SAARC can learn from China to fight Covid-19

WHO image of the new coronavirus (Source: Department of Microbiology, University of Hong Kong SAR, China) 

What prompts me to write this blog is the stunning, horrifying report in the Daily Telegraph, that I read in the inhuman beauty of today’s spring morning. The report forewarns that the currently fashionable “social distancing” methods to ward off the sly corona virus might as well become our lifestyle. 

The article summed up the staggering dimensions of the predicament faced by Britain: 

While previously the new social-distancing measures would have been temporary, now they would need to be held in place until such time as a vaccine or treatment was found, perhaps a year or more. If they were lifted early, many more would likely die – and that would be a political choice. 

Those gathered were shocked. Are we then in a permanent state of outbreak, one asked.

“That’s our current understanding,” replied Prof Azra Ghani, a member of the modelling team which is based at Imperial College London. “The only exit strategy from this long term is vaccination or some other kind of innovative technology,” added Prof Fergusson. 

A “reasonable worst case scenario” is that uncontrolled contagion can cause 5 lakhs deaths in UK. Overall, nearly 4.4 per cent of the population will be hospitalised, rising to 27.3 per cent for those over 80 — and 30 percent of those hospitalised will require critical care. Yet, Britain’s level of critical care beds [ICU] is only 7 per 1 Lakh. 

Clearly, the pandemic will overwhelm Britain’s health system and PM Johnson decided to switch to the strategy of “suppression” replacing the “mitigation” strategy pursued so far.

The Telegraph says, “Britain has now pivoted and moved to a strategy of virus suppression. It’s the path the World Health Organisation (WHO) has called for from the outset, and the one which China pioneered and virtually all other developed countries are now following.” 

Effectively, Johnson’s decision underscores the there is only one strategy to avoid the bulk of the population being infected: China’s pioneering strategy. The western countries are adopting it, its political and strategic ramifications notwithstanding.

Gideon Rachman, chief foreign affairs commentator of FT wrote candidly this week that Beijing has “reframed the coronavirus narrative.” 

Rachman concluded, “The last global crisis — the financial meltdown of 2008 — triggered a loss of western self-confidence and a shift in political and economic power towards China. The coronavirus crisis of 2020 could force a much bigger shift in the same direction.”

Let’s face it: False pride and hubris should not be allowed to come in the way; India needs China’s help.

The challenge facing the Modi government in the weeks and months ahead is absolutely daunting, considering our country’s population size, the abysmal state of the country’s health system — especially so in the far-flung regions where “the real India” lives — the lack of resources to mobilise a serious response to the challenge, our inept bureaucracy, and the leadership (at state and central level alike) whose record in governance and decision-making has been mediocre. 

Look at the mind-boggling scale of the problem. A clutch of pluses or minuses this way or that aside, the fact remains that there are only about 70,000 ICU beds available in the whole country, including all types and across all hospitals and small-time nursing homes in India. 

It is a common experience in the life of an Indian (not a twice-born VIP who can avail of medicare in the US) that the number of ICU beds available is disproportionately low, both in private as well as public hospitals. 

Equally, the infrastructure and care in ICUs across the country is so markedly varied. While advanced units with proper infrastructure may be available at teaching hospitals and major private hospitals, small-time set up units (nursing homes and small hospitals), where the average Indian goes, have just basic “monitor only” facility where, if at all, ICUs exist in the most elementary and somewhat crude situations.

Overall, there are few critical care units in the country that are well equipped and have the expertise to use modern, sophisticated technology. Many units are poorly equipped and lack the comprehensive equipment or the expertise to use it with efficiency and discretion. 

Clearly, the official figure of people infected with the virus lacks credibility. How do we know the actual figure when the capacity to test people is so hopelessly inadequate? In a country of 130 crore people, by testing a few hundred or few thousand people, how can we conclude anything? The actual number of infected cases must be very much more. 

The most disappointing thing about PM Modi’s videoconference with SAARC leaders this week was that it failed to come up with a strategy, as was promised. After 90-odd minutes of photo-ops, the South Asian politicians trooped out leaving their speeches hanging in the air. 

None of them seemed to have a clue as to a viable “strategy” against the virus. 

Delhi has hardly anything to offer to the other countries when it is itself struggling to cope with the emergent situation. 

Besides, each South Asian country has its specific situation (and priorities) to grapple with. 

India summarily closed its borders with other SAARC countries. But Afghanistan is a land-locked country, as President Ashraf Ghani pointedly reminded Modi. 

Maldives simply cannot afford to quarantine itself. It depends critically on tourism for economic survival — and, be it Italians, Brits or Chinese, tourists bring in money and that matters for President Solih. 

For Sri Lanka also, as President Gotabaya Rajapksa put it, the income from tourism is vital for the economy. Again, the country’s exports shouldn’t suffer.

Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina took the long-term view to propose the establishment of a SAARC centre to cope with future requirements — in Dhaka, of course. 

What is it that India can do to help? None of the South Asian leaders asked for anything. At the end of it all, Modi tweaked a WHO  announcement made two days earlier in Geneva on the establishment of a covid-19 solidarity response fund, and projected it as an innovative idea with Indian characteristics. 

Meanwhile, President Ghani’s constructive proposal that SAARC should coordinate with China and benefit from the latter’s effective anti-corona strategy was simply cold-shouldered. 

However, Pakistan is proceeding on the track that Ghani proposed — and, don’t be surprised if very soon he, Rajapaksa, Oli, Hasina — and even Solih — follow Pakistan’s footfalls.