Why India, not the US or EU, will be the world’s main battlefield in the fight against Covid-19

Indians maintain safe distance as they queue to buy vegetables during a 21-day lockdown © Reuters / Idrees Mohammed
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Shishir Upadhyaya

is a former Indian naval intelligence officer. He is a contributor to Jane’s Defence Weekly and Jane’s Navy International, and author of ‘India’s maritime strategy; balancing regional ambitions and China.’ Follow him on Twitter @Shishir6

With its 21-day lockdown, India joined a long list of nations taking extraordinary steps to battle Covid-19 — and its results will determine the future of this worldwide pandemic. Can India help the world avert major catastrophe?

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the unprecedented move on Tuesday to put “the entire country on lockdown” for three weeks until April 14. The PM told Indians that saving lives is his “first priority,” requested that people stay inside and reiterated that social distancing is the only way to break the cycle of the infection, which has spread rapidly around the world. “Step outside your house in the next 21 days and you will set the country back by 21 years,” Modi warned.

This is no exaggeration. Indeed, with a population of over 1.3 billion people, how India responds to this crisis now could determine the trajectory of the Covid-19 pandemic for the entire world. The future of the outbreak largely depends on what happens in large and densely populated countries like India, according to Dr. Michael J Ryan, executive director of the WHO health emergencies programme. Dr. Ryan cautioned on Monday that India must continue to take “aggressive action at the public health level and at the level of society to contain, control, suppress this disease and save lives.” 

India’s Covid-19 challenges

It’s no surprise that India faces several major hurdles in its fight against Covid-19; insufficient healthcare funding, lack of clean water and hygiene facilities in several regions and the aforementioned high-density population, to name a few. It is estimated that around 420 people live on each square kilometer of land in many of the country’s largest cities — a situation which undoubtedly makes “social distancing” and “self-isolation” impossible without a strictly enforced lockdown policy — and even then, it will still be difficult.

An effective law governing public healthcare is another glaring gap in India’s fight against the Covid-19 pandemic. While the government has declared the disease a “notified disaster” under the Disaster Management Act – giving certain overriding powers to the central government over states and enabling more funds to be allocated to the crisis — the truth is that India lacks dedicated legislation for a pandemic situation. The primary law it resorts to in governing healthcare emergencies is the 123-year-old colonial-era Epidemic Diseases Act of 1897, which was enacted to fight the bubonic plague.

India’s preparedness to deal with the global pandemic therefore immediately appears inadequate, especially when viewed in the context of how badly developed countries like Italy, Spain, and the United States are faring — even with their relatively lower population densities and more advanced healthcare systems.

Italy reported its first novel coronavirus case on February 20 — but within weeks, the scale of the country’s outbreak surpassed China, the original epicentre of the outbreak — and more than 8,200 people were dead in just over a month. Despite a well-funded healthcare system and a nation-wide lockdown which has been in place for over two weeks, Italy has run out of ventilators, beds and even medics for new patients and has seen more than 6,000 healthcare staff infected by the virus.

Similarly, Spain’s deaths surged beyond 4,000 this week as the country recorded more than 57,000 confirmed infections. Funeral services in Madrid were so completely overwhelmed that city officials had to convert an ice-skating rink into a temporary morgue to handle the surge in deaths. The WHO has warned that the US, which has reported over 85,000 cases and more than 1,200 deaths, could emerge as the next epicentre of the virus.

Doomsday scenario or hope for success?

So far, India seems to have been lucky with just 16 deaths reported in the past four weeks — but some experts caution that an avalanche of cases could be coming very soon. In a worst-case scenario, 60 percent of India’s total population — and that’s about 800 million people — could become infected by the deadly virus, according to Dr. Ramanan Laxminarayan, director of the US-based Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics and Policy, and an adviser to the World Health Organisation (WHO) and World Bank.

There is some hope, however, if we assess India’s track record of managing earlier pandemics and eradicating deadly diseases. As noted by the WHO, India led the world eradicating two silent killers: smallpox and polio.

At a media briefing in Geneva, Dr. Ryan noted that smallpox “killed more people on this planet than all wars together” and that India, through “targeted public health interventions, ended that disease and gave a great gift to the world.” India also eliminated polio, another silent killer, and did a “tremendous job on surveillance” — identifying cases, vaccinating and doing all the things that needed to be done, Ryan said.

If India could do it in the past, there is hope it could do it again. Thus, the three-week lockdown — if successfully implemented — in addition to other measures introduced by the government, could potentially curb the spread of the pandemic.

The next few days will be crucial in this battle and the world will be watching closely.

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.