India’s flawed strategy by Khalid Bhatti

The Modi government’s strategy to contain the Covid-19 pandemic has failed to stop the spread of the virus in India. The Modi government imposed one of the harshest lockdowns in the country. But it was a flawed strategy.

The strict lockdown crippled the already slowing economy at a fast pace. The working people and the poor are paying a heavy price for this flawed policy. India has become a hotspot of hunger, unemployment and poverty. Millions have fallen below the poverty line.

The Indian economy is in a bad shape and heading for a deep recession if not a depression. It has experienced for the first time a long slowdown for 18 months. The prospects for growth are not bright at the moment and GDP is expected to grow at a negative rate of -4.4 percent.

Consumer confidence is also running low. Consumers are cautious about spending in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, with 78 percent of respondents claiming to reduce discretionary spending, according to a survey by consultancy firm KPMG. Low consumption as a result of falling incomes will make economic recovery even tougher.

India is now the third most Covid-19 affected country in the world, with 1.2 million cases and nearly 29,000 deaths. And the numbers are still growing as the virus spreads to new areas. Only America and Brazil have more cases than India.

The Modi government tried to follow the Chinese strategy of strict lockdown, without realising the difference between the two countries. Lockdown alone is not enough to stop or contain the spread of the virus. The lockdown must be followed by intense testing and medical treatment of infected patients. That is what China, Vietnam and South Korea did. As China and Vietnam show, for a successful and sustained lockdown, a well-planned and organised supply chain of food, medicines and services needs to be assured.

In China and Vietnam, neighbourhood councils and local structures of the ruling parties played an important role in providing the basic needs to locked-down communities. This mechanism is missing in India. Both China and Vietnam have strong elements of a planned economy and state control which is also missing in India.

Many economists and experts used to compare the high GDP growth of India with that of China before the pandemic struck. China used the high GDP growth rate of 9-10 percent for years to develop a modern infrastructure, increase living standards, lift 800 million people from the clutches of poverty and develop productive forces. State domination over both economy and planning enabled the Chinese government to spend massively to upgrade public health, education, transport, housing, infrastructure and the social security net.

China has a hybrid economic system, a combination of market economy and state dominated system of planning. The state sector dominates the economy. The Chinese call it ‘market socialism’ or ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’.

Despite enjoying high GDP growth rate for nearly four years, India failed to lift its poverty stricken sections of population out of poverty. India adopted the neoliberal model of economic development and growth. This model helped the capitalist class to amass a massive amount of wealth.

Some sections of the Indian middle class also benefited from this economic growth. But this high growth and massive wealth that was produced in India in the last two decades never trickled down and touched the working and poor masses. The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed the reality of Shining India. In the last 20 years, inequality has reached unprecedented levels.

When people are confined to their homes and not allowed to go out for food, medicines and other needs, it becomes essential for the government to organise the supplies to people. The lockdown and restrictions provide precious time for the government to prepare to launch a mass testing drive and upgrade medical services to cope with the pandemic.

The Modi government wasted that precious time and relied solely on the lockdown to contain the virus. It failed to increase the number of tests required to identify the infected people. The government also failed to upgrade the public health system in the country during the lockdown.

Reuters has reported that people in Delhi and some other states complained that their loved ones died on the doorsteps of medical centres as they were not let in. The pandemic has exposed the weaknesses of the Indian health system. The pandemic has also exposed the racial and communal tensions that exist in Indian society. In some cities and areas, Muslims and low caste Hindus were refused admission in hospitals.

The Modi government imposed the lockdown when there were a few thousand cases of the coronavirus. So it imposed the lockdown at an early stage. But it failed to take the necessary measures needed to contain the spread of the virus. So when the government eased the restrictions in May, the virus spread exponentially.

The high infection numbers also makes India the worst-affected Asian country. The number of infections has risen despite the strict lockdown that began in late March. After a few rounds of extensions, the country finally lifted those measures at the end of May. Some states and regions have adopted a strategy of selected lockdown. Many districts are now demarcated into low-risk and high-risk zones. In low-risk areas, economic activity is resuming slowly, while the high-risk zones remain restricted.

The writer is a freelance journalist.

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