Criticism by The Economist of India’s handling of Covid-19 is wrong on multiple counts
The article cites instances without going into requisite detail and ends up being a misleading narrative
India’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic has drawn praise globally, including from the World Health Organisation (WHO). Some international publications, however, continue to publish articles criticising India’s efforts for the sake of criticism. An article published in The Economist in its May 9, 2020 edition, ‘India’s government is better at curbing critics than covid-19’, falls into this category. We look at the key points made in the article and counter them with facts.
For example, in the state of Haryana, which almost encircles Delhi, babus have ordered nearly impenetrable roadblocks to seal off the capital. This is akin to Maryland walling off Washington, dc, or the Home Counties blocking access to London. The babus say the blockade is to protect Haryana’s healthier citizens from being infected by sick Delhi-wallahs. The trouble is that severing the city from its suburbs has, among other nuisances, blocked doctors, nurses and patients from travelling to hospitals.
India has had a great deal of success in ensuring that coronavirus does not spread as rapidly across its length and breadth as it has, unfortunately, in countries like the United Kingdom (UK) or the United States (US) that have been referred to in the article. This is the result of a series of steps put in place by India’s central government and enforced by the state governments during the nationwide lockdown. One of these is preventing unfettered travel across districts and states. A restriction was imposed on cross-border travel from some districts of Haryana to Delhi, but it was accompanied by a process of issuing travel passes to persons like doctors, healthcare professionals, and others with a valid reason to travel. Is The Economist trying to suggest that keeping inter-district and inter-state borders open is more important than ensuring that people in a particular district or state stay healthy?
The babus of Delhi, for their part, have generated equally enormous queues. When the central government’s babus decided it was time to lift a nationwide ban on alcohol sales (a measure whose utility in the fight against covid-19 remains mysterious), the government of Delhi decreed that only particular liquor stores could open. This needless constriction created a crush so great as to squash any semblance of social distance. The babus then added insult by slapping a 70% tax on booze.
The article seems to have clearly missed the point here. The Delhi government allowed “only particular liquor stores to open” in keeping with guidelines applicable across India - that stores and shops in market complexes and shopping malls cannot open unless they are dealing in essential items like medicines, and groceries of daily need. This guideline is meant to prevent crowding. In keeping with this, the liquor stores that were allowed to open were “standalone” shops located away from complexes and malls. Yes, there was a heavy rush at many places but the police was at hand to control the situation, shutting down stores where social distancing was not being enforced or was difficult to enforce. As far as imposing a 70% tax goes, the Delhi government has explained that this is a short-term measure aimed at shoring up revenues needed for the long fight against coronavirus.
Not to be outdone as nuisance-makers, the babus of Noida, a suburb of Delhi in the state of Uttar Pradesh, have declared it illegal to carry a smartphone without downloading the government’s contact tracing app. Many people do not own smartphones and, besides, the software is highly controversial. Yet the wise men of Noida still think it reasonable to threaten citizens with six months in prison for shunning it.
The government app, Aarogya Setu, is described by Google Play Store as a “mobile application developed by the Government of India to connect essential health services with the people of India in our combined fight against COVID-19”. One of the features of this app is that it allows users to keep track of other users they come in contact with; these users receive alerts if any of the contacts test positive for Covid-19.
The Noida law enforcement authorities have given multiple options to those who do not have the app - they can download it when stopped by the police for checking their movement; in some cases, they are reported to have been allowed to return home if they were not carrying a handset. The Noida Police have also said that action will be taken only if they do not comply after repeated warnings.
Nobody has raised doubts about the basic functions of this app, which helps in contact tracing so vital in the effort to contain the spread of coronavirus.The Economist mentions that the software is “highly controversial”, apparently referring to privacy concerns that have been highlighted by advocacy groups. These concerns were addressed in a detailed statement issued by Team Aarogya Setu on March 6. The app fetches a user’s location and stores it on the servers in a secure, encrypted, and anonymised manner “at the time of registration; at the time of self-assessment or when the user submits the contact tracing data voluntarily through the app or when we fetch the contact tracing data of a user after they have turned Covid-19 positive,” the statement pointed out.
Yet for some citizens things are worse. If you happen to be Muslim, for example, or to have joined the widespread protests earlier this year against government moves to inject religious criteria into citizenship rules, or to have been branded “anti-national” for any other reason, then you may be singled out for special treatment.
This is a misleading narrative with little factual basis. What has been described as “government moves to inject religious criteria into citizenship rules” is the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019. A simple reading of the Act will make it clear to anyone that it is intended to grant citizenship to persecuted minorities belonging to the Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi and Christian communities from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh. Muslims are not included as they do not face persecution and violation of human rights in these countries as is the case with members of the six minority communities covered by the CAA. Protests against the CAA were held in many parts of the country; it was peaceful in most cases, and the central government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union Home Minister Amit Shah explained in detail how the move would not affect any Indian citizen. Protests in Delhi in February this year turned violent, claiming the lives of members of both the Muslim and Hindu communities. Cases were registered and Delhi Police has been taking action against those involved in accordance with the law of the land. To put a communal colour to the police action is mischievous, to say the least. It is also worth pointing out that all the instances mentioned by The Economist in support of its argument are subject to due, and ongoing, judicial process.