The government’s swift and sensible response to the coronavirus outbreak, which the World Health Organization has finally designated a pandemic, offers some reassurance that India may escape the more deleterious impact that has afflicted the rest of the world. The government has issued a blanket ban on tourist visas from all countries and halted visa-free entry for Overseas Citizens of India till April 15. It has also asked all states and Union Territories to invoke the provisions of the Epidemic Diseases Act. This legislation of 1897 enables the states to take temporary measures (including suspending existing laws) to prevent the outbreak or spread of a disease. The Act also allows the Centre to prescribe measures for inspecting any ship at port. Given the vintage of this law (123 years), it would be useful if it were amended soon to extend these powers to aircraft as well. The health checks instituted at airports and the regular public interest messaging on television and via mobile also show that the government has been reasonably pro-active in containing the panic. The uncertainty over the Indian Premier league should also end soon. The options are clear — either it should take place behind closed doors, or be scrapped.
The bigger challenges, however, lie in the known unknowns. Chief among them is the ambit of the disease and information about it. From just three reported cases a month and a half ago, the number has climbed to 73, though Italian tourists have bulked up those numbers. But information flows remain opaque: Confirmation of whether a man in Leh has died of coronavirus or some other disease is yet to come. Besides, given India’s default condition — the high level of poor hygiene in public spaces and low levels of awareness in congested slums and urban agglomerations — it is unclear how far the epidemic can be contained. “Social distancing” and frequent hand-washing, the two chief preventive measures in vogue, will be difficult to enforce, especially among the marginally educated and the poor. For instance, though air travel may drop sharply and affluent urban Indians may be able to work from home, teeming millions of daily wagers will wilfully risk infection by travelling in jam-packed modes of public transport to earn livelihoods already affected by the economic slowdown. Since the symptoms of coronavirus are flu-like, it is uncertain how far those infected by it recognise them as such. Beyond that is the question of whether the public health system is up to the challenge in a country where access to even rudimentary health care and hospital beds is dismal. All of 52 testing sites across the country appear inadequate. Uttar Pradesh, the centre of tourist-heavy destinations, has just three testing sites.
And finally, there is the economic cost of the virus. The slowdown in global trade and the sharp dip in demand for employment-heavy discretionary services are likely to compound India’s faltering growth, which slumping oil prices will only partially mitigate. India’s heavy China dependence on a host of critical intermediates will also create new bottlenecks. The concern is reflected in the mayhem in the stock markets over the past few days. In that sense, the crisis could well provide the government with a unique opportunity to push through the tougher but much-needed economic reforms that could help India to be back on the growth trajectory.