The explosion of new coronavirus cases and the collapse of the medical system in India, accelerating since March, should not be seen as a faraway problem. The South Asian nation’s plight offers many lessons for other countries.
First, avoid overconfidence.
Everyone — from India’s top leadership to the general population — let their guard down when new infections slowed down in December and January.
In January Prime Minister Narendra Modi widely touted the effectiveness of measures taken by the government since the previous spring to fight the pandemic. These steps included a nationwide lockdown, policies to promote digitization and pushes to develop and produce vaccines. His triumphant comments spread a sense among Indians that they had defeated the coronavirus.
The public mood became even more optimistic in late January and early February, when a government agency published erroneous predictions based on mathematical models that the country would soon achieve herd immunity.
Many restaurants in Delhi, Mumbai and other major cities resumed normal operations in mid-January, and people frequently ate together in groups, larger than 10 in some cases. In February, people were riding trains and buses unmasked, and local governments began to struggle to prevent crowding and ensure that residents wore masks.
Second, do not “politicize” policymaking.
March and April were a political season in India, with several states holding legislative assembly elections that would also determine their chief ministers. With this in mind, the government of the Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party, whose support base is Hindu nationalists, did not impose strict restrictions ahead of a major Hindu festival that fell around that same time.
As a result, millions of people per day — mostly unmasked — gathered at holy sites to bathe in the Ganges River during Kumbh Mela, a religious festival billed as the largest gathering of humans in the world.
When it came to political campaigning, the government did not take steps like canceling densely packed rallies. Modi now faces harsh criticism after many infections were found to have occurred among festivalgoers and those who attended campaign rallies.
Third, streamline decision-making.
Administrative chaos has fueled the collapse of the medical system across the nation. The situation is particularly serious in the Delhi metropolitan area, which has often lacked a clear decision-maker during the ongoing crisis. Delhi is a union territory, under the direct control of the central government. But it also has its own locally elected chief minister. Furthermore, Delhi and the neighbouring cities of Gurugram and Noida, each in a separate state, together form a single metropolitan area. Common policy decisions among these different entities are difficult because of party politics.
In Mumbai, the second-largest metropolitan area after Delhi, there is an administrative body called the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai, which governs Mumbai and its neighboring cities together under a clear chief executive called the commissioner. Policy decisions beyond the Mumbai area can also be made relatively quickly because the chief minister of Maharashtra, whose capital is Mumbai, is the clear decision-maker for the entire state and can quickly consult with the Mumbai commissioner.
As a result, the Mumbai area not only imposed a strict lockdown from early April, two weeks before Delhi did, but also secured hospital beds and has so far averted a serious medical-system collapse.
India’s situation is full of lessons for governments whose officials have failed to implement integrated policymaking that cuts across administrative lines, and whose citizens are becoming increasingly lax after being constantly “asked” to social distance and show self-restraint.