Home >Opinion >Columns >Steps to shift the narrative from recrimination to reconstruction

Nicholas Wade was a science reporter for several reputed media platforms. His long post, ‘Origins of Covid: Following the Clues’ makes a powerful case for the lab-leak theory. With recent revelations in an Australian newspaper that Chinese military officials had documented the idea of using the Sars-coronavirus as a bioweapon back in 2015, the question to be pursued is whether it was an accidental leak of a bio-weapon under development. The pandemic’s outbreak did help unseat the incumbent in America.

After a few initial missteps, India handled its first wave rather well on both health and economic grounds. With the presentation of a path-breaking budget on 1 February, India was poised to emerge stronger from the virus that first surfaced in Wuhan, China. Then India’s second wave happened. Indians have suffered enormously, be it physically, financially or psychologically. Notwithstanding the claims of some that they had warned the government, no credible evidence of a precise warning on the scale, intensity and timing of India’s second wave has emerged. Was the Indian variant of the virus on the same mission that the original version was in America last year?

However, unanswered questions on the origin and intent (if any) of the virus should not blind us to positive signs, nor the need for action against the ongoing pandemic. First, consider the positives.

The ruling party at the Centre lost some key state elections heavily. It means that our electronic voting and counting system are fair and our elections are not manipulated, regardless of adverse comments on the fairness of the Election Commission, just as the 25% economic contraction in the first quarter of 2020-21 dispelled doubts on the integrity of national income statistics. The media has been strongly critical of the government on covid. This is not a sign of a society where free speech is throttled, notwithstanding the attempts of many Indian commentators to paint India in such a light. Third, not just one district magistrate in Nandurbar, but several districts and even states have prepared themselves well. Our public administration has elements that can be nurtured and expanded.

Now to the actions. Students and teachers of economics in India have got an abject lesson in what makes up a nation’s potential growth rate. Most of us have grown up on an economics diet fed by American economists. The focus, especially in recent years, has been on driving economic growth through monetary policy, financial liberalization and maybe fiscal policy.

The positive pay-off from making public health a priority may be unseen, but the damage—political, economic and reputational—that accrues from ignoring it is enormous. As with most things in public economic policy, the pay-off is asymmetric, and economists who’ve been steeped for decades in the simple linearity of modern economic theories rarely understand asymmetry.

The government could appoint a national task force—with chief ministers of different states and parties—on public health. Its task should be to improve India’s ratio of hospital beds, doctors and nurses to its population, taking it to acceptable levels. The government can come up with some catchy slogans: say, ‘Make public hospitals the pride of India’ or ‘Atmanirbhar healthcare’. The government could track, monitor and report on its progress to the public.

In this regard, a paper by Bibek Debroy, ‘Seven Governance Issues Raised by Covid’, published in Indian Public Policy Review last November, can serve as a blueprint for policy and legislative reforms. The essay highlights seven legal and governance issues that need addressing for India’s public health delivery and outcomes to improve. The paper calls for a comprehensive review of the Constitution’s seventh schedule, which demarcates areas of responsibility between the Union and states, and also has a concurrent list of overlaps. Perhaps the government would do well to set up a committee—with multi-political party representation—to study a report prepared by the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy on reforming the seventh schedule and propose recommendations.

In a forthcoming book, Niall Ferguson notes that America developed a vaccine in three months from the first reported instance of infection during the ‘Asian Flu’ of 1957-58. So, the short time-frame that covid vaccines took for development should not deter recipients. We need an imaginative campaign to overcome vaccine hesitancy. Of course, as I have written in an earlier column, India’s current vaccine procurement policy is in need of a rethink and revamp.

There is no policy success without managing perceptions and politics. Justified or not, in a crisis, the buck goes all the way up. This is partly due to the perceived centralization of decision-making, which was, in part, a response to issues of competence, skill, purpose and capture in individual departments and ministries. Given today’s public perceptions, the government’s top leadership should consider offering a reassuring message to the nation that mixes contrition, composure and confidence.

These are tough times for India. But the adage that a crisis also represents an opportunity holds true.

V. Anantha Nageswaran is a member of the Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister.

These are the author’s personal views.

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