Onslaughts of Covid-19 & compass to turn it into an Opportunity

Prashenjit Biswas

July 5, 2020, 09:11:37   

The Covid 19 is the name given to the deadly virus which was first detected in Wuhan Province of China in the later part of 2019.  Its full form is Corona Virus disease (CoVid) and since it was detected in 2019, it has been named so. It is initially thought to be another Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), a harder form of common influenza which was also deadly in last century when millions died due to its attack in England. But as the days went by and the extent of attack & its manifestation had unfolded, the severity of Covid 19 virus on human population stunned the world. The Chinese Communist Government true to its tradition had attempted to suppress & deny the number of deaths due to Covid-19. Then  China tried to downplay its impact but eventually failed completely to counter severity of the attack and human loss. Many nations of the world including the US & other developed nations failed to fathom its gravity and later blamed World health Organization (WHO) for its failure to warn the people effectively about this marauder disease resulting in the virus taking the devilish form in a very short span of time.

Many forms of epidemics & sufferings have been witnessed by the human civilization throughout the course of history but the enormity & reach of Covid -19 is unprecedented. It is very contiguous & affects the human breathing system very fast. It stifles the lungs functioning resulting in its failure within days. Scientists across the world suspect that this deadly virus is manmade and has been developed clandestinely which ultimately went out of their control and has attacked those who nurtured the Virus in the first instance. Many also suspect that it was to be used as a tool for biological warfare by way of human intervention in its genome level which made this disease so deadly. It is understood that whatever it is, the fact cannot be kept suppressed for long and truth shall definitely tumbled out in the open soon. The new world order shall definitely come to know about its genesis & risk potential. People visiting China for various economic activities carried the disease back to their native countries and that is how from epidemic, Covid 19 has now become a scary pandemic disease. 

In this backdrop India monitored the world situation and imposed gradual restrictions on all social & religious activities and a ban was imposed on congregation of people and finally it declared complete national lockdown from 25 March 2020. All kinds of resource generation works had to be halted and people are advised to stay safe by staying indoors. There is no doubt that these unprecedented measures have yielded positive result and saved this vastly diverse nation and its people from the onslaughts of the deadly virus.  

It is difficult to arrive at any definite number of human loss in China but it is a startling fact that more than 96 lakh people across the world are now afflicted due to this disease where human loss is about 5 lakhs. India witnessed more than 4.56 lakh cases with deaths of more than 14K people. One silver lining here is that despite the perception of poor medical infrastructure in our country compared to much advanced western nations more than 2.58 lakh Indians got recovered from this deadly disease [25-6-2020] which in itself is a record. Our doctors, health workers and sanitation workers and security personnel did their best to provide the requisite health care & safety to the people in the midst of the uncertainties. Immunity boosting Indian herbal medicines are also being used by people as a prophylactic measure. Good part is that it is yielding positive results. Since it is a new form of virus and its vaccine is yet to be developed the next best option is to check its spread by reducing the human social contacts and this option has been adopted by all the nations including India through the system of imposition of lock down of all forms of human activities. No doubt it is a herculean task to maintain steady supply of all kinds of goods & services in the midst of lockdown but our country accomplished this exemplary task without any hassle. Credit must have to be given to the grit & determination of the people who are associated to this delivery mechanism. The mechanism of Direct Benefit Transfer (DBT) which was put in place during the NDA 1.0 government came in handy for the purpose and thus all kinds of subventions, social pensions, benefits etc of various of denominations meant for the poor people & marginalized section of the society were transferred to the beneficiaries smoothly. Besides, it is also amazing to witness how quickly a very large number of hospital beds are made ready across India in the face of hostile situation for use by Covid patients including those even in railway coaches during this short span of time which was perceived as an impossible task in India due to bureaucratic wrangling in normal time. The ICMR has observed that the community spread of Covid 19 has also been checked effectively by strictly enforcing the lock down norms. And thus the disease attack on vulnerable section of people could be addressed. The words like "Home quarantine" & "Institutional quarantine" are the new normal trends which are now very commonly used by the people. These are adopted in this hard time as a safety measures along with wearing face masks to ward off the disease, have now become fashion statement as well. New business models depending on necessities are being developed by innovative people to turn the period of crisis into an opportunity. It is fact that imposition of lockdown has severely affected lives and livelihoods of people across the country and impaired the entire economy including that of rural India. It is also on record that agriculture and allied activities which employ more than half of the workforce of our country are the worst hit. It is fact that a majority of India’s farmers (85%) are small and marginal who are in possession of less than two hectares of land and their earnings got hit. More than nine million active fishermen directly depend on fisheries for their livelihoods, 80% of whom are small scale fisheries, the sector as a whole employs over 14 million people. All these sectors were adversely hit. Further farm lands with Rabi crop stood ready for harvest in many fields when the COVID-19 crises brought everything to a halt; this is also the time for harvest of plantation crops like pineapple, jack fruit, pepper, coffee & banana and umpteen other fruits & vegetables got affected. In the aftermath of the lockdown, harvest of the Rabi crops has been delayed due to non-availability of labour, machinery (harvesters, threshers and tractors), imposition of restrictions on transport facilities and restrictions on movement; farmers of perishable commodities like fruits, vegetables, and flowers  faced the brunt & incurred huge losses. This also happens to be the peak flowering season when the demand remains high. But most of the small & marginal farmers, who cultivate flowers as a cash crop in their farming system have incurred loss in what would otherwise have been the period of peak earnings. Harvest of plantation crops has been similarly delayed, affecting the cash flow of farmers and farm labour. Agriculture labourers are not able to go for works due to lack of transport. Labour generation work under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MNREGS) was halted completely which brought miseries to the people associated with this activity. Egg prices crashed to an all time low of poultry farmers across country were left with huge stock of unsold eggs. Small dairy and poultry farmers engaged in contract farming have faced a major loss with many private contract firms refusing to lift the produce. Fishermen across the maritime boundaries haven't been able to go out to sea since end of March and are subsequently worried about the 45-day annual fishing ban in line with the fish breeding season coming into force along the entire east coast from mid-April. Both brackish and fresh water aquaculture farmers have also been affected with harvest delayed due to labour non-availability, market closure and movement restrictions; exports of shrimps to Europe and the US has stopped and local fish prices have fallen leading to loss of income. The private transport sector faced the brunt which has adversely impacted the entire supply chain of economy. The government however tried its best to keep the system moving by allowing transportation of food, medicine, petroleum products & essential services so that there exists no dearth of resources and creation of artificial crisis during this entire lockdown period. Indian Railways pressed into service running of more than 200 trains on everyday for transportation of the migrant labourers who got stranded in various parts of the country due to announcement of lock down. The national carriers like Air India & defence establishments [Coast Guard & Indian Navy] pressed into service their assets to bring back people who were stranded in many countries across the world.

The tribal communities are amongst the most vulnerable in terms of food and nutrition security as seen in national statistics. In addition to farm based activities, the collection and sale of non-timber forest produce like kendu leaves and mahua flowers & others by tribal communities have been badly affected due to the lockdown, with no collection agents coming and markets closed. Despite the presence of banking sector, the informal sector is still a major source of credit in rural India and here borrowing of money from the lenders at high rates of interest would put further burden on the people who are already facing the crisis. There are reports that market agents are charging about 24 per cent interest for advance credit to be paid after harvest which farmers would not be able to repay due to disruption of the supply chain. While the government announced several measures, including exemption of agriculture and fisheries from lockdown restrictions in late March, there have been hiccups in delivery and implementation at the ground level. There have also been gaps in delivery of relief in cash and kind to the poor, needy and vulnerable as seen in media reports. Several civil society organisations and NGOs with field presence have been engaged in providing needed support that is possible under the circumstances. It is however expected that with the guidelines issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India on 15 April 2020 in place declaring extension of lockdown till 3 May 2020 and exempting agriculture, horticulture, animal husbandry, poultry and fishery, and allied activities from lockdown restrictions; it is expected that the wage earners would be able to go for work with markets open & procurement including agro-processing centres functioning. The MNREGS work will also commence. Effective dissemination of the guidelines and implementation on the ground will be very crucial, as farmers go for harvesting the Rabi crop and start preparations for the kharif season.

Thus as a collateral damage, lockdown brought in innumerable hardships to the people but it definitely saved them from the disease which is perceived to have almost no cure. The government is trying its best to transform this period of crisis into one of opportunity and so leaving no stone unturned to achieve the goal. For arranging the economy to spring back & getting it back to pre-Covid 19 days, one foresees many challenges as our people have set out to rebuild their lives and livelihoods. The government has announced special economic package by  infusing a whopping 20 lakh Crores rupees in the economy through banking sector to ramp it up and the RBI with additional announcements exhorted all the stake holders to take advantage of the measures for initiating new economic activities. The PM has given a clarion call for India to become self reliant India or Atma nirbhar Bharat without seeking or depending on assistance from other countries. The miseries of our people due to rather poor health care sector have come out in the fore but a resolve is taken by us to face the challenge with renewed vigour. Our shortcomings are now identified & sincere steps are being taken to plug the loopholes. We shall utilize our own resources & assets and develop it to a standard of perfection of world standard through the new mantra of Local to Vocal to Global as aptly described by PM Modi in his address to the nation. In this backdrop we  must have to devise a new mechanism since the  migrant labourers who were in fact creating assets for the nation have managed to return to their native homes will not be able to go back to their places of work in immediate future. Some may not wish to go back also, given the travails that they have endured following the lockdown. There is an immediate need for putting in place a mechanism for both relief and rehabilitation measures, to help the affected and pick the threads again, overcome the loss sustained and rebuild their lives. This mechanism shall definitely pay dividend. It is expected that the with the  slew of measures announced & pumping of funds in the banking sector & MSMEs including merger, reforms in banking sector would also pay dividends in time to come. A new perception has dawned in the mindset of people that overdependence on other nations adversely affected global economy and we must tap those start ups which want to exit from less dependable countries  for setting up new economic activities in India. The economy then shall start reviving with adoption of precautionary measures like maintaining social distancing, sanitization and hand washing norms etc which shall  have to be continued as we are not getting rid of COVID-19 so easily. Proactive measures by the state with humanitarian perspective are called for as we begin operating in a ‘new normal’ form of life. We need to have a smart universalized Public procurement & delivery system ensuring that the needy gets the necessary support and is not left high & dry or starving due to bureaucratic hurdles. The corpus of PM Kisan Samman Nidhi  (PMKISAN) could be released along with Mudra loan etc  before kharif season starts, measures to curb charging of exorbitant interests in the informal sector lenders, waiver of interest for the quarter on term loans and overdraft agriculture and MSME accounts, compensating the loss incurred due to damage to perishable crops and enlarging the ambit of MNREGS to include harvest of crops on farmers' fields by labour and value addition to produces could all act as a catalyst in reviving the economy to translate into reality our vision of turning the period of crisis into that of an opportunity.

*P. Biswas IFS(Rtd.) is a social activist. President of Mukantajali Socio-Welfare Society & President of Recreation Club, Kunjavan Agartala.


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