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India’s top leadership must amp up the alert

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The urgency of covid control has never been more pressing. Now that the frenzy of state elections is over, our leaders should focus their attention and energy squarely on the war against covid. India’s second wave is yet to reach its peak, there is no saying when it will, and variants of the virus threaten to wreak havoc. Sirens set off too often tend to accustom people to airborne dangers and lose their efficacy, especially so in case of an invisible enemy. Yet, there comes a time when an alarm needs to be amplified. This is one such. The severity of this wave stands in stark contrast to the laxity of public behaviour, by and large, particularly in comparison with the national mood at the pandemic’s onset last March. Many reasons have been identified for this, and fingers pointed. Caught unaware by April’s resurgence, the Centre has appeared somewhat defensive in recent weeks. But the past is but a prologue. It may be time again for Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose sway over our country has no parallel, to take centre stage and warn people of the consequences of ill-judged actions. Other politicians, in the opposition or otherwise, should chip in to reinforce the message.

By one school of thought, another all-India lockdown is in order. Of late, business leaders have softened their opposition to the idea. Uday Kotak, president of the Confederation of Indian Industry, has called for tighter restrictions. Prominent health experts like US epidemiologist Anthony Fauci and All India Institute of Medical Sciences director Randeep Guleria have advocated a full shutdown. However, this can help flatten our covid curve only if it is tightly enforced, and the actual trade-offs involved are complex and worrisome in a country where sudden income deprivation can cause starvation. Its uneven effects are visible in hotspots where curfews have been imposed. This being so, the thumb-rule of locking down only if a local area’s ‘positivity rate’ of covid tests exceeds 15% seems appropriate. What should not be given excessive emphasis in such decisions, though, is the fear of business disruption, per se. This anxiety is a leftover from our experience last year, when a mobility freeze and supply-chain snap-offs took a heavy economic toll. The risk of devastation that we currently face is relatively direct. Today, the human resources of organizations are exposed to infection. If covid continues its rampage across our big centres of commerce, our economy could get scarred for years to come.

We have had mixed signals of an economic recovery from last year’s contraction. At over 1.4 trillion, April saw record collections of our goods and services tax, but the covid-stricken month also saw job losses of about 7.35 million, going by data from the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy, and a 31% slump in e-way bill generation, an indicator of freight movement by road. It is amply clear that we must shorten our path to normalcy if the economy is to roar back. Until vaccination can prove effective in achieving this, and vaccine hesitancy must be tackled too, how we conduct ourselves is all we can rely on. We cannot expect a campaign with the sound and fury of our political arena. But surely, our leaders can throw their voice across the land. Modi himself could lead this effort, even as his administration works on various plans of action, with others joining in. This is a once-in-a-century crisis, with lives at stake. Politics must wait, because the virus won’t.

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