In an editorial titled ‘India under COVID-19 lockdown’, published on April 25, 2020, the acclaimed medical journal Lancet specifically mentioned Odisha along with Kerala and Maharashtra and flagged vital measures taken by these states to fight dangers to health, human and economic security posed by COVID-19.
The fact that the editorial referred to Odisha spoke volumes about measures the state has taken to defeat the novel coronavirus. The piece observed that “Odisha’s exposure to previous natural disasters meant crisis precautions were already in place and have been repurposed"; it flagged the preparedness of the state rooted in a history of disaster management from the turn of the millennium, ensuring almost zero human casualties.
States appreciated while Centre slammed for thoughtless lockdown
Addressing Kerala, the piece commended the extensive testing, contact tracing and community mobilisation by the south-western state’s government, based on its experience of dealing with the Nipah virus. On Maharashtra, it flagged the use of drones to monitor physical distancing during the lockdown period and the adoption of strategies to detect cases and trace contacts in all houses within a three kilometre radius if three or more positive cases were found within that distance.
While glowing in its praise for the aforementioned states, the editorial remarked that the Union Government's decision to announce a lockdown of the entire country without adequate planning and application of thought caused massive suffering to migrant workers across the country. The passage itself is worth quoting:
“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.”
The editorial underscored the vital point that in India, it is not the Centre but state governments which are paving the way to counter the threat posed by COVID-19. The article said that “...states deserve much of the credit for India’s COVID-19 response".
Odisha’s disaster management lessons of global significance
The esteem given to Odisha’s crisis management is a testament to the work put in by the state government under Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik. When the state was hit by the super cyclone in 1999, more than twenty thousand lives were lost. Since then, the state has been hit by numerous cyclones but 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 humanity.
In 2019, cyclone Fani caused massive devastation in the coastal belt of Odisha in the first week of May. Fani was equal in magnitude to the super cyclone from twenty years prior. Despite its ferocity, human casualties were in double digits, not in the thousands.
On May 3, 2019, the New York Times published an article titled ‘How Do You Save a Million People from a Cyclone? Ask a poor State in India’. The essence of the piece was about what the world could learn from Odisha’s disaster management. With an invaluable experience of managing disasters and saving precious human lives, the state is now engaged in an arduous battle against the novel coronavirus, and is getting praise, yet again.
Sarpanches in Odisha given powers of Collectors to help Migrants
Some lockdown measures have been relaxed from April 20 to facilitate the commencement of economic and agricultural activities in Odisha’s rural areas, with physical distancing norms in place.
When the lockdown comes to an end on May 3, it is likely that migrant labourers would be allowed to enter the states from other parts of the country. Such a huge influx of labour needs to handled by registering workers, subjecting them to COVID-19 tests, quarantining them and giving them financial incentives to complete the mandatory quarantine period.
Such measures are required to prevent spread of infection. Patnaik has formulated a plan and for its implementation, he has invested the powers of the Collector with Sarpanches of Panchayats across the state. He has also said that migrant labourers who complete quarantine for the designated period would be paid Rs 2400. The move displays a bottom-up approach, which involves community involvement, at a grassroot level to meet the danger. In Wuhan, centralized treatment and decentralized community management was adopted as a strategy and it successfully contained the infection.
Greater financial autonomy imperative for states
It yet again shows that the best practices in the fight against COVID-19 have been found in the states of India. It is, therefore, appropriate that the Lancet editorial recommended greater financial autonomy to state governments so that they could function better in dealing with COVID-19. It observed: “The central government should loosen its control and give states more autonomy over their funding and decision making.”
In the first video conference that Prime Minister Modi had with CMs of states, Patnaik suggested that the Centre should distribute funds to states in advance to enable them to handle the crises effectively. Such a suggestion would have gone a long way in fulfilling objectives which are at the core of cooperative federalism.
Strengthen public health care facilities
The editorial also argued forcefully for strengthening India's health care capacity and underlined the fact that public sector health care facilities at the grassroots must be boosted 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 Odisha, is a guiding light to India and the world in its prolonged battle against the coronavirus pandemic.
The writer served as Officer on Special Duty and Press Secretary to Former President of India, late K R Narayanan. The views are personal.