India is on the right path in its fight against Covid-19 but the road ahead is long


When the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) reached this country at the end of January, Indians woke to the possibility of a deadly, insidious and highly transmissible virus coursing through a densely-populated landscape. Prime Minister Narendra Modi wrestled with a conundrum — to wait for it to become serious enough to attack or to pre-empt its advance and take action that required people to make sacrifices now.

Modi decided to protect India by all means possible from the greatest health security threat of our times. By global standards, and in contrast to developed countries, he was ahead of the curve in fighting the war and took precautionary measures to limit its spread.

The government took decisive measures to prevent India from moving to stage three: Community transmission — through border controls, visa suspensions, testing, quarantining of passengers, and a ban on international flights. The “Janata curfew” (people’s curfew) and the 21-day nationwide lockdown announced by Modi on March 24 was a clarion call to fight the pandemic together. This call must be heeded. And the World Health Organization (WHO) was right in stating that political positioning and point-scoring must be avoided to focus on readiness, response and recovery.

All of India, all in government, all of society stood by the government in its efforts not just to contain the virus, test, stop community spread, and treat, but also to build morale and contribute to global efforts to find a vaccine and cure. This was praised by WHO, G20 and the regional and global communities.

To demonstrate a karma yogi’s universal empathy and compassion for those facing hardship and distress, special economic relief packages and social welfare measures are being implemented. The PM-CARES Fund is welcome. Philanthropy is flourishing.

The breathing space provided by the lockdown must be used to augment the infrastructure needed for quarantine and hospitalisation of Covid-19 patients if the worst-case scenario comes to pass. From testing capacities to protection gear for health workers, from ventilators and hospital facilities to medicines, India needs to manufacture, import, procure, build and supply on a massive scale. Partnership with all stakeholders — private sector, civil society, law enforcement and even the armed forces for their logistical capabilities — will be crucial.

In the next few weeks, critical questions must be answered. Will the lockdown break the chain of contagion? Will Covid-19 die with the heat of the Indian summer and return in winter? How do we phase in normal economic activities after April 14 and restore road, rail and air connectivity within India and internationally? How do we best calibrate, pace and sequence resumption of normal work and social patterns to beat the virus and save the economy?

Modi must be preparing for both the best-case scenario and the worst-case scenario until the vaccine and therapeutics are available (which they are likely to be in 12-18 months, according to WHO). Vaccine development is a long and painstaking process — from isolating the virus, clinical trials and testing, pilot production, full-scale manufacturing, purchase by governments and health systems, dealing with patent issues, distribution and use on a mass scale to inoculate and fortify the population.

Hope springs eternal in our hearts that a miracle will deliver the vaccine sooner. Promising ones are already being developed and tested in the biotech/pharma realm with public-private partnership at national and international levels — German firm Curevac/German government, the US National Research Institutes supported by the global coalition founded by India and Norway, Israel’s Institute of Viral Research, Pasteur Institute of France and the Indian Council of Medical Research and Serum Institute of India.

Influenza has posed the greatest threat to public health. WHO’s classification of pandemic phases is based on influenza and previous H1N1, SARS and swine flu outbreaks also originating from China and the Far East. India will hopefully shape and strengthen existing and potential norms, mechanisms and funds for a more effective and comprehensive global influenza pandemic prevention,detection and response architecture, building on but going beyond the WHO 2011 and 2017 Pandemic influenza Preparedness Framework. If victory over Covid-19 is to be sustainable, the world must come together now for the future.

(Lakshmi Puri is a former assistant secretary general, United Nations, former deputy executive director of UN Women and former acting deputy secretary general of UNCTAD. This is the second in a three-part series by the writer. The views expressed are personal)

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