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Opinion

Running of the bulls | HT Editorial – Editorials

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Exactly a week has passed since Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a 21-day national blockade to combat Covid-19. Given the size and complexity of India, it has been a success. Images from across the country show that essential products are available and essential services continue to be provided. Sure, there have been lapses and gaps, but these are completely understandable given the magnitude of getting 1.3 billion people to follow a shutdown. This newspaper has always supported the need for a blockade as the only way to help India flatten the curve. But here are areas, based on last week’s experience, that will need work.

One, the exodus of migrant workers showed that the poorest and most vulnerable segments of society in India had been hit hard by the economic disruption caused by the closure. The fact that no arrangements were made to provide migrant workers with income, housing and food deepened the sense of crisis. This caused a human tragedy with thousands of migrants walking home hundreds of miles away, undermining the entire logic of the blockade and increasing the risk of people in rural areas becoming infected. It is clear that if the blockade is to be sustainable, the government will have to guarantee the economic livelihood of the poor in India. The finance minister has announced a cash and food aid package for the most vulnerable, but more is likely to be needed. Two, the panic purchase of essential supplies in the first two days of closing indicated the lack of faith that citizens had in the system (despite government assurances that these supplies would be maintained) and with each other. The absence, at least in the initial days, of clear rules to allow the movement of those responsible for the supplies and the fact that the police acted disproportionately against those that they considered offenders added to the shortage. This should be constantly corrected in the coming days.

Third, the government needs to use the shutdown period to increase testing, provide personal protective equipment to doctors, and obtain essential medical equipment, including ventilators. Certainly some steps have been taken in this regard. But the fact is that India is still testing at very low levels relative to its population; there have been outbreaks of cases in key groups; there is a delay in the provision of PPE to health workers; and the number of fans will be kept abysmally short if the cases increase. All of this needs to be remedied. The government has assumed a calculated risk by blocking the country; it must ensure that the remaining two weeks are used well and that both the health and economic dimensions of the crisis are addressed.

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