The pandemic and the resulting lockdown have come at a time when the rabi harvest is due in most parts of India. In the prevailing conditions, the government can make an advance payment to farmers for a part of their crop, say about one-fourth of what is due, on the added condition of fair and prompt payments being made to the workers who work on the fields.
The government has exempt a number of agricultural activities from the lockdown—but the sector has been severely impacted already, by the migrant worker crisis and the fear of contracting Covid-19, which is keeping farmers away from fields. Besides, the rural extension and allied activities have come to a halt, which has a direct effect on farming.
The Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) and other organisations are still assessing the impact of the lockdown on agriculture, but the new rabi harvest still has to make its way to local ration outlets. This is why the government should step in now and ensure that not just local ration shops, even the schemes such as mid-day meals, Anganwadi and Sabla get adequate supplies.
There is a need to ensure that the rural-agri supply chain keeps working. If adequate food is made available locally, India will be able to keep its nutrition-supplementation schemes working without a break. The effort here should be that people are not made to wait for supplies to traverse long distances into rural areas—the existing crop should be supplied within local areas.
This is a big shift from how India’s agricultural supplies are transported and distributed, but what other choice does the country have—if the nutrition schemes remain closed due to this lockout, the spike in hunger and malnutrition will be unprecedented. Therefore, raw food supplies equivalent to what is served as part of mid-day meals must be added to the free supplies of food accounted for in the Centre’s relief package.
Innovative steps such as these will be needed to cope with the crisis situations on the ground today, which is also a fast-changing scenario. Already, costly mistakes have been made due to lack of early planning leading to many avoidable problems. Now we have to work with the constraints we are stuck with, for we did not prepare ourselves during the first 75 days of this year.
Along with social distancing and screening, testing and treatment for Covid-19, basic needs treatment for serious health problems should now resume. This means that all life-saving medicines should be available for free at community health centres and government hospitals throughout this crisis period.
The Centre has already announced a task force headed by the Finance Minister to examine and take up various economic and fiscal steps. This is welcome, but no less urgent is the need for a team, another ‘task force’, to take care of medical, nutrition, hunger, emergency relief and related aspects. This is where the Health Minister should step in, and induct the best available experts on these subjects to frame a clear road ahead.
For at least a few months, the government will have to deal with all these crisis on a day-to-day basis. The health ‘task force’ should interpret and analyse the latest information on the pandemic and the requirements to counter its side-effects, such as hunger and want for basic necessities, and share its findings with the wider public. The government should get experts on board to decide what messages need to be spread among the people and what is pure disinformation.
Of course, India would need funds to conduct research into any issue, especially when it is working against a deadline. For this the government should, as quickly as possible, obtain the immediate help of experts who are up to this task. The government, communities and community organisations need the best minds working on these problems.
In turn, the feedback from communities, particularly health workers and doctors who have been working among rural and urban communities in a public-spirited way, has to be sought. This is one way to ensure that government recommendations match our country’s diverse realities.
There is news of Covid-19 infections being detected in villages as well as urban slums. This means more wider health and safety concerns will arise in coming days. The government must have some doctors who have worked among the weaker sections on board. Without a social justice and human rights perspective, India’s response to this crisis would lose touch with realities.
Even on the fiscal front, the Union government has a lot to do in the days ahead. State governments will certainly need more funds right away, especially for health, poverty alleviation, water and sanitation, disaster relief , food security and social security. A special effort needs to be made to ensure adequate availability of essential medicines and equipment.
In the medium and longer-term, the lesson to learn from this pandemic is that India’s social sectors need much higher allocations than they are getting. The health budget should be tripled in coming years, if we are to come anywhere close to preventing an episode like this pandemic, which has thrown the nation (and the world) into chaos. And without community and public health systems in place, if the existing profiteering and corruption is allowed to go on unchecked, the consequences could be even more dire.
The public sector’s capacity to produce essential generic medicines, vaccines and essential medical equipment has been eroded, even sabotaged, in recent decades. It will now need heavy investments and careful planning with a sense of urgency to revive. The highly wasteful and inefficient model of crony capitalism being pursued right now has failed.
While the Novel Coronavirus threat was gradually unfolding in recent weeks around the world, including in India’s neighbourhood, the headlines in this country were dominated by a divisive agenda, the toppling of democratically-elected governments, widespread communal violence in the capital city and police atrocities and repression, particularly in the most populous state of Uttar Pradesh. A nation embroiled in useless and harmful activities cannot fulfil its most urgent responsibilities relating to health, environment protection and peace.
All around the world, the political, economic and governance realities are not what their people had imagined them to be. This is one fact that the Covid-19 episode has revealed without a doubt. A sizeable section of the world had been fraught with tensions and threats. For instance, bigger wars were imminent or ongoing in Iran, Syria-Turkey, and so on. In many countries, the legitimate demands of people were being suppressed by their own governments. All this went on while Coronavirus was unfurling itself in country after country. The United States continued to deny critical supplies to Iran and Venezuela under a trade sanction. That is why even in supposedly scientifically-advanced countries people are very seriously criticising the neglect of science—including by the Donald Trump administration in the United States.
People have understood that neglect is the reason why their governments failed to provide them healthcare during the pandemic. The G-20 and the UN Security Council failed to provide effective solutions or leadership—not just during this pandemic, but repeatedly, in many recent crisis situations.
A much deeper commitment to finding solutions to urgent problems and closer international cooperation is what the world now needs. The reality, unfortunately, is that the world is moving from a worrying to disastrous situation, but, fact is, the most useful medicines and vaccines still need to be readily available for everyone all over the world without the hindrances of patents and huge profit margins—before the next virus hits the ground running. Perhaps, in future, incentives for research can be provided by a new global system so that suffering people are insulated from the evils of the capitalist system of medical profiteering.
Right away, countries should declare that all medicines and future vaccines to treat and prevent coronavirus diseases will be free of patents and available to all countries, irrespective of their economic capacity. So, much can be done by various nations to minimise the damage from this and future pandemics, but that needs mobilisation at a massive scale. One can only hope the people of the world are preparing for this.
The writer is Coordinator of Save the Earth Now Campaign and author of two recent books, Planet in Peril and Earth Without Borders. The views are personal.