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Shifting COVID-19 Warzone Away from India’s Business Centers

By: Amit Agarwal

India is a unique country, different from all or any other country in the world. How and why are we different – there is no point or time in getting into the details of it at the moment, but the point is that we are.

In the current situation when the entire world is fighting against an unknown virus, every country is alone in its fight. Having said that, they are learning from one other’s methods and trying to integrate those methods with their own strategies. We haven’t done badly either in learning and implementing and the only method of combating this virus, is to execute social distancing through the countrywide lockdown. We have done better than many other countries that have lesser complexities than ours. So far so good! Stage 1 cleared. In hindsight, it looks relatively simple now.

From here on as we enter into stage 2 of the game, India is on its own. The learnings from other countries will be of little or no help now. The reason is they are and will continue to do well with the Social Distancing even when the lockdown is lifted. Look at the examples of some of those countries which have managed to control the virus effectively like South Korea, Thailand, Taiwan and even China. These are the countries that faced similar epidemics like SARs, Ebola, and H1N1 in the recent past and have the required experience, intelligence, preparedness, and most importantly social awareness to bring Social Distancing and wearing masks and gloves in their daily lives. Bringing these practices into practice requires two basic things:

  1. For social distancing, you need space. Space means space available between two human beings in terms of human density.
  2. To start gloves and masks, first, we need their availability at regular basis and affordability for people to buy them. But more importantly, the civic sense and discipline to wear as well as dispose them in the right manner.

In our case, both requirements cannot be met easily. Unfortunately, we cannot do anything about it on an immediate basis. It is not easy to teach civic sense to 130 Crore people overnight, neither can the densities in cities be reduced. That is the reason the Indian government and administration are most worried… and rightly so. They cannot keep the country under lockdown forever and frankly, as long as the major cites of Mumbai are Delhi are closed, the rest of the country cannot operate efficiently.It’slikeyoukeepingtheheartandbrainofabodyunderanesthesiaandexpectingthe person to walk and talk, normally. Not going to happen.

So what do we do? It is time for India to look internally, analyze what we have got, and formulate our strategy to fight the battle. We clearly cannot play on the civic sense and discipline as our strong ground. The other option is to look at reducing densities in cities for short-term – difficult but still doable.

How? India has a federal structure. It suits us and works well for us to govern this large and complex country. However, this federal structure ceases to exist when a matter of national security comes into play. The current situation is no different from a war situation, it is far worse than a war. It cannot be fought at the state and city levels alone. It is time we play to our strengths as a team. At the moment, it seems everybody (in this case state) is trying to save their place in the team. This is a recipe for disaster. This way it’s a matter of who goes first.

Our biggest challenge right now is dealing with the situation in Mumbai followed by Delhi and then followed by the other demarcated red zones. We need to remember, if we know we are fighting against a Shark, we cannot fight in the Sea. We will have to find ways to come out of the Sea. Similarly, we will have to take the fight away from the dense lands of Mumbai and Delhi. It is very difficult, cumbersome, and expensive but way lesser than the economic impact that is already visible.

Our country, alongside challenges, is also blessed with a lot of positives. As a nation, we have enough and more medical practitioners and service staff available. We need to identify and build places for quarantine and treatment, away from the cities and towns.  These places need not be only hospitals. There are ample hotels and resorts that the government owns in the outskirts of the cities, plus there are so many private ones who either will be willing to offer them pro-bono or the government can hire them. Add to it the educational and training institutions and similar other facilities existing in the country. Arranging a million of such beds in India is no big deal. Divide each facility amongst patients, suspects, and medical staff to stay separately.

Second, we need to put together an efficient transport system to feed into this. For example, a combination of dedicated trains, buses, trucks and ambulances can ferry people and goods to these places. Both these arrangements need to be of the highest quality.

Whatever money we spend, it will still be cheaper than the price of lockdown. This system needs to be well communicated and promoted amongst masses so people are not apprehensive to go there. Similarly the stories coming from these places should be happy, at least in terms of experience. Panic in this country spreads fast and that needs to be controlled.

The first action point should be people wanting to move back to their homes from wherever in India or world they are stuck in, should make a stop in these facilities for 15 days or till they test negative. No exceptions.

One great outcome of this lockdown has been our ability to identify and track existing or possible cases. Now that we have enhanced testing capacity and know our red containment zones, we should aggressively target these areas, test people, and send them to these centers. Once cured or declared fit, they can be brought back. It will be difficult for people to accept it initially but once they get to know that the system is safe, comfortable, and unlikely to kill them, they will get used to it.

This will reduce pressure on the city healthcare system which will continue to treat emergency and serious cases. This will also reduce, significantly, chances of the virus spreading.

This war will not get over soon and the farther it is fought from our people, the better it would be. Even the Kauravas and Pandavas had to go to Kurukshetra to fight their battle though they were family and had the option to settle their scores within the four walls of their palaces. We need to find our Kurukshetra to fight this Virus. The victory will be ours.

 (The author is Managing Partner at Stanton Chase and the views expressed in this article are his own)

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