Coronavirus Is the Reason India Needs ‘Inter-Agency’ Systems

Is India truly prepared for a pandemic like the Coronavirus outbreak? Or are we all living in delusion?

Updated
Fit Connect
4 min read
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As the coronavirus rampages its way across the world, the impact on India is increasing; the numbers of diagnosed and dying are increasing slowly, with hundreds who have flown in from abroad being untraceable.

Our nation’s approach began in a haphazard manner. At our airports, only passengers from certain countries are being checked for symptoms of the disease, while others are being asked to fill out a self-declaration form stating that they have not travelled to certain countries nor do they have the disease; waiving that form allows the passenger to bypass checks and filters.

Another loophole in our preparedness is the government not allowing the private sector healthcare providers to provide Covid-19 testing facilities. The reasoning for this remains unclear, and our testing per capita ratio is among the worst in the world.

India’s Habit Of Not Engaging in Multi-Agency Training

While some states have begun ordering the closure of certain public spaces, such as schools, colleges, malls and cinemas, others are yet to take any proactive measures, although their passive measures with government hospitals gearing up for potential and actual patients has been picking up pace. Religious gatherings, especially with Easter and Ram Navami looming, seem to be exempt from any bans.

India has a habit of not engaging in multi-agency training and coordination exercises.

The most famous case highlighting the absence of inter-agency cooperation was the Posta Flyover collapse in Kolkata, where the Indian Army took over three hours to travel four kilometres with vital rescue equipment, because of red tape between Fort William, the Government of West Bengal, and Delhi.

Dealing With Mass Casualty Events

The British, having been attacked by the Irish Republican Army (IRA) for almost four decades, have well developed policies to deal with mass casualty events. The result of one such policy, on a nationwide and strategic level, is the ‘National Hazards Partnership’ which is steered by the Cabinet Office (a central government department which acts as an umbrella for all ministries), and includes every department from outer space to the bottom of the oceans, quite literally.

Two intriguing stakeholders in this NHP are the ‘Health & Safety Executive’ – an independent body which has oversight on the mental and physical well being of people, both in the private and public sectors, including the armed forces – nobody is exempt, and the HSE can, and does, take unilateral civil and criminal action where negligence is suspected to have caused harm, or even where it has the potential to cause harm to humans. The second agency worth looking at closely is the ‘Environment Agency’.

The inclusion of these two agencies evinces the urgency of ensuring the protection of both people and the environment while tackling whatever emergency or disaster at hand.

Indian Disaster Response & Management: Status Check

The Indian counterpart would be the National Disaster Relief Force, but as we have seen with even relatively straightforward emergencies such as the Meghalaya Miners, where there was a scramble across the nation to find water pumps capable of dealing with large volumes of water, and then numerous instances of children trapped in abandoned borewells dying repeatedly due to a lack of both expertise and equipment.

On a localised level, the Metropolitan Police Service of London (Scotland Yard) has been using the ‘London Emergency Services Liaison Panel’ approach. This is a cross agency board which includes the National Health Service, London Fire Brigade. London Ambulance Service, Port of London Authority, Coastguard, the wide-ranging London Resilience Group and even representatives from the Armed Forces. All of these stakeholders not only ensure their leads meet regularly for strategic policy coordination, but also take part in regular joint training exercises which often includes private sector partners and results in feedback to the policy teams to close gaps; make sure they all use the same communication devices, no need for hierarchy to make real time decisions, politicians kept at an ‘Operational Independence’ distance – the latter is sorely missing in the Indian picture.

India Must Re-Assess Healthcare Systems Post Coronavirus

India has a long way to travel in order to ready itself for what the coronavirus could present. We do not have standardised ambulances – the rich have private hospital ambulances which can even come with a surgeon, while the average person gets a glorified fast taxi which might, at best, have an oxygen cylinder. Indian Police do not have helicopters, radio communications devices for all officers, a shared database to be able to track down absconding Covid patients (let alone serious criminals), nor do our police have the required strength – most are under-staffed; almost all police are not trained in First-Aid.

We have no national health database, we do not even have a database of all medical practitioners – we have no idea who is being diagnosed with what, where, or by whom.

From the PMO down to a Commissioner of Police, nobody is providing daily press briefings to reassure the public or fact-check rumours.

Post Covid-19, it would be wise for India to appoint a truly independent commission to look thoroughly at all aspects of our civilian and military response capability to natural and man-made mass casualty events. The most important learning from this will be inter-agency training, communication, and a devolved decision-making process which is independent of political interference.

(Anthony Khatchaturian is a historian and commentator. He tweets @AKhatchaturian. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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