COVID-19 emergency response – some observations

Ninglun Hanghal
Even as the state had experienced crisis and emergencies, man-made or natural calamity, the current COVID-19 emergency is the first of its kind the state is encountering in terms of its form, scale or magnitude.
The state government is on a war footing to fight the virus with all its resources and manpower. The response is commendable and remarkable, most significantly in terms of engagement of the state authorities, notably the health department, health workers with limited infrastructures and facilities, pulling through this difficult circumstance.  
While acknowledging the tremendous efforts- both by the state government and its agencies, a look back at the immediate emergency response and crisis management has shown us some pointers that could be (have been) done better and smoother. Not a critique or a judgmental conclusion and not to say the state did not do enough. This observation mainly comes from the reactions and responses in Churachandpur district of Manipur.
As lockdown was announced, the advisory, guideline, information, any public circular were sent out mostly across social media, besides print and television. CSOs were roped in for emergency response- in terms of information circulation and later for emergency relief work. In Manipur, hill-tribal districts in specific, CSOs means tribe/ community based traditional organizations. These CSOs circulate information on COVID-19 related – such as lockdown - to each of their constituent members or community. These circulars and public notifications appear like it was a directive, an advisory coming from the CSOs.
Thus the informed general public took the task upon themselves. The impact of the advisory to stay indoor was so strong that volunteers came out to ensure that lockdown was ‘successful’ - colonies were gated and guarded by volunteers.  Such extreme response was likely to be accelerated by the fact that advisories came from their respective CSOs. In that, any order, notices, circulars- that come from the CSOs are responded in heart and soul. The society is so used to following orders or notices from CSOs that this lockdown notice, advisories were also followed – tooth and nail. The circulars understood as a call for “volunteering” to make the “curfew” a success!
Much as it has experience crisis, scarcity of basic needs is what the state had gone through in decades, not once, twice, but many times. The long queue at the petrol pump – at the drop of a hat- is one indication of such panic, that even as people were asked to stay indoors and not “go out” people still queue up to buy petrol. The scene at Lamka bazaar, just as the lockdown was relaxed for the first time in March was a telling picture. The whole population throng the market, until the police arrived to force shut the shops.
One key aspect of this COVID-19 tells us that the management of masses is equally as crucial as containing the crisis/disease.
Concerning the information and advisory, live telecast, live public announcement on television, and loudspeakers by the district administration, elected representative of each constituency would have made a huge difference in terms of management of the mass. And preferably this should have been done daily, from day one. Recordings of these public announcements and appeals can be circulated on social media instead of the public circular on official letterhead and signatures of CSOs. This could have made a tremendous impact, much more than police controlling the public. This will go a long way in containing the virus as well.
Relief distribution is another mess. Even as the intention is appreciable and the objective being that no one should go hungry, the situation is such that such initiative is just impossible to be 'free and fair" for obvious reasons. The free rice distribution, even as it was supposedly meant for all, including “migrant families”, did not reach every household. This could also have been better handled had the district administration, elected representative along with concerned departments such as food and civil supplies, social welfare departments were carrying out the task. A Daily press conference, information, and strategy of distribution plans should be (have been) live telecasted. The free distribution concept and idea was a bit utopian.
Manipur government has a large number of state employees, who could have been utilized during this emergency relief work or monitoring of public during the lockdown, instead of the traditional usual system of CSOs, or committees. This could have lessened not only the public anger and chaos but helped in public management. Even as rice and essential item are being distributed, all along the essential commodities should also be made available in groceries and shops. The grocery shops, selling vegetables could be made more systematic all the while monitoring prices. This would have lessened mass hysteria and cynicism.
Now, Presently the state is facing the herculean task of managing the city returnees. It is also reported that most advisory, guidelines are not followed, besides lack of infrastructures and basic facilities. Here too, rather than the usual traditional system of involving community-based organizations, youth- student volunteers must be roped in. Here the government can come up with a plan to utilize educated unemployed youths with a few minimal honorariums. They can be given on the job training under the medical and security departments. This would be much better instead of involving everyone, with everyone doing everything, leading to chaos and disorganized quarantine centres.
Moreover, it is also a collective psyche of the public in Manipur to disobey state authorities- may be a rebellious characteristic? or that the understanding of state or administration is yet to evolve or sink in? For people in Manipur, the encounter with the state is mostly in terms of protest or curfew.  More than state ( administration and agencies) CSOs have more power over public control. And that is also where the loophole lies, particularly when it comes to an emergency like this.
 It is also a fact that there is a trust deficit. This crisis is an opportunity to build a relation between the state, its agencies, and the general public. More efforts should be put in towards building this up.
In any crisis or emergency, there is room for learning and an opportunity to set things better. The COVID-19 emergency is a learning and a lesson to prepare us better in the future.  COVID-19 may not -hopefully - strike again but humanitarian crisis in various forms is inevitable.