Modi’s Speech on Coronavirus Precautions Is Fine, But What Next?
Here’s what the govt needs to do next, now that PM Modi has assuaged the fears of many Indians after his speech.
In his address on Thursday night, the Prime Minister reached out to all of India to respond to the public health emergency posed by the Coronavirus pandemic, with social solidarity, unifying the country to mount a determined and disciplined response. Recognising that the nation was in the grip of anxiety and uncertainty, amidst unprecedented global panic, he set out to calm fears and catalyse citizen engagement in responding with collective resolve to a public health emergency.
His address joins the company of some other distinguished global leaders who rose above the rest to communicate with their people, with clarity and composure, on a complex crisis time response to a common threat. The talks of Singapore’s Prime Minister, South Korea’s Foreign Minister, the German Chancellor, and Canada’s Prime Minister, have gone viral on social media as examples of excellent, empathetic and informative public messaging, in contrast to the efforts of the American President and British Prime Minister, which have failed to connect, communicate or clarify.
PM Modi’s message belongs to the former category. Though he did not dwell on the specific actions that the government will take, leaving them to the Finance Minister and other officials, he succeeded in his main mission of creating social support for the hard fight ahead against the alarmingly agile virus.
Social Distancing, An Act of Personal Conviction
He made social distancing an act of personal conviction rather than imposed diktat by asking for a voluntary ‘Janata Curfew’. Though only for a day – that too a Sunday (22 March) – PM Modi projected it as an opportunity for people to build their resolve to observe the discipline of minimising outdoor transmission by staying home. More such days may come in the future, he hinted, by referring to the wartime blackout drills of the past when he was young.
The appeal to patriotic commitment to accepting inconvenience or hardship in the warlike effort to defeat COVID-19, as well as the concealed ‘get ready for more and tougher social distancing measures’ message, were well packaged in that analogy.
When he said that he needed two weeks of our time, did he mean tougher restrictions on travel and outdoor activities were to follow the preparatory ‘drill’ on Sunday? If India has to shutdown with steely resolve to arrest the virus, Sunday’s voluntary curfew would be a good initiation.
Extending Support to the Less Fortunate
While he assured worried people that food supply and sales would be uninterrupted in partially open markets, there was no indication of how daily wage workers and other urban poor who form a large segment of the informal workforce would be able to afford to purchase or procure essential food items during periods of confinement. He requested employers of those in formal or contracted employment to be kind to employees who did not turn up for work during periods of nudged or ordered homestay. The protection must extend also to those not in formal employment. We must hope that the government provides free supplies to the poor and sequestered, as in the case of natural disasters.
PM Modi urged people not to overload the hospitals with routine and non-emergency healthcare demands so that serious patients of COVID-19 could receive much-needed care.
The prime minister also assured that both public and private healthcare facilities would be pressed into service, and essential medical supplies and equipment would be ensured. He recommended seeking medical advice for non-emergency health problems through telephone consultations with trusted doctors, removing the red flag that the Supreme Court had placed on telephonic prescriptions. Legal or not, it is a common sense guided approach in these troubled times and could permanently remove the barrier that exists.
Tribute to Selfless Providers of Healthcare & Other Services
By paying tribute to the selfless providers of healthcare and other services, PM Modi not only boosted their morale but also made a frequently complaining querulous public appreciate their sacrifice. He invited people to step out to the threshold of their homes at 5 PM on Sunday, the day of ‘Janata Curfew’, to resoundingly applaud their unflinching commitment to public duty. Disturbing assaults against doctors and other public servants, by dissatisfied members of the public, had become a recurring feature in recent years. Would recognition of their dedication to service open a new chapter of civility, if not cordiality? Time will tell.
Again, there was a hidden analogy to saluting soldiers on active duty in times of war, as this new battle against the virus brings other types of warriors into combat.
The prime minister pointed out that there are no miracle cures available against this disease and that our best defence lay in curtailing its spread. Modern medicine is still trying to identify drugs and vaccines that can quell the novel virus, but those efforts may yield results only after several months while the fight is right now on our hands. He did not however, refer to the spurious claims of various untested cures that have come forth from proponents of cure-all nostrums, ranging from bovine excreta to herbal potions. However, by saying that there is no proven cure available as yet, PM Modi distanced himself from such claims.
An Exercise in Morale-Boosting
As a first communication by him on this subject, it was a sensitive, engaging and unifying message much needed at this juncture. However, as days roll on with tough challenges emerging for the government and the people, there would be an expectation that factual updates on the state of the epidemic, the measures being taken to counter it and the level of success achieved, would be an expectation of the citizen.
Having raised the morale and enlisting the voluntary collaboration of the people in his initial masterly communication, the prime minister must now regularly share information on the evolving epidemic and the measures of response that are being taken or are proposed.
Having won the confidence of the people, he must now take the people into confidence during each step of this difficult journey.
(K. Srinath Reddy is President, Public Health Foundation of India. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed in this article are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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