Lessons from the Pandemic

Perspective into the forgotten lessons from the first wave of coronavirus and the policy reforms required for future
Lessons from the Pandemic
Representational Image [Source: enriquelopezgarre from Pixabay]

The Chinese word for 'crisis' is a two syllabled phrase "Wei Ji", and in 1960, John F. Kennedy famously stated in one of his campaign speeches that -"In the Chinese language, the word "crisis" is composed of two characters, one representing danger and the other, opportunity".

It would be appropriate to clarify that Kennedy was incorrect as the interpretation supplied by Kennedy of "WEI JI" is a widespread public misperception of the actual meaning of the phrase. While, Kennedy may have faltered in letter, but his words capture the spirit of crisis as every crisis foisted upon humankind has begotten rapid innovation, invoked the zest for enterprise in every field, and most importantly, left valuable lessons for posterity.

Similarly, COVID has also spawned innovation and sparked entrepreneurial spirits while at the same time imparting many valuable lessons for all human endeavours ranging from personal to governmental.  However, humans, especially governments, in our part of the globe have failing memories and an innate "ability" to forget the grim of the past by submerging itself in the oblivion of hope. The governments of the day have failed to capitalise the crisis of COVID and have squandered the opportunity to introduce necessary systemic changes. The grim experience of the first wave has been fast forgotten as India once again finds itself in the face of a more resurgent and virulent wave of COVID.

Ad-hocism is no substitute for institutional planning

Digging wells when the house is on fire is a sign of unpreparedness, and we dug many wells when COVID was ravaging throughout the expanse of the country with ashes of the high death toll which is once again blazing.

While the response to the crisis and the dedicated effort of all concerned is laudable, the most visible lacunae was lack of coordination and a robust systemic response. Instead, the whole administration was acting purely instinctively and responding to needs as a knee jerk reaction. This ad hoc handling of an unprecedented situation was not only an administrative nightmare but also an ineffective manner of governance which had very little emphasis on resource allocation.

Interestingly, an active legislation of parliament in the form of Disaster Management Act, 2005 already provides for drawing up a "National Plan"for disaster management for the whole of the India which includes aspects ranging from mitigation, preparedness, capacity building plans to specific role of ministries. Similarly, the Act also envisages a State Plan to be drawn for each state. The said Act of parliament is extremely detailed and definitive and provides for all foreseeable circumstances which include loan repayment relief to special provision for women as well as orphans. Sadly, none of this was visible.

In legal jurisprudence, a law ordained by parliament is deemed to be a "Dead Letter" when it is not put into effect for long time. Despite having a dynamic and robust legislation in place, there was neither a National Plan nor any State Plan which was invoked. There was  conspicuous absence of a first responder team and an expert team of dedicated individuals which could be summoned to tackle issues of extreme expertise which were beyond the capacity of bureaucracy. In this case, it was not the elapse of time but the severity and lack of planning which may have rendered the Disaster Management Act as a Dead Letter.

While dead cannot be brought to life, life can surely be breathed into the Disaster Management Act by empowering the National Executive Council and respective State Executive Councils to draw up comprehensive plans which can be implemented for the future disasters that may befall us.

Healthcare systems need overhaul

Healthcare is a low priority in India across the board from an individual level to institutional level. Starting from macro economic stage, in FY 2020 India spent a measly 1.5% of its GDP on healthcare. In comparison, the public expenditure of China  is 2.9% while that of USA is 14.3%.

While 2.9% in the case of China may not seem any better than the 1.5% of India; but considering the size of both economies, the expenditure of China is almost double than that of India in terms of % of respective GDP. The disparity becomes more stark when the actual figures are revealed; the current annual expenditure by China is USD One Trillion (Equivalent to Y 6.5 trillion) as compared to approximate figure of USD Ten Billion (equivalent to Rs. 70,000 Crore). The difference is staggering, almost 100 times less than that of China. What is most interesting is that in 2000-2001, China spent USD 500 Million as compared to USD 375 Million spent by India for the same period.

On micro level, the health insurance penetration in India is 35%, which is abysmally low for a constitutionally self proclaimed socialist state.  The figures are equally abysmal when indicators like hospital beds per capita, doctors per capita and accessibility to primary health care on a broad based level is considered.

As we stand, the public healthcare system is marred by corruption, low quality delivery and barrier of access. The revised Healthcare Policy -2017 is an unworkable model for revamping the system, and the Public Health Foundation of India floated in 2006 for policy making has been reduced to a bureaucratic sinecure without any teeth or domain expertise which gets translated into action.

The healthcare policy needs a serious relook, and the Public Health Foundation of India need to made more intrinsic with governmental and executive functioning so that the concerted efforts of policy and executive could bear actual results.

Social security is inadequate

While India maybe a self professed socialistic republic, the social security measures have been proven inadequate to deal with the double whammy of public health crisis and economic slowdown.

By April 2020, the most vulnerable segment of society was on its last gasp of breath and left to fend for itself. There was no social security measure which such vulnerable group of individuals could resort to for ensuring sustenance and succour.

After the Great Depression in 1933, at the heels of worst economic crisis and employment, Franklin D Roosevelt, 32nd President of USA introduced the "NEW DEAL" programs which provided support for all farmers, unemployed youth and elders along with banking reforms and checks on Wall Street. The New Deal provided much needed social security that strengthened the middle class which eventually bore great dividends in the coming decades where USA emerged as an indisputable economic powerhouse.

Right now, the poor and marginalised in India have to make do with the raw deal being dealt at them by successive governments which have shown no concern for policy and catered only towards electoral politics. If there is any time for a New Deal  in India, it is now.

Slum redevelopment cannot be delayed

By reference to slums, one should not be misled into imagining kucha houses with thatched roofs. The meaning of slums has now taken a modern connotation where unchecked civil constructions in and around cities has mushroomed without any planning or regard to socio-economic needs like sanitation, healthcare or public spaces.

Scores of Indians belong to the middle and lower middle class live in urban slums and ghettos which have contributed to the spread of pandemic. Here again, the misery which has befallen the common masses is on account of lack of political will and vested political interest which have ensured that the can of  slum rehabilitation is kicked down the road.

Urban and town planning in India is a joke, the number of planned cities and reliance on expertise is worrying trend. Lack of foresight and farsighted vision is a contributor to the woes of public and town planning in India.

The above four lessons are invaluable, and have been learnt by all of us at cost of our lives, well-being and wealth.  What is required is true statesmanship and acceptance of expertise in public policy making. The only fear is that the bane of memory may fade away these invaluable lessons and we will go back to the same system of incompetence which will hold us in good stead only until the next disaster strikes.

Justice MC Chagla had authored his autobiography with the title "Roses in December". The title was taken from the quote of James Barrie "God gave us our memories so that we can remember roses in December. " It is a profound hope and prayer to providence that the gift of memory keeps recounting the thorns of pandemic in our minds so that we can look forward to the roses which bloom along with it.

Shadab Showkat Jan is an Advocate, Bombay High Court

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