High on talk, low on substance: Modi’s speech showed India is ill-prepared for COVID

On 19 March, Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed the nation about the escalating COVID-19 pandemic. He did not outline any mitigation strategy.
20 March, 2020

History will record that on 19 March, in his first national address in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Prime Minister Narendra Modi advised Indians to imitate Italian lockdown singing—to thank the doctors, nurses and emergency responders combating the public-health crisis—for five minutes on one Sunday, from their balconies. He also compared the pandemic to the world wars, and spoke about the explosion of COVID cases around the world. The one topic conspicuously absent from Modi’s speech, and probably the most pressing need from the nation’s leader in this time of crisis, was the government’s mitigation strategy.

His government has not offered a financial package or extra infrastructural support to the medical staff on the ground, though they are fast running out of personal protection equipment, such as masks, face shields, and gowns, et cetera. “The speech was largely an emotional one, asking for voluntarism from the people, rather than provide specific information about the mitigation strategy,” Dr Yogesh Jain, a public-health doctor and a founding member of Jan Swasthya Sahyog—or People’s Health Movement, an NGO that provides healthcare in rural Chhattisgarh—said. “I don’t think it will, in any way assuage the concerns of citizens or the medical staff, as cases surge. He just compared it to world wars and then went on to ask us to clap from balconies, show restraint and resolve without telling us anything about what the government is doing in this war-like situation.”

The dramatic centrepiece of Modi’s speech was a call for a “janata curfew”—or people’s curfew—on 22 March, a one-day lockdown. The scientific merit of a one-day lockdown is unclear within public-health circles, but it is possibly being seen as a trial run for longer lockdowns that may follow. He did not address the snowballing controversy about India being among the countries with the lowest testing rates in the world for COVID-19. He did not respond to concerns about the number of testing kits available in the country. He also did not address how, and at what costs, the COVID-19 treatment would be made available to citizens. All this while experts have warned that India is staring at a tsunami of cases in the coming weeks.

Modi’s televised address, clearly aimed at calming citizens as well as the stock market, did not do either. What it did do was clarify that the Indian government would not be transparent with its mitigation strategy, and was not prioritising the needs of the medical community in the time of a public-health crisis.

Medical staff on the front lines of this battle, who had been expecting reinforcements, expressed their disappointment on Twitter. Dr Shalika Malviya, a family-medicine specialist from Tamil Nadu, tweeted, “Pls don’t come out at 5pm on Sunday to applaud us. Instead stand where ever you are n ask ur PM to giv u more tests, tests, tests for COVID19. Ask for more hosp beds, ventilators masks PPE for healthcare workers, Ask for financial back up for the most vulnerable.” Similarly, Dr Afreen Usman, whose husband is caring for COVID patients, tweeted, “As a doctor myself and as wife of a doctor who is working with Corona Virus patients, let me assure you that we don’t want people clapping for us, what we really need is more testing kits, better quarantine facilities, hazmat suits, more awareness and I mean correct awareness.”

As is now characteristic with Modi’s speeches, he asked citizens to perform their duties, without explaining what his government was doing about its responsibility towards the nation’s health security. His speech also failed to address the fundamental ways that COVID-19 threatens India, or provide information about how the country was effectively responding to the crisis. In fact, it is a matter of concern that both the health ministry and the Indian Council of Medical Research—the nodal government body responsible for framing the country’s policy and ground response to the pandemic—continue to downplay the possibility of community transmission. The ICMR has stated that it collected 1020 random samples—a small size considering India’s population of 1.3 billion—of which, 826 have tested negative for COVID-19, and on that basis, the nodal agency has concluded that there is no community transmission in India.

The Indian government has maintained this position even as the World Health Organisation categorised India among the countries having local transmission. India has joined countries such as Italy, Korea and China in the category, each of which have shown high burdens of the virus and ongoing human-to-human contagion domestically. “If this is true, and there is no community transmission, how come dire measures like implementing the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 are being invoked?” a public-health expert asked, on the condition of anonymity. “Why should we practice lockdowns, if there is no local transmission? The government is saying both things, and not taking decisions in the interest of national public health.”

Modi also urged the citizens to follow the directives of the government. “Today, 130 crore Indians will have to strengthen their resolve that they will perform their duties to fight this global pandemic, they will have to resolve to follow guidelines set out by state and central government,” he said, speaking to the nation. The prime minister’s speech stood in stark contrast to a speech by the chief minister of Kerala, Pinarayi Vijayan.

On the same day that Modi called upon Indians to bang utensils and clap from their balconies in his COVID address, Vijayan announced a Rs 20,000 crore financial package to tide over the crisis in the southern state, which has reported 25 cases so far. The Kerala government’s multi-crore package comprised Rs 500 crore dedicated to health services; Rs 2,000 crore towards loans and free ration; Rs 1,000 crores towards rural employment guarantee programmes, and Rs 1,320 crore towards social-security pension. The state earmarked Rs 100 crore to provide Rs 1,000 to each individual falling below the poverty line and who is not receiving a social-security pension. As part of the package, the state government also announced that it would hire a string of 1,000 low-cost eateries where it would provide food at Rs 20. The government further stated that consumers would be given a month to clear their electricity and water bills, and film theatres would receive an entertainment tax waiver.

It is abundantly clear Kerala is among the better prepared states in India. It is even clearer that the prime minister failed in his responsibility to outline any strategy to deal with this public-health crisis. Yet, not only has the centre been unable to chart out a mitigation strategy, it seems to be actively preventing other states from doing so. On 20 March, the central government moved the Supreme Court seeking a stay against orders passed by the Allahabad High Court and the Kerala High Court that restrained the centre from recovering revenue dues such as the goods and services tax and income tax in order to cut down litigation amid the pandemic. On the same day, a three-judge bench comprising AM Khanwilkar, Vineet Saran and Krishna Murari stayed the high court orders.

Meanwhile, the confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus are increasing rapidly across the world, with the WHO reporting 209,839 cases and 8,778 deaths across 168 countries. India has reported 206 positive cases and five deaths.