Since 2000 Odisha under the leadership of its Chief Minister Shri Naveen Patnaik has set an excellent global benchmark of governance in managing natural disasters and ensuring almost zero human casualties. On 13th March 2020 Shri Patnaik and his Cabinet provided exemplary leadership for the entire country and indeed the world by declaring COVID-19, Corona Virus Disease, as a disaster for the State under the provisions of Disaster Management Act, 2005. It was done to adequately empower public officials to combat the spread of COVID-19 which Shri Patnaik described as the biggest challenge beyond the comprehension of humanity.
In doing so Odisha set a trend and next day, on 14th March 2020, the Union Government declared and notified COVID-19 as a disaster. Such pronouncement of Odisha Government assumes significance in the context of World Health Organisation declaring corona spread as a global health emergency and global pandemic.
While Odisha has a globally acclaimed record of saving millions of human lives from recurrent natural calamities it is hoped that the State would succeed in saving its four and half crore people from the corona disaster. Such hopes are generated from the illuminating statement issued by Shri Patnaik in the State Assembly and the corresponding measures taken to prevent spread of this new deadly virus. These measures included allocation of Rupees 250 crores to deal with the pandemic, adoption of practice of ruthless social distancing, espousal of hand washing and respiratory protocols, enforcement of quarantine procedure for suspected cases, shutting down schools and educational institutions, mandatory registration of people visiting Odisha from abroad and advancement payment of old age pensions and other social security pensions to people so that they should not undergo economic hardships. One of the steps taken by the Government mandated that all those from the State who return to Odisha from abroad would mandatorily register in twenty four hours of their arrival and each one of them would be provided Rupees 15,000 during the fourteen day quarantine period which they have to undergo in their respective homes and houses.
It is worth quoting the exact words of Chief Minister's statement of 13th March 2020. He said, "Very few times in the history of the world have human beings as a race faced challenges beyond their comprehension. With advances in science, this phenomenon has become a rarity. However, the last 45 days has seen human beings as a race facing one of the biggest challenges of the century". The manner in which he expressed the magnitude of the disaster brought out the gravity of the problem and the severity of its spread across the world. In fact the statement of the Chief Minister in the State Assembly constituted so far the best and eloquent statement by any leader of our country outlining the totality of the menace COVD-19 posed to every aspect of the collective life of humanity.
Nehru said Disaster like Peace and Freedom has become Indivisible
The pervasiveness of the threat emanating from global spread of Corona virus and its universal impact cutting across all barriers was brilliantly summed up in the statement in which it is stated with anguish and anxiety, “We are faced with a threat that does not discriminate between developed countries and under developed countries between democratic or non-democratic countries. Rich and poor societies all are equally vulnerable”. It reminds us of the immortal words of India's first Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru who in his famous "Tryst with Destiny Speech" had famously said with rare prescience, " Peace has been said to be indivisible; so is freedom, so is prosperity now, and so also is disaster in this one world that can no longer be split into isolated fragments."
Odisha stressed on a Common and Unified Response to Carona threat
Indeed the indivisibility of disaster caused by Corona virus and indispensability of a common and unified response from the Government, civil society and people at large was underlined by Shri Patnaik when he asserted and urged by saying that “This response cannot be only at the individual, Government or sectoral level. Each one of us in Odisha has to rise to the occasion, and be responsible. In the absence of any vaccine or treatment our collective responsibility is the only hope we have, to fight this epidemic”. Such observations reminds British Labour MP Miliband's article, "Tear up Economic Rule Book: This Pandemic Calls for Radical Intervention" published in the London Guardian on 17th March 2020. He very thoughtfully wrote in that article that "A pandemic is the ultimate action problem."
Shri Patnaik in his statement while noting that "The World Health Organisation has declared COVID-19 as a global pandemic and has urged upon all member States to take urgent and aggressive action to contain the spread of the pandemic". made an earnest appeal by saying "We must remain calm but not complacent . We must remain prepared, but not panic."
Shri Patnaik's Example in Washing Hands in Public is in tune with Gandhi's legacy
He set an example of washing his hand in presence of media to transmit the message to the wider society that personal hygiene and sanitation is the best antidote to protect oneself from the corona viral infection and stem its further spread. By setting an example of hand washing in public he has appealed to people through his action that a simple act of properly cleaning one's own hand would protect people from a viral infection which for the first time in human history has caused an unprecedented global public health disaster in recorded history. It reminds one the example of late Shri K. R. Narayanan who as Vice President of India shook hands with the victims of AIDS in presence of media to drive home the point that the AIDS infection could never spread through contacts.
Shri Patnaik's example of washing hands in public tunes us to the vision of Mahatma Gandhi whose 150th birth anniversary is being celebrated in the country and on this occasion Shri Patnaik advocated inclusion of non-violence in the Preamble of the Constitution to pay tribute to the father of our nation. The shining example of Shri Patnaik affirming the importance of hand hygiene to arrest corona viral infection reminds us the words of Mahatma Gandhi. In the context of alarming spread of plague in third decade of twentieth century he had insightfully said, "A plague-infected man is worse than a plague-infected rat or fleas and unless you make your bodies proofs against infection you cannot abolish these epidemics. Nature has endowed us with enough capacity for the resistance of disease. It is we who, careless of her laws, have ruined that capacity. We have to regain it by healthy and hygienic ways of living and eating."
It is also pertinent to recall that when plague broke out in the erstwhile Bombay around 1915 and it was feared that it would spread to Rajkot Mahatma Gandhi provided leadership in offering his services to the sanitation department to counter the epidemic. He was made a member of the Sanitation Committee which visited many areas of the town to inspect the houses of people to ascertain the standard of cleanliness of latrines. While many Members of the Committee refused to visit the houses of some people because they belonged to lowest castes and were treated as untouchables Gandhi went ahead and inspected their houses. Such inspiring leadership at the time of disaster is need of the hour.
Appeal to People of Odisha for Practicing Social Distancing
In the context of frightening spread of corona virus across the world Shri Patnaik said, “I must confess the entire world is on a learning curve about handling this disaster. This is where it is very important that the four and half crore Odias join together and help us in managing the situation. Each one of us has a responsibility to ourselves, to our families and to the communities we live in”. He then underlined the point that "The only effective measure so far has been social distancing. All of us should ruthlessly practice social distancing". He urged the Hon’ble Members of the Odisha State Assembly to take personal care of themselves and at the same time provide inspiring leadership in their Constituencies in the fight against corona menace.
Personal Appeal of Odisha CM to Stop Spitting in Public is Evocative of Gandhi's Vision
Odisha CM made an interesting and instructive appeal in the context of rising spread of Corona. In his statement to the Odisha Assembly he said, , "My personal appeal to you is - This is an opportunity for Odias to stop spitting Paan". Paan is nothing but betel leaf which with areca nut is chewed by people in large numbers and they quite often spit in public spaces disregarding all norms of sanitation and hygiene. Chief Minister's personal appeal to those chewing pan not to spit is the first of its kind in our country. In terms of an advisory coming from the level of Chief Minister who prescribes people of Odisha not to spit paan it sets a new trend in favour of upholding rules of public sanitation. It is instructive to note that it is in tune with Mahatma Gandhi's prescription, given by him during his first Satyagraha launched in South Africa in 1906, that spitting even in forest should make a person liable to punishment. Later in 1946 he said that wanton spitting often becomes a major factor behind spread of disease. For instance on 14th July 1946 he said, " Promiscuous spitting is a bad habit..... It is all part and parcel of the incredible ignorance that exists in our land among all classes of people in regard to the elementary laws of sanitation and hygiene. It is a habit which we must give up, if we would avoid certain diseases". Again in the same year he wrote, "Anyone who fouls the air by spitting about carelessly, throwing refuse and rubbish or otherwise dirtying the ground, sins against man and nature". The personal appeal of CM to Odias to eschew spitting of paan by taking the opportunity to prevent spread of Corona assumes critical significance to promote public hygiene and sanitation. It is also worthwhile to note that Chief Minister's appeal and advice is in tune with advisory of World Health Organisation which cautioned that corona virus can spread through saliva which gets released to public space through spitting.
In fact the Corona virus for which there is no counter in the form of vaccine or medicine is no ordinary source of certain disease. It constitutes a terrible menace to public health and human civilization. It poses a challenge to humanity and in fact peoples and Governments across the world are at their wit's end to deal with the menace posed by a new strain of virus. It is all the more baffling to note that Europe which is well acclaimed for high levels of sanitation and standard of life has become the epicenter of global spread of corona virus. We need to maintain high standard of sanitary protocol and lead a hygienic and healthy life style for defeating the virus and saving humanity and civilisation. The trend setting decision of Shri Naveen Patnaik in declaring corona threat it as a disaster is a step in the right direction. His advocacy for hand hygiene, social distancing and dispensing dirty habit of spitting in public spaces constitute much needed preventive measures which invoke Mahatma Gandhi's vision to counter infectious diseases.
.The author served as Officer on Special Duty and Press Secretary to President of India late Shri K R Narayanan and had a tenure in Prime Minister’s Office and Joint Secretary in Rajya Sabha Secretariat. Views expressed in the article are in his personal capacity.