Saving lives is as important as saving jobs and livelihoods

Lakshmana Venkat Kuchi
Has India been caught napping on the Covid front ? And that too when one had a whole year to prepare for a second wave, especially given the experience of other Nations that have gone through the pain of the pandemic and its successive attacks ?
We were celebrating the relatively less intense Covid attack in India as compared to its impact on many other countries and failed to get ready to face a future second wave, that was near certain to follow as the global experience showed. On the contingency planning front, perhaps, we in our erroneous assessment have clearly been found wanting as the ferocity of the second wave in its intensity and deaths has begun to unravel.
The harrowing experiences of the common man and woman, the heart-rending scenes at the hospitals only go to show how the health systems in India are crumbling -- lack of beds, medicines, even oxygen for which States are fighting with one another for their share of the life-giving and life-protecting gas tells the tale of misplaced priorities.
True, the pandemic is something for which no amount of planning could completely cover all aspects, but in this case, the experience of other countries is with us to learn from, and anticipate the possible scenario.
It is a sad commentary on our collective failure as a Nation to anticipate the Covid second wave, and more responsible for the failure of us all in laughing away coronavirus and were lax in following Covid protocols – masking up, maintaining distance and sanitizing. And in public places, India behaved as if Corona was conquered and there was a collective let down in guard, and more important, even the authorities seemed to have gone along with the assessment of the masses.
Huge congregations at festivals, in the name of faith and religion, poll rallies that saw huge crowds of people without masks are only indicative of the collective callous behaviour of us all as citizens.
Clearly, the second wave is proving to be more dangerous with an alarming rise in infections taking India to the number one spot in daily cases and over 2000 deaths a day. Yes, now at the fag end of elections in West Bengal, political parties have announced curtailing their rallies, or cancelling them, and low-key campaigning for the two rounds left for polling. Even Election Commission seems to have woken up after the Calcutta High Court pulled it up for its failure to impose Covid-19 restrictions strictly. The High Court lashed out at the Election Commission which it said "is not doing one-tenth of what TN Seshan had done", and warned that if Commission did not take action, the Court will.
Political parties may defend the electioneering by pointing out that several States in which Coronavirus cases were surging hugely did not have elections or events like Kumbh mela, but the reality on the ground is that cases in West Bengal have gone up 10 times already. Health professionals worry that the State may witnesses a huge spurt as days go by.
What to speak of West Bengal, the situation in the union capital of Delhi and surroundings is very grim and hospitals are having to move the Courts for their share of oxygen–to save patients. Few hospitals had to ask the patients to move out as their oxygen supplies had run out, television reports showed.
It was after a tweet by the chief of Apollo Hospitals chief tagging the Prime Minister, Defence Minister and Health Minister that authorities stepped in to ensure oxygen supply trucks for this hospital, highlighting the shortage of oxygen being experienced by many hospitals, big and small. This problem figured prominently in a meeting chaired by Prime Minister with Chief Ministers of the affected States and the issue got highlighted with Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal making a portion of the meeting available for live telecast–wherein he requested the PM to instruct States that were blocking oxygen cylinders to Delhi to not do so.
In fact, this angered the Prime Minister who lashed out at Kejriwal for departing from traditions of such important meetings, and outside the BJP leaders took the Delhi CM to task for playing politics with such an important issue and trying to shift blame from himself onto others for his own failure.
Various States are slowly taking more and more strict measures to enforce regulations restricting people's movement, with a view to breaking the coronavirus cycle. Night curfews have become the norm and work from home for employees, wherever possible the common practice followed by offices to stop people from coming out. Other than essential workers, not many are allowed to venture out unless they have important health-related work.
What the second wave is doing is that it is attacking the health of the people, leading to a greater number of fatalities as compared to the first wave. And more important, adding onto these health concerns, the continued restrictions will adversely affect the economy, and more important the MSMEs and small-scale sector that was once again trying to revive will face yet another threat to their survival. The new restrictions that are coming into place in different States and cities, will once again adversely affect the small and medium sector, which is yet to recover fully from the lockdown and first wave of corona effect, and it fears that a dip in demand, as well as a fall in income generation, will combine to impact the sector adversely.
An industrialist representing the MSMEs fears that micro, small enterprises, and self-employed entrepreneurs have already become insecure, clueless on how to plan for the future. Corona's impact is severe, with orders drying up and a standstill in cash flow and migrant labourers once again leaving for their hometowns. The small enterprises were just about to get back on their feet when this second wave has come upon us. For this sector, the raw material prices are shooting, site activities are stopped, and movement of materials has become unpredictable, and to add to all this, the banks are applying pressure on recovery. The banks are also reducing existing limits due to poor performance last year, which was dismal given the Covid situation and interest burden heavier.
Given this scenario, the micro, small and medium sector that gives employment to a huge number of people, fears for the future.
Along with steps to shore up health infrastructure and combating the virus on war footing, we must tackle the issue of jobs and livelihood losses on account of the adverse impact of the pandemic on MSMEs. What is needed, industry representatives tell us is that the Central and State Governments must come together to form a Task Force to handle Livelihood Loss with Experts from MSME and assess the impact and find solutions to problems faced by each segment. Yes, the health aspect of the people and saving them by providing them basic and specialized health care to prevent deaths and treat them for the virus is very important and is paramount.
But equally important is to save the MSMEs from the death throes they are slipping into.
Lakshmana Venkat Kuchi is a senior journalist tracking social, economic, and political changes across the country. He was associated with the Press Trust of India, The Hindu, Sunday Observer, and Hindustan Times. He can be reached on [email protected] and Twitter handle @kvlakshman