a rank new situation. It has got police involved in relief work. It requires it to secure isolation unobtrusively and enforce lockdown peacefully. Resultant strain of overwork is already showing with some of the policemen in different parts of the country getting suicidal and violent. Supervisory police officers will have to be clear and consistent in their communication and sensible in their interaction with their subordinates. They are working round-the-clock in a highly volatile situation and need to be treated with care and concern. 

It is widely believed that over the years, police has modernised itself in terms of equipments. But in its relation with people, it has maintained a voluntary ‘social distance’. It treats everybody with suspicion and as a potential offender. This approach morally justifies to itself its curt and abrasive behaviour. Its occasional abuse by vested interest for partisan ends has encouraged arbitrariness and intrusiveness in its functioning. The massive corona relief work that it has done is a kind of on-the-job training in tactical empathy. It has seen first-hand that even poor and weak matter. They just cannot be shooed away. It has also discovered that people do comply voluntarily if communication is clear and consistent. Let us hope that this experience will make our police more  proactive, empathetic and responsive. 

It will help if compensation for those laying down life on line of counter-COVID19 duty is optimised and its inter-state and inter-service variations are reconciled. Won’t it be fair to put in place a policy of one nation, one war, one compensation?