Dear Pradhan Mantri Modiji,
As the world scrambles to stave off the dreaded coronavirus, let me share my thoughts on this pandemic. As you would be aware, there’s the need to abjure canned approaches of yore; they don’t work any more and shall not help survival. We need to rewire and re-imagine life, now and post-corona. But amid the farrago of thoughts colonising my mind, I will confine myself to just two aspects that are commonplace—yet lie at the heart of our survival: Transparency and Leadership.
Our fight against Covid-19 has been tepid and wrapped in opacity. I don’t wish to detail past mistakes. We teed off late; delayed the lockdown till the new government was formed in Madhya Pradesh, and it wasn’t planned in granular detail, but imposed with four-hour suddenness. Much like demonetisation.
Demonetisation, demerits aside, warranted secrecy and suddenness—the Covid-19 lockdown did not. Look what this snappy suddenness has unleashed: pathetic tales of the woes of poor migrant workers, the wretched on earth. They are as human as you, me, and us. Always invisible, we’ve invisibilised them, as if their lives don’t count. Never did one see such misery—each day a living hell; their future dark and uncertain. Our hearts bleed.
Today we battle this deadly virus. We have the benefit of others’ experience—China, Italy, Spain, the United Kingdom and United States—as doctors unravel its wrath. It’s all a matter of science and medicine. So let our approach be scientific, fact-based, data-driven—not personal beliefs and whims.
Sadly, ours has been knee-jerk response as we muddle through. Now comes news that our strategy is a Tale of Two Databases—the ICMR taking over the task assigned to the National Centre for Disease Control through the Integrated Disease Surveillance Programme (IDSP), with serious disconnect between the two—one top-down, the other ground-up. The integrity of the database, so crucial to any strategy, seems questionable. How are we going to mount an attack with such strategy?
We know testing, tracing, treating, isolating ought to be the mantra. Disease experts, health officials and epidemiologists across geographies suggest four main factors to explain the virus survival: demographics, culture, environment, and speed of government response. Sadly, we don’t seem to be making any headway, as numbers swell and hospitals, especially in cities like Mumbai, get overwhelmed.
Not that we don’t have people and expertise to handle the pandemic. We do. But they confront a serious handicap: they are scared of the PMO; the fear injected the past years is ubiquitous and palpable. That needs to be shed. So, let you decentralise power to the respective ministries, and to the state governments. Only in areas that require your interventions—such as issuing directions to private hospitals across the country to make 80-90% of their beds available for Covid-19 patients—you need to intervene to act fast. The virus does not stop working after office hours. It does not take weekends off; it strikes in a non-partisan manner.
Transparency helps creating trust. Trust begets trust, openness morphs believe into ideas to create belief—offering a bespoke governance model.
The other issue is providing leadership, and getting to the root of the problem. You would be aware that emerging infectious diseases that affect humans are zoonotic—they originate in animals, mostly wildlife. The ecological balance is crucial. But we have indulged in merciless deforestation, habitat destruction, and land-use change, offering a propitious platter for virus proliferation. While this has happened world over, let us focus on India’s desecration under your watch.
In the last six years since July 2014, as per an IndiaSpend analysis, the “Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) has approved 2,256 of the 2,592 proposals that it received for environment clearance (EC), between July 2014 and April 24, 2020.” A clearance rate of 87%!
“Of these 2,256 approvals, 278 approvals were accorded on projects in and immediately around Protected Areas (PAs)… places such as wildlife sanctuaries and national parks, where human presence is severely restricted by law.” And, of these “278 project proposals approved in and around 672 PAs, 40 are inside the PAs while 238 are within 10 km of a PA boundary.”
India with its demographic pressure—with its indigenous people corralling these biodiversity hotspots—is prone to foster ceaseless interaction that not only “imperils habitat and ecosystems but also endangers public health”.
Not just that. The environment minister airily exudes confidence to balance business and environment. This is belied in the recent draft EIA notification. Of the many anti-conservation suggestions, let me provide a snapshot here.
Post-facto approval of projects before grant of Environment Clearance:
- Exempting certain activities, such as extraction, sourcing or borrowing of ordinary earth for linear projects from seeking an EC;
- Exempting dredging/de-silting of dams, reservoirs, river, and canals from EC
Is the environment ministry a protector of environment or its destroyer?
The minister’s empty boast that the ministry has shrunk the time to grant EC to 108 days and intends to whittle it down further to 70-80 days, is vacuous and puerile. Squeezing the time required to follow processes in granting EC is like staking out vaccine(s) for Covid-19 overnight with all the pitfalls it engenders. These are methodology and processes that simply cannot—should not—be given short shrift. Done sloppily, it is fraught with peril. Our recent follies have dipped India to be the fourth-worst among 180 nations on the Environmental Performance Index, plummeting from 155 in 2014 to 177 in 2018.
It is no one’s case that development should not happen and the poor stay poor. The issue is dovetailing development without haemorrhaging eco-balance. Like statistics, the sexed-up term “sustainable development” hides more, reveals little. The dialectic of tangible development versus intangible environment is a false equivalence. Intangibility is invisible, but its invisibility makes it priceless, timeless—and shows up in blights like Covid-19.
Please stop this carnage.
We humans have ravaged the earth. The world’s leading biodiversity experts have warned against any further ravaging. “There is a single species responsible for the Covid-19 pandemic—us.” In 2019 the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) concluded that human society is “in jeopardy from the accelerating decline of Earth’s natural life-support systems.”
Listen to British zoologist Peter Daszak’s ringing warnings: “Rampant deforestation, uncontrolled expansion of agriculture, intensive farming, mining and infrastructure development, as well as the exploitation of wild species have created a ‘perfect storm’ for the spillover of diseases.” The Guardian newspaper, wrote about this warning issued by Daszak and other scientists in 2019” “Combined with unchecked urbanisation and explosive growth of global air travel, this enabled a harmless virus in Asian bats to bring ‘untold human suffering and halt economies and societies around the world. This is the human hand in pandemic emergence. Yet [Covid-19] may be only the beginning.’”
Future pandemics are likely to occur more often, spread faster and impact with greater economic vehemence.
Do heed what scientists say: “It may be politically expedient to relax environmental standards and to prop up industries such as intensive agriculture, airlines, and fossil-fuel-dependent energy sectors, but doing so without requiring urgent and fundamental change essentially subsidises the emergence of future pandemics.”
Daszak suggests a global “one health” approach. “The health of people is intimately connected to the health of wildlife, the health of livestock and the health of the environment. It’s actually one health… Not simple altruism—it is vital investment in the interests of all to prevent future global outbreaks… The programmes we’re talking about will cost tens of billions of dollars a year. But if you get one pandemic, even just one a century, that costs trillions, so you still come out with an incredibly good return on investment… We need to deal with the underlying drivers.”
The play-book on environment and healthcare has changed. We need to invest more on prevention, on epidemiology, on our public health policy, not merely on sick care.
I have been following New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s daily press briefings the last few months. I confess I admire him immensely. Not only for the inimitable way he articulates his thoughts, the charisma and can-do attitude he epitomises, but because his presentations are transparent—based on science, facts, data and models drawn up by experts. He is detailed, rooted in reality, sharing all data, exemplified in his answers to media questions. We need daily dialogue and conversations, mutual give-and-take, and all that such leadership entails. If I were to torture a famous saying, ‘we campaign in poetry, but govern in prose’, this is the time for it.
As we tiptoe towards easing the lockdown to enter a new normal of life, I would urge you to take a leaf out of Governor Cuomo’s book. I know you are not comfortable facing the media. You may limit press briefings to the pandemic. You have a large passionate following. Back your presentation with science and data. It will carry conviction. Rather than the drab press briefings rolled out now, your helming such briefings aided by domain experts will galvanise the masses to follow your directions and suggestions. If ever observance was dire, it is now.
Let us take some simple but important social behavioural changes—a new social contract: wearing face masks, hand-washing, physical distancing. These are paradigmatic shifts from our usual dos and don'ts
Wearing a mask is showing respect for others—simple yet profound! People need to accept this, and act. But it needs reinforcement, time and time again. There is no better person than you to spread this message. Same goes for other requirements.
There are two other areas, grossly neglected, that come to mind: public health, especially public healthcare—not mere sick care—to build healthcare’s latent capacity; and letting scientists, researchers, technocrats lead the way, unencumbered and untrammelled by politicians’ imprimatur. Let scientists head scientific ministries/departments, and not go the way of environment and/or health ministries.
Winding down, I could do no better than to recall Bertrand Russell-Albert Einstein’s Manifesto of 9 July 1955, when nuclear threat loomed large: “We appeal as human beings to other human beings. Remember your humanity, and forget the rest.” Our concern today is respecting and adapting to Mother Nature’s ways. We can’t duel with Her—mauled inexorably, we’ll get sent back to the manufacturer!
The author is a former civil servant. The views are personal