CoViD-19 Strikes Home: The Indian Elephant Must Fight

Here’s a small anecdote to recall the importance of timely decision-making as the world faces an unprecedented pandemic.

15 years ago, a naval flotilla put out to sea for ‘family day at sea’. It was to be a happy affair with shiploads of families who get their annual opportunity to sail on naval ships and savour the spindrift. Instead, our small warship returned to harbour with distraught families, many of whom had passed out, overcome by sea-sickness. Ship’s staff watched in horror as a day of happy memories turned into a horrible nightmare.

As the numbers of those infected with Coronavirus Disease (Covid-19) mount and hospital beds and mortuaries fill up, some parallels between that day at sea and the perfect storm headed our way are unmissable.

The naval fleet has an annual exercise calendar. Like state visits and national events, it is finalised months in advance. Dates are negotiable to some extent; certain events are not.

That morning, Indian Navy’s Eastern Fleet put out to sea as per plan. Not all ships are equal. Some are small, old, congested and bouncy. Some are large and more modern, with stabilizers that keep them relatively stable. Some, like a fleet tanker or aircraft carrier, can ride heavy seas with grace. But the sea, like a coronavirus, knows no size, religion, race or ethnicity. It has its own science and rhythm.

Our small missile corvette, with a complement of about 120, had over 60 families on board that day. There was a weather warning for gale-force winds and heavy seas even before we put out to sea. That doesn’t change anything for ‘men of war’, right?

The warning was ignored because key decision-makers wanted to either ‘tick boxes’ or maintain ‘status quo’.

We put out to sea with a standard, templated program, complete with anti-aircraft (AA) firing, Underway Replenishment (UNREP), formation manoeuvring, Flyex etc. The naval harbour at Vizag is sheltered, with a cleared channel that protects ships from the open sea outside. Families embarked happily alongside in harbour. There was much cheer and bonhomie.

Soon as we cleared outer breakwater, the elements took over. We had over 400 aboard a ship designed for 100. Sea was rough; our ship started rolling and pitching wildly. Decision-making ‘fleet staff’ (and their families) were embarked on accompanying capital ships with better seakeeping ability. The Fleet Commander, a 2-star admiral, had his plan and nobody dare open their mouth. The exercise program was neither altered nor reviewed. Why? “Those who matter, don’t mind; and those who mind, don’t matter” sounds like a reasonable explanation.

The onset of sea sickness is not instantaneous. But any seaman could ‘sea’ this wasn’t going well for small ships with limited galley and bunk capacity. An elaborate lunch menu was on the cards. By the time families filled up their plates with delicious ‘biryani’ from the ship’s galley, the sea had turned ugly & menacing. The fleet was already 50 miles out at sea. Each minute only added fathoms under the keel and more distance from shore. Many families, especially ladies and children, were very sick. Biryani was smattered all over the helideck and alleyways as people started to flounder.

Mess decks were strictly “out of bounds” for families, as per standard protocol. Hapless sailors had little choice but to lead delirious family members down into their bunks, already over-populated. The ‘sick bay’ or medical inspection room was overwhelmed in no time. So were the ‘heads’ (toilets or washrooms in navalese). An overpowering stench of vomit pervaded the ship.

By the time the flotilla returned to harbour, hardly a ‘guest’ was standing. A fleet of hired buses drove out of the gates of naval dockyard with people who would most likely never venture for another family day at sea.

Thankfully, sea sickness wears-off faster than seasonal flu. It is highly survivable. It is also not infectious.

Not quite like Covid-19.

Just over a month ago, remember how smugly we viewed videos and news shared on social media about China building hospitals with thousands of beds? This was in Wuhan, epicentre of the Novel Coronavirus Disease (Covid-19) outbreak now threatening the whole world. This was last week of January 2020. India celebrated Republic Day on 26 Jan. The World Health Organisation (WHO) put out this now infamous tweet on Jan 14:

India held its annual RD Parade when it must have been clear to well-informed medical professionals advising PM Modi that a global pandemic is headed home. Yet, in what looks like unbelievable complacency, many countries including India, United States and entire Europe, went about normal life as if the ‘Chinese Virus’ would heal itself.

Who is responsible for this gross miscalculation at a national level? All well-meaning but supine bureaucrats and ministers bashing plates from their balconies & porticos must answer why there was not a single clarion call alerting us to a “clear and present danger” just over a month ago.

Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman ringing bells during Janata Curfew on 22 Mar 20
Indian Health Minister extolling PM Modi’s efforts to galvanize public during Covid-19 crisis

Many reports (one by Brahma Chellaney here) have cited that the Communist Party of China (CPC) led by Xi Jinping misled the WHO and suppressed the extent of calamity even as they turned acres of dirt into 1000-bed hospitals within a week. Despite state-controlled media and a propagandist CPC, disturbing visuals of Chinese crackdown on their population infected with the virus should have alarmed us in January itself. Yet, any sense of urgency in dealing with the looming crisis was missing altogether in India.

A high-profile Donald Trump visit to India dominated headlines in February 2020. Mega events, where hundred thousand commonfolk lined streets and filled the Motera stadium to welcome Trump dulled us into believing “all is well”. Wasn’t this a total failure of ‘Commander’s Estimate’ of the looming threat, both for India and United States –  two of the world’s biggest democracies? Were we being led by cult leaders & self-effacing pied pipers or by science and data?

As late as 18 Mar 2020 when thousands had already died of Covid-19 in other countries, official events in India continued unabated. President Ram Nath Kovind hosted the usual series of ‘breakfast with parliamentarians’ where guests with international travel history rubbed shoulders unabashedly. Eminent public intellectuals like Shashi Tharoor tweeted out celebratory images even as they demanded tougher counter-Covid measures with the other hand. Parliament was still in session. Leadership by example was quite obviously not the order of the day.

Shashi Tharoor celebrating Breakfast with President Ram Nath Kovind during Covid-19

On 23 Mar 2020, the Indian Parliament cleared the crucial Finance Bill without any debate. The scramble for lifejackets on a sinking ship has already begun.

As per WHO, “a pneumonia of unknown cause detected in Wuhan, China was first reported to the WHO Country Office in China on 31 December 2019.” The weeks that followed saw the situation quickly spiral out of control. Here’s an interesting page from ‘Our World in Data’ you can follow for updates on the spread of Covid-19 worldwide. Be aware where we stand.

As on 23 Mar 2020, worldwide casualties have crossed 15000, with Italy leading the reported body bag count. Over 350,000 have been infected globally. Graphs have taken on an exponential turn. Indian numbers for Covid-19 has officially crossed 400 with 7 dead as on 23 Mar (figures doubling every 4 days as of 23 Mar). Although no official confirmation is available, there is every evidence to show that we may have already entered Stage 3 (community infection).

Indian Ministry of Health & Family Welfare has requested state governments to enforce strict measures to rein in the virus and ramp up capacity to deal with Covid-positive cases. Selected private, government-approved laboratories have been cleared to undertake Covid-19 screening tests with a price cap of Rs. 4500 that takes it well out of the reach of millions of poor and marginalised.

The lockdowns have started. From 23 Mar, 75 Indian districts will go into lockdown till end of the month. These include almost all the major metros Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Bengaluru, Chennai etc. Passenger trains have been cancelled, leaving many migrant workers (who are out of jobs) facing starvation, miles away from home. Essential services will operate. Nobody knows yet how things will pan out. In a rare show of solidarity with healthcare workers and operators of essential services, the nation responded to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s clarion call for a 14-hour ‘Janata Curfew’ between 7AM to 9PM on 22 Mar 2020. This tweet captures my immediate reaction:

In times like this, it is hard to disagree with public sentiment. Our first line of defence in this battle are our healthcare workers. They are the ones who will confront the crisis in hospitals, ICUs and ambulances. How well-equipped or prepared they are will be revealed in the weeks ahead.

It is not hard to imagine our situation. With public healthcare in shambles and private healthcare out of reach of millions, this is a perfect storm headed our way. The gaps in information or decision-making that delayed lockdown are not even being discussed in public debates; sad fact of a democracy with no credible opposition.

Important questions must be answered at this juncture.

Informed estimates suggest that about 30% of the population will be affected by Covid-19 in a country like US. Even without extrapolating to Indian realities, we are looking at anything between 300 to 400 million Indians being infected with Covid-19 in the coming weeks. Of these, around 20% may require hospitalization. That’s 60-80 million hospital beds for Covid-19 patients alone. Of these, about 5% may require intensive care. That’s 3-4 million ICU beds with ventilators and well-equipped healthcare workers. Add to this all other seasonal infections, trauma and non-Covid cases that routinely test our medical capacity.

As of March 2020, the availability of ICUs and ventilators in India is in thousands, not millions. It is almost certain that the deluge of suspected & positive Covid-19 patients will outstrip our healthcare capacity. Fatalities in thousands are inevitable.

Don’t believe me? Well-known cardiac surgeon and founder -chairman of Narayana Health, Dr Devi Shetty – among many other healthcare leaders and data scientists – have already sounded the alarm. Read Dr. Shetty’s piece with pointed recommendations here. I am not a healthcare expert and won’t venture with anything more than saying “Stay at home, people. Listen to the experts”.

Hollywood actor, former Mr. Universe and ex-governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger pinned this tweet up on his timeline:

Arnold Schwarzenegger says “stay home” till we flatten the curve.

In a viral post that was shared over 40 million times and translated into 30 languages, Silicon Valley entrepreneur Tomas Pueyo made out a clinical case why we must act now (read it here). This was two weeks ago. His arguments about delay in controlling the spread of infection through strictly-enforced measures to “flatten the curve” reads like a doomsday scenario for India given our population and state of healthcare.

In India, as an unintended but not entirely unforeseen consequence, people in many cities thronged the streets in large numbers, dancing and beating drums soon after Sunday’s ‘Janta Curfew’. One hopes this doesn’t turn out to be a dance of death eventually.

A few Bollywood stars, celebrities and ‘influencers’ from India (with their affiliations and compulsions) were still propagating snake oil remedies; extolling the benefits of clapping hands and blowing conches when they should have used their social-media magnetism to prop-up our failing systems. History must record those images for posterity.

Bollywood icon Amitabh Bachchan’s tweet (later deleted after angry reactions on Twitter). Indians revere him as the ‘Big B’.

Here’s some perspective. On Twitter, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has 6.5 million followers against Big B’s 40.5M followers and Narendra Modi’s 53.8M followers. Indian Ministry of Health & Family Welfare has 1.3 million followers in a country of 1.3 billion. Bollywood ‘songlet’ Kanika Kapoor – booked “on charges of negligence for attending various social events in the city last week despite being infected with coronavirus and having been instructed by the authorities to isolate herself at her home” – has 3.5 million followers on Instagram. Contrast this with the number of hospital beds or ventilators.

The dice is loaded towards ‘cult mentality’, propaganda and mass casualties. Additionally, we in India also have a surfeit of “educated morons” who flee quarantine camps and hazard entire communities.

Suddenly, terms like ‘social distancing’ and ‘lockdown’ have stormed into our lexicon. Well, social distancing was never alien to the upper class and nouveau riche in India. Those with wealth and clout always distanced themselves from problems that plagued the lesser privileged. Living ‘luxe’ in their ivory towers and gated communities, travelling first class and pontificating to the world, they now face existential threats. There ain’t no private jets for “leaving on a jet plane” in this situation either.

People who live in some of the most affluent areas of India like Bandra and Juhu have been maintaining ‘social distance’ from their maid servants, drivers and cooks from nearby “Nehru Nagar” pockets steeped in abject poverty and filth for years. Covid-19 is a grim reminder that our sense of entitlement, whether in matters of wealth or exotic meat, comes with risks and coronavirus.

We have already lost valuable time in high-profile events and state visits when a pandemic was knocking at our door. Expect no explanation for the terrible failure of intelligence, forewarning or preemptive measures. It is Pulwama all over again. Though PM Modi has shown remarkable resolve in certain matters, there is a definite ‘cult mentality’ that quells debate. This won’t be without its side effects, good or bad.

In reality, we are no China with its tight-fisted, CPC-style draconian leadership (thank God for that). Our only hope is setting aside all differences for the next few months, locking down (with enforcement measures, where needed) and harnessing the full capabilities of our many fine institutions and corporates. Those of us who are privileged, wealthy, and able, must share our resources with those less fortunate, many of whom will face certain starvation unless we act today.

We may be a few weeks late, but this Indian ship must turn around & steer a safety course. The time to act was yesterday. The second best time is NOW. The clock is ticking on us.

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©KP Sanjeev Kumar, 2020. All rights reserved. I can be reached at kipsake1@gmail.com or via Twitter @realkaypius

4 thoughts on “CoViD-19 Strikes Home: The Indian Elephant Must Fight

  1. We are headed that way…. We need 16k tests every day, 1 lakh beds in each district, 5k ventilators in each district, food supply chains, pulses and essential food has started moving in polyethenes and cash, we need to curb that. Medicine stock pile, all automobile and other companies to start making hospital supplies, new empty buildings to be converted to quarantine centres. Or else this could be a bloody summer. This is a long war not a short swift battle and yes the Vaccine, without which the balance is tilted in favour of Corona.

  2. Timely summary of all that has gone wrong and could continue unless we return to the shores of safety by turning around.Well researched and happy that you rang the withering but swollen bells of Modi and the Big B.
    We are in it together.Cheers

  3. Good one KPS! As usual, a very clear SITREP!
    The overpowering din of data overload that we have now become used to, has robbed us of the sensibilities to discern noise from actual information. The proverbial cry of “Wolf!” is all that we choose to hear now. And those few who does spy the wolf, the misplaced assumption of being the ‘Lord of all that they survey’, ignore the threat. There is no one to blame here, other than the fallible human ego. The ego that refuses to accept, correct and atone. This was one detoxing event that was inevitable. We’ll roll out of this, maybe not fully unscathed, but imagine if it was a bigger cataclysm! The believers are crying, “God save us!”. One day they’ll realise that this event probably has saved us from bigger disasters. That is, assuming that we learn from this.

  4. Very well written piece sir. We indeed have a ticking time bomb in our hands. The apocalypse is already knocking on our doors. An effective complete lockdown is the only way ahead to salvation. The whole world is watching. It isn’t the grandstanding and tomtoming that’s going to carry the day for us. How we deal with this crisis as a nation will determine where we would be pegged in the pecking order. Economy would be derailed. But that’s a lesser problem in today’s context. We need to weather this storm and survive. All other things would be taken care of subsequently. Divert funds to assist the daily wagers and the poor who have been most affected. Scale down pay of all regular employees to 75% for the next four month. All funds to be channelized into the health sector. Ramp up number of ventillators and oxygen cylinders on a war footing. As for all of us citizens, we must realise that we are all in the boat together. We can do our best to keep bailing out. But it will come to nought if even one manjack decides to inadvertently pull the plug.

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