By Ranendra Pratap Swain

Odisha Minister for Food Supply & Cosumers Welfare and Cooperation

India is under a complete lock-down for the next three weeks. Extraordinary situation calls for extraordinary measures. Perhaps, the biggest Medico-Economic crisis that the world has faced in the current century is the threat of Corona Virus Disease or Covid-19 which has engulfed almost all the countries in the world. Started first in the Wuhan city in China the virus has brought the world to it’s knees. When the Wuhan city was being devastated by the virus, everybody was thinking it is only a problem of the Chinese and that the virus will not travel to their respective countries. However, in a very short span of time almost every county has woken up to the realities which has not only become a medical crisis but also is fast becoming a economic crisis.

Why Covid-19 is so Serious :
Covid-19 is not the first virus which has challenged the humankind for the first time but it is perhaps the most contagious virus ever known to scientists. Even with such advance in medical science unfortunately our scientists have either not found a cure or an immunization. So the best medicine in such a situation is prevention. One should prevent to get infected. This only can save lives.

The mortality rate from Covid-19 is not very high as compared to other recently known infections such as SARS or Ebola which were more deadly. Perhaps the mortality rate of Covid-19 is about 4.63% on an average which varies slightly from country to country. Fortunately in India it is currently less than 1%. But what makes it lethal is its rate of spread. So in a very short span of time it can infect a very large number of people which can spread in a geometric progression. Like a Tsunami the infection hits people in waves after waves putting the medical infrastructure into pressure.

National Lockdown, Was it Necessary :
Now people are asking whether a National lockdown is necessary in a country like India? The simple answer is yes. Even though India is said to be in Stage II of the infection, there is some evidence that already some community-to-community infections has already set in. Second the reported cases might be low because as compared to other countries we are testing less. For example while South Korea is testing 40,000 people per million we are testing about 4 persons in a million. That might be the reason many cases might be going unreported. And if that is the case it is even more serious.

Medical Emergency :
The people should not be under the impression that after three weeks of lock-down and quarantine Covid-19 will go away. It will not. It will be still there. The intent of this lock-down is to slow down the progress and reduce the number of cases so that our existing health infrastructure can handle. To quote an example, out of the total infected people about 20% will need hospitalization while others even may not know that they are infected with Covid-19 as the symptoms will be very mild and will go away on its own or with normal medication. But 20% of the infected persons will need hospitalization and out of this 14% will need to be treated under ICU and 6% will need ventilator support. In Italy which is having one of the best health infrastructure in the world the doctors are making a difficult choice, ‘which patients are to be given ICU and ventilator support and which patients are allowed to die’ because there is simply not too many ICU beds available for the Tsunami of infected persons needing intensive care. In Wuhan, we all know stories how people could not get a hospital bed and died waiting to be admitted to the hospital.

As compared to other countries India stands at a lowly 142 in health infrastructure as compared to No. 2 position by Italy and No. 6 by Thailand. You will be surprised to know that in the entire country we have a maximum of 1,00,000 ICU beds and between 50,000 to 70,000 ventilator beds. Out of this already 70% must have been occupied by existing patients which leaves about 30,000 ICU beds and a maximum of 20,000 of ventilators for potential Covid-19 patients. This is simply not enough if there is unchecked infection. We do not want to enter into a situation where our doctors and health professionals will have to make a choice of ‘whom to give ventilator support and who will be allowed to die’. So the central government has taken the correct decision to lock down the country so that rate of infection is checked and the cycle of infection is broken. Keeping in mind the gravity of the situation the state government had already kept 14 of its most sensitive districts under lock-down.

By doing this our health system will get some breathing space and manage to put up some sort of infrastructure to treat the Covid-19 patients. But sadly, we cannot build ventilators at short notice as these are specialized jobs. As per my knowledge only one or two firms are manufacturing it. We cannot import these because every country has banned its export because it is needed by everybody and the commodity now is in short supply. We are trying to find a way to ramp up production by using our much talked jugadu technique. So private companies like M&M, DRDO are mulling options to produce these in a short span of time using locally available materials. So these three weeks will serve as a golden period of us which must be utilized not only to reduce infected persons but make efforts to keep our health system battle-ready.

The Economic Crisis :
Covid-19 is not only a health crisis but it is also an economic crisis. Perhaps in the last three decades we have seen crisis like Black Monday of 1987, bubble burst of late 1990s, economic slowdown of 2001, global financial crisis of 2008 and our own desi moment of Harshad Mehta scam. But we should remember that all these crisis were man-made which were financial and systemic crisis. The real economy was not affected. But this time it is different. The cause of economic meltdown is not man-made and the real economy has come to a grinding halt. All over the world economic activities are being suspended by all, both big and small businesses.

The collateral damage of the current crisis will be the MSME sector, the poor and the informal sector. The informal sector which contributes to more than 60% of the total GDP was hit hard by the demonetization and a hasty GST earlier. While these were making an attempt to stand on their feet, Covid-19 came from out of nowhere. This is surely break the back of the MSME sector for sure unless they are supported by the government liberally. Similarly, out of the total workforce in India half depend upon daily wages in the informal sector who live on a day-to-day basis. After the complete lock down, now they cannot go back home and they have no work to feed themselves. Against this backdrop everybody is calling on the Central Govt. and the RBI to extend a helping hand without which we just might have unintended social problems in the form of social unrest, crime or even food riots.

So the MSME sector needs some form of financial stimulus besides other sectors as well. Similarly, the 50% of the total households in India will need some form of subsistence allowance which will be just enough to buy their daily meals. This is difficult to implement, but in the past years some sort of mechanism like Jan-Dhan accounts, registration of construction workers, registration of daily wagers through trade union does exist. So we demand an emergency relief package for these sections of society must immediately be announced.

The govt. has just collected Rs. 3/- additional as excise tax on petrol and diesel. As the crude price is supposed to be at a lower level for an extended period of time the govt. may make a windfall of about between Rs. 2.5 lakh crore to 3.5 lakh crore in one year. Nobody understand why the central govt. is not using part of this windfall to address the woes of the economy. Decisions like this cannot wait and has to be announced on a war footing. I understand any big relief will increase fiscal deficit. But in a crisis like this when one has to make a choice between life and death, who cares for an increase in deficit. Unfortunately despite wishes the States cannot undertake much of the relief package because after GST the states don’t have much scope to mobilize any additional resources.

How Odisha is Prepared :
Under the visionary leadership of our Chief Minister Shri Naveen Pattnaik we are taking unprecedented steps to fight this crisis. Odisha was one of the first states off the blocks put down restrictions. Already the fourteen districts were under complete lockdown before the national lock down was announced by the Prime Minister on Tuesday. Immediately after the aftermath of the Covid-19 crisis, Rs. 5 lakhs each was given to every Gram Panchayat to create an isolation facility at the Gram Panchayat level which is a first in the entire country. The Health Dept. and other officials are at their toes round the clock to mitigate and handle the crisis as smoothly as possible. The government is looking at options to create exclusive Covid-19 facilities to take the load off from the hospitals by utilizing unused infrastructure wherever available.

As far as Food Supply Dept. is concerned, they are playing a critical role in keeping the supply-chain of essential commodities flowing smoothly. All the people under the state and national food security schemes are provided ration for three months in advance. We are now taking steps to deliver it at doorsteps to minimize overcrowding. Our enforcing officials are keeping a hawk eye to prevent hoarding and black marketing of essential commodities including food articles, fuel, LPG, medicines, hygiene materials etc. Because of the hard work put down by Food Supply Department officials there is no news of hoarding and black marketing. They will continue to do this without letting our guards down. The government under Shri Naveen Pattnaik is committed to take whatever it takes to mitigate Covid-19 impact on people. The private sector has gained so much from the govt. in terms of tax cuts and exemptions. This is the time to loosen their purse string a bit and take of the people on their own ways. I would like to point out that government health infrastructure alone cannot fight this pandemic. India has an impressive network of quality private hospital. In this crisis they must rise to the occasion and without looking for profit should contribute towards testing and emergency care of the Covid-19 patients.

An Appeal :
The crisis is so huge with its collateral damages to the economy, that govt. efforts alone will not be sufficient enough to deal with it. Everybody has a role to play. In order to mitigate the economic impact, I demand the money earmarked for NPR exercise should be spent immediately to fight Covid-19. NPR an wait, but not lives. Our CM has shown us the way of compassion by donating his three-months’ salary to the CM’s Relief Fund. With his appeal several individuals and organizations have come forward to donate liberally which will be used exclusively to fight the virus. So I call upon everybody to be vigilant, adhere to the instructions from govt., have patience, not adhere to rumors and stay indoors to break the chain of infection.

We now realize the true meaning of the golden maxim, ‘Prevention is Cure’. Eventually mankind will find a solution to this deadly infection. Till then we don’t have an alternative option apart from self-quarantine. Let’s not take this lockdown as a punitive action by the govt. Instead we should take this three weeks to spend quality time with our families which has become so scarce.

Finally, let’s take the pledge of ‘Mo Jeevan’ of our Chief Minister and keep ourselves and society safe by social distancing. So please don’t panick and be prepared to take the virus head on.

Together we can and we shall win against this threat to mankind sooner than later.