New DElhi, March 22, 2020: Given the limited number of corona cases in India nearly eight weeks after the outbreak was first detected in China, it is easy to get lulled into complacency. Narendra Modi delivered a truly prime ministerial speech on Thursday to dispel that notion. Every nation, he told the country’s citizens, has a slow infection rate, and then it gallops.
India took nine days to reach 50 infections, data from covidindia.org shows, then took just five days to reach 100, three days to reach 150, and only two to reach 200. Since there is no cure or preventive vaccine anywhere in the world, the prime minister told Indians that ’social distancing’ was the only way to check the spread.
To give a recent example, Hindi film singer Kanika Kapoor returned from London and hosted a party that was attended by BJP MP Dushyant Singh and his mother, former Rajasthan CM Vasundhara Raje; Kapoor has since tested positive for corona, and with Singh having gone to Parliament and even met president Kovind, there is a chance the virus could have spread. And, while there is a debate on whether India has done enough testing, the fact is, the country doesn’t have anywhere near sufficient kits to test enough people; social distancing is critical.
The prime minister advised employers to let people work out of home, and not to cut their salaries if they didn’t come to work. As this comes under the purview of state governments, he couldn’t shut offices down but, in Maharashtra, the chief minister has announced a shutdown of big cities like Mumbai and Pune, and in Delhi, all non-essential shops have been shut.
Unlike Maharashtra, Delhi has not ordered the shutting of non-essential businesses and services. By talking of Janata Curfew-a self-imposed one, on Sunday-Modi is trying to rally the country around an achievable goal. If it works-and it should-it should be relatively easier to prepare people for larger shutdowns in case the virus spread rises.
If something was missing in this prime ministerial address, it was the specifics of what the government will be doing; this is also vital if the country’s citizenry is to feel assured. It is, for instance, all very well for the prime minister to exhort employers not to dock wages if employees don’t come to work, but how many can afford to do this, or will be inclined to be so humane? What the PM needed to give was specific assurances of what the government plans to do, not to leave it to a group set up under the finance minister.
Ideally, this would be just as good-and it might still be-but in the past, the response of government to crises has been quite sluggish, as we continue to see in the case of the telecom industry. While RBI has made some important moves to keep yields under check, look at what some other countries have announced.
The Bank of England has cut interest rates to almost zero, and added £200 billion to its asset purchase programme, while the ECB has launched a €750 billion debt-purchase plan on top of the €120 billion one last week, and plans to subsidise loans to banks. And, in response to president Trump’s trillion dollar stimulus-half of which would be cheques to individuals-the Republican Senate has already come out with a plan that it will negotiate with the Democrats; Canada’s plan also has cheques for individuals.
While the prime minister has let this opportunity pass-possibly, the need to sensitise his countrymen was greater in the PM’s first outing-his government must announce a plan to give money to the vulnerable every week, as well as relief to MSMEs (no tax-relief for big corporates please), which includes, for instance, a 90-day reprieve for repayments of bank loans.
It must also, in consultation with the states, centrally announce details of the number of beds in isolation centres, the amount by which random testing is to be increased, number of cities in lockdown, etc. Citizens may do their bit after the prime minister’s excellent exhortation, but they need to know what he plans to do as well.