Lancet, the globally acclaimed British medical journal wrote on 25th April 2020 an editorial, "India under COVID-19 lockdown" and specifically mentioned Odisha along with Kerala and Maharashtra to flag vital measures taken by these States to fight the danger posed by COVID to health, human and economic security. The fact that the editorial referred to the example of Odisha speaks volumes for the importance of the State and the measures it has taken to defeat the corona peril. Its observations that "Odisha’s exposure to previous natural disasters meant crisis precautions were already in place and have been repurposed" flagged the preparedness of the State rooted in its excellent global bench mark of governance in managing disasters from 2000 onwards and ensuring almost zero human casualties.
Kerala, Odisha and Maharashtra appreciated and Union Govt Criticised for Thoughtless Lock Down
While in the context of Kerala it stated that extensive testing, contact tracing and community mobilisation were undertaken by the State Government based on its experience of dealing with Nipah virus , in the context of Maharashtra it flagged the use of drones to monitor physical distancing during lock down period and adoption of strategies to detect cases, trace contacts in all houses located within three Kms if three or more positive cases are found within that distance. While positively noting the measures of the aforementioned States the editorial remarked that the Union Government's decision to announce lock down of the whole country without adequate planning and application of mind caused massive suffering to migrant workers across the country. It is worthwhile to quote from the editorial in which it stated with anguish, "The government’s sudden enforcement of the lockdown seemed hastily prepared and immediately disadvantaged already vulnerable populations. There has been a mass exodus of migrant workers and concerns are rising about starvation among people who work in the informal economy. Implementing public health measures is difficult in places with overcrowded living conditions and inadequate hygiene and sanitation. Non-COVID-19 health services have been disrupted. Reports suggest that the government’s efforts to provide financial support and a measure of food security to ease these pressures will be insufficient to meet demand. But better planning and communication could have helped avert this crisis".
States of India Deserve Much Credit in Fight Against COVID
In this context the editorial has underscored the vital point that in India it is not the Central Government but the States which are providing leadership to counter the threat posed by COVID. The remarks in the text of the editorial "But states deserve much of the credit for India’s COVID-19 response" testify to the excellent roles of several State Governments to stem the alarming spread of highly infectious corona virus.
Odisha"s Disaster Management Lessons are of Global Significance
The special reference to Odisha in the editorial in the context of the steps by its Chief Minister Shri Naveen Patnaik to meet corona danger outlines the significance of his leadership in face of COVID disaster to safeguard life, livelihood and health security.
Such positive references to Odisha in Lancet editorial testifies to the credibility of the State in the comity of nations. When the State was hit by Super Cyclone in 1999 more than twenty thousand lives were lost. Since then the State has been hit by numerous cyclones and the loss of lives has been very minimal. The United Nations showered recognition and admiration on the State leadership for its exemplary role in mobilising human and material resources and administrative machinery for managing disasters in a manner which offered vital lessons to the humanity. Last year in 2019 in the first week of May cyclone Fani caused massive devastation in the coastal belt of the State. It was equal in magnitude to the super cyclone of 1999. In spite of its lethality and ferocity human casualty was almost zero. On 3rd May 2019 the prestigious New York Times published an article, "How do You Save a Million People from a Cyclone? Ask a poor State in India". The essence of the article was the message of disaster management offered by Odisha to the rest of the world. Based on the invaluable experience of managing disasters and saving precious human lives the State is now engaged in an arduous battle against corona infection and the prestigious international medical journal Lancet is citing the example of Odisha to the rest of the world in its editorial. It certainly is a high moment for India, Odisha and more so for the people and leadership of the State mandated to govern it.
Sarpanches in Odisha Given Powers of Collector to Facilitate Return of Migrants
Some lock down measures have been relaxed from 20th April onwards to facilitate commencement of economic and agricultural activities in rural areas by following physical distancing norms. These relaxations have been followed by other instructions issued on 25th April permitting functioning of standalone shops in urban and rural areas by engaging limited manpower. On 3rd May 2020 when lock down period would come to an end it is likely that migrant labourers would be allowed to enter the States of India from other parts of the country. Such huge influx of labour to the States need to handled by registering them, subjecting them to COVID tests, quarantining them and giving them financial incentives to complete mandatory quarantine period. Such measures are required to prevent spread of infection. Chief Minister of Odisha Shri Naveen Patnaik has formulated a plan to do this and for its implementation he has invested the powers of the Collector with the Sarpanches of the Panchayats of the State. He has also provided that the migrant laboureres completing quarantine period would be paid Rs. 2400. The decision to give power of the Collector to Sarpanches for the purpose of registering migrant labour, ensuring completion of their quarantine period and giving them free food during that period is indeed historic. It is a bottom up approach which involves community involvement at the grassroots level to meet the corona danger. In Wuhan in China centralized treatment and decentralized community management was adopted as a strategy and it successfully contained the corona infection. Shri Naveen Patnaik has adopted the bottom up approach which involves community engagement most effectively. No other Chief Minister of any State has taken any such decision.
Greater Financial Autonomy for States A Categorical Imperative
It yet again shows that the best practices in the fight against COVID is to be found in the States of India. It is, therefore, appropriate that the Editorial of Lancet recommended for greater financial autonomy to the States so that they could function better in dealing with gigantic disaster caused by corona. It observed, " The central government should loosen its control and give states more autonomy over their funding and decision making". Shri Patnaik in the first video conference of the Prime Minister with Chief Ministers of States suggested that Centre should distribute funds in advance to the states to enable them to effectively handle the gathering crises caused by corona pandemic. Such a suggestion when implemented by the Union government, would, in fact, go a long way in fulfilling the objectives which are at the core of cooperative federalism.
Towards the end the editorial of Lancet, inter alia. deeply regretted that doctors and health care professionals treating COVID patients in India are being attacked and corona infected people get stigmatised by some misguided sections of society. While noting that "The pandemic has also been used to fan anti-Muslim sentiment and violence, after a gathering connected to the group Tablighi Jamaat was identified as being responsible for many cases", it flagged attempts of some concerned citizens and scientists to fight fake news about COVID.
Strengthen Public Health Care Facilities for Health and Human Security
It very forcefully argued for strengthening India's health care capacity and underlined that public sector health care facilities at the grassroots must be boosted up to ensure health security. It very aptly observed "India must also pay much greater attention to the health sector and recognise the importance of having strong public sector capacity, especially in primary care and at the district level. India’s public health-care system is chronically underfunded (at just 1·28% of GDP), leaving primary care weak. This pandemic could be the much needed wake-up call to the necessity of long-term changes to India’s health system".
The examples of States particularly the example of Odisha cited in the Lancet editorial indeed shows the way to rest of India and indeed the world for achieving success in its prolonged battle against corona pandemic.
#The author S N Sahu 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.