Times of crisis call for robust leadership – which in turn are manifestedin right planning and precise execution. Just as empty vessels make more sound, leaderships that revel in exhibitionism are bound to lag in efficacy. In New Zealand, even while carrying a baby in her hands, the prime minisrer Jacintha Ardern has been facing crisis, as she did during a terrorist attack, a volcano eruption and currently the arrival of Covid, not with sound and optics. We also see that US President Donald Trump, given to abundant rhetoric, is seen at a loss against Covid. Thus crises act as the filter between verbosity and efficiency.
In India, after the prime minister made three interventions through the media, the nation is in deep disappointment. In a country where the leader is literally followed by tapping on metal vessels and lighting candles after switching off lights, aspects that merit top priority are ignored. Personal Protective Equipmentn (PPE) are not available in required quantity. Tests of infection are happening at a rate far below the recommended level. Even when Modi gave the fall for Janata curfew three weeks after the World Health Organisation (WHO) gave warning about the imminent shortage of PPE, we were exporting PPE and its raw materials. It was only after the curfew call, and after some quarters pointed this out, that this was attended to and exports of such items banned. Gloves, facemasks, gown and medical masks are still in short supply. There is also the issue of monopoly production rights of Hindustan Latex Limited (HLL). Health workers are saying that from now on, over 5 lakh gowns may be required every day. But when lights are switched off creating disruption in transmission and distribution, it will be essential services including that of health sector, that will feel the hurt.
Another aspect demanding the same priority as of PPE is the widening of virus tests. Some countries were able to mitigate infections by testing those with symptoms and without symptoms too. In America and south Korea the first Covid deaths happened on 20 January. Within two months, deaths in the US increased to 9,000 times that of S Korea. The reason is that while South Korea was proving effectiveness by extensive testing and follow-up steps, in the US Trump was busy making boasts before the media. In India, even in April we hear that the CISF jawans in Mumbai airport test positive. One major reason is not having advance testing. As on 2 April, the total number of tests conducted in all India was only 45,000.
It is undeniably important to maintain the morale and unity of the people intact. And if sounding of bells and lamp lighting will help it, let them be there. But they all become relevant only once the more fundamental actions are taken. When public life is blocked as an unavoidable act, the first duty of the government is to ensure food, water, medicines and safe shelter. The mass migration was a tragic result of declaring lockdown without those prerequisites being met. In Bangladesh, a country of 16 crore people, lockdown was declared with a notice of three days; in South Africa with a population of 5.5 crore, people got notice of two days. And in India with 130 crore human beings, only a narrow window of three hours was allowed, and that too after all shops and offices were closed. T here is another comparison that would show whose interest the government is taking care of: when Modi informed that he was leaving his social media accounts to women in connection with the Women's Day, he had given five days advance notice for that. Even for the cymbal-beating ritual he granted a lead time of four days. And most recently, Sunday's lighting of lamps also had two days notice. At the same time, the 21-day lockdown was imposed almost as an instant fiat. Even though the objective of lockdown is to achieve social distancing, its fall-out in the first few days became just the opposite, probably because of lack of consultation at leadership level. In the light-up call too, this lack of consultation became all too evident. And in the committee for release of the technology of the Citizen App against Covid, there is not a single doctor, but only a few bureaucrats.
If chorus singing and clap and lighting up are to boost morale, the people should have a confidence about the leadership that calls for it. And there should be such leadership as who feels the people's anxieties and to whom the people could turn to their woes. In times of crisis, leadership should display three major qualities: prove efficiency and allay people's anxiety, create sense of security by ensuring availability of essential things, and earn people's trust by observing fairness and sense of unity. Covid-19 is a time for both the NDA government and Narendra Modi to prove their leadership mettle. But beyond certain dramatic gestures, their performance so far has been disappointing when it comes to taking effective steps. Indeed the poor - who obey the calls given to tap on vessels and to light candles - deserve more.