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

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

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.”

Vidya Krishnan is a writer and journalist. Her first book, Phantom Plague: The Untold Story of How Tuberculosis Shaped our History, will be published by PublicAffairs in 2021.

Keywords: COVID-19 Narendra Modi public health Pinarayi Vijayan Kerala