How to win the war against Covid-19

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Two million people perished during the bloody birth of our nation. The pandemic has claimed one-tenth of that number already. There is no negating its severity anymore because even the staunchest deniers are sick, dying or cremating their families. Our health infrastructure has already collapsed and we have yet to face subsequent waves as super-spreader melas and rallies start their transmission cycles. India is waging a third world war. And a nation at war cannot afford internal squabbling.

What should or could have been done to avoid the situation are passe conversations which can wait. A war requires unity of purpose and participation of citizens. We are facing a much bigger enemy than differences in ideology, religion or political affinity. We will have time enough for the latter if we win the battle against the former. If we don’t, our economy will be in tatters, families will be devastated and we will live a mauled existence for decades. Who will the corporates sell to if their customer base is diminished? How will politicians govern, if the nation is depleted of people? How can the rich live safely when the poor have nothing left to lose?

That is why, at this time, there must be a single-minded focus on how we can contribute to the war effort rather than indulge in recrimination.

War times require nations to leverage their national capacity. A national war effort is a sum of the constructive energy of every citizen and organisation. This war needs to be fought on fronts other than government operations which perforce deal reactively with the immediate crisis and will always be inadequate. Here are six strategic initiatives which can help the war effort.

Bureaucracy must ruthlessly convert peacetime processes to a wartime sense of urgency. Every rule that impedes fluidity must be suspended. Every order passed must be war-gamed through its implications in consultation with stakeholder representatives. These instructions need to be reviewed every 12 hours and tweaked based on ground feedback. An entirely separate set of officers must start planning and catering for impending contingencies like the approaching summer which will trigger power shortages, monsoons that will choke ravaged cities like Mumbai and non-Covid-19 diseases whose toll will start rising exponentially.

Large corporates must pitch in with every possible resource they can spare. They should vaccinate all their direct and indirect employees and families, set up medical facilities for them and frontload their corporate social responsibility (CSR) budgets for the next decade right now. The government must allow carrying forward CSR credit with pro-rata incentives. Similarly, corporates should hasten their payment cycles to vendors and employees to inject more spending power into the system. Venture capitalist funds must redirect their focus on equipment and platforms required to fight Covid to spur innovation and scale.

Software giants, telecom back-offices, call centres, e-commerce platforms must offer their resources proactively. Business associations and various other trade bodies at all levels must submit assistance for coordination and movement of resources and dissemination of information. Unsold inventory of the real estate sector should be modified into wards or holding areas. The idle capacity of schools and private buses must be commandeered and redeployed for the pandemic. These solutions must be planned in totality and offered as self-contained projects. The government is too overwhelmed to redeploy resources offered piecemeal.

Our health and hygiene, police, medical supply chain and ancillary personnel are frontline warriors. Many of them have not been able to cater to their own families over the last few weeks. Resident Welfare Associations and neighbours should take every possible administrative load off them. Frontline staff should be commuted to work instead of having to travel themselves, their children should be looked after and their families helped, so that they can focus on the pandemic. The policemen on duty must be taken care of by us to alleviate exhaustion and fatigue. Hygiene workers should be given cash and food to boost their wherewithal. Every ounce of energy that frontline soldiers divert from the battle, towards their administrative requirements, results in lost lives. Every administrative call they have to attend to is a professional call missed.

We need to work the phones with our non-resident Indian (NRI) assets asking for assistance of resources and pressure to be applied on their host countries’ governments. The latter must realise that India is a back-office and industrial base for the world, not just for Indians. Indian diplomats must make the case that a weakened India strengthens Chinese hegemony. We need to call in our IOUs to nations like the United States, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, France and so on who have benefited immensely from their Indian diaspora, and more importantly, need access to Indian markets in the future. Regardless of which parties NRIs support, they are still Indians and their homeland needs them.

Our national leaders, irrespective of political affiliation must be pressed into service to leverage their expertise, organisational capabilities and relationships with counterparts, CEOs and industrialists in other countries. This is not unprecedented. Prime minister Narasimha Rao sent Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the then leader of the Opposition to defend India in the United Nations. Rao showed his statesmanship by electing the best man for the job and Vajpayee did him proud. Both fought for India even though they were political adversaries. And that is the spirit we need to win a war.

Raghu Raman is founding CEO, NATGRID

The views expressed are personal