As we inch towards the end of 2020, it is time to assess India’s COVID-19 response and the outlook for the future. Recent developments suggest cause for optimism, underpinned by Government’s steadfast efforts under PM Narendra Modi’s decisive leadership on several fronts.
Last week, an Indian Covid19 vaccine – Covaxin – entered phase 3 of clinical trials. Altogether, there are six Indian vaccines under different stages of development. PM Modi recently visited Zydus Biotech Park in Ahmedabad, Bharat Biotech in Hyderabad and Serum Institute of India in Pune to encourage scientists to accelerate vaccine development efforts. India, with its large pharmaceutical and vaccine manufacturing base, will play a critical role in meeting global demand for COVID19 vaccines.
So how did India fare? Comparing national responses of different countries to COVID-19 is undoubtedly not an easy proposition given that circumstances vary. As of 28 November, India has 6731 cases per million population, which is 4-5 times less compared to the leading economies in the western world. Our fatality case ratio remains amongst the lowest.
What explains this better response? India was amongst the fastest to react at the government level. China notified the world on 7 January about the Wuhan virus. The Indian government held a Mission meeting on 8 January itself, started screening passengers from 17 January, implemented containment measures on 30 January and was amongst the first to introduce rapid antigen along with RT-PCR tests.
PM Modi held close consultations with the Chief Ministers of all States to brief them and forged consensus on how to respond to this unprecedented challenge. This was particularly important since States under our federal structure are responsible for tackling health challenges. A complete lockdown was declared on 24 March, which was relaxed gradually in phases beginning in end-May. People of India responded positively to the PM’s call for lockdown, observing social distancing, wearing masks and following safety protocols.
Early lockdown, when India had only 500 cases, was very important to contain the exponential spread of Covid19; more crucially, it allowed the government to ramp up medical infrastructure and train healthcare professionals including over 1.5 million ASHA workers. We created more than 15,350 dedicated Covid19 health facilities, 15.4 lakhs isolation beds, 2.7 lakhs oxygen supported beds, 78,000 ICU beds and tripled the number of ventilators.
It was inevitable that the extensive lockdown would negatively impact the economy in the short-term. The government had to strike a balance between public health, continuation of essential services and preparing ground for broader economic revival. Government took several measures to ensure that ‘disruption’ did not become ‘distress’ for the poor. Around 42 crore people received financial assistance of Rs.69000 crores credited directly into their bank accounts, a feat made possible by the ambitious Jan Dhan Yojana. Nearly 80 crore people received free grains and pulses till November.
Looking at the recent economic indicators in India, one cannot but be buoyed by them, a sentiment also reflected in the stock markets. Manufacturing Purchasing Managers index (PMI) rose from 56.8 in September to 58.9 in October 2020, registering its highest figure in over a decade. The PMI Services index also rose to 54.1 in October, ending seven months of contraction, signalling improved market conditions. October figures for power consumption, passenger vehicle & domestic tractor sales, E-way bills, GST collections, railway freight all show growing demand and significant resumption of economic activity cutting across sectors.
COVID19 has posed an unprecedented global challenge. It has upended the way in which we live and work. In the backdrop of potential COVID19 vaccines hitting the market soon and downward trend in COVID19 cases, economic indicators already show that we are turning the corner in the fight against the pandemic. Indian government’s response to COVID19 was proactive, well thought, balanced, and is already showing early positive results. It is also a tribute to our federal polity, the commitment of our essential workers, government functionaries and S&T professionals and resilience of our people, who rose to the challenge.