We have seen how some governments dismissed the potential threat of novel coronavirus (COVID-19) only to wake up later and realise that it has entered their homes. Now, they are going hammer and tongs to calm the public, assure the private sector, and prep up healthcare workers to cope up with the pandemic, which has become a pandemonium for the common man.
COVID-19 has also given us a sense that sometimes governments underestimate the potential threats and overestimate their capacity to address the issue. The novel coronavirus is a classic case in point if we consider countries like America and a few others. But, it is a mass crisis now. Currently, 166 out of the 195 countries are affected by the coronavirus. The virus may affect remaining countries too, and if that happens, here’s what must they do:
- In the age of internet and social media, rumours spread fast, and this needs to be checked. So, countries must set up a website covid.gov. (country name) to give the latest updates, preventive steps, and the actions taken by the government, facilities for doing a check. The website should be the ‘go-to’ point for all authentic information. It must list an email ID, which is attended by a team to address queries. Being truthful about numbers will ensure that the masses will believe in the government. Though, a call centre (based on SOPs) will be ideal. Also, all countries should do serious multiple scenario planning, ie. how will they address the issue, and what is the level of preparedness, in case the virus impacts 1, 10, 30, 50, … 100 % of the population. It is essential to share the ‘real numbers’ and let the system be in a state of readiness. It cannot be business as usual. Private sector capability should be utilised for forecasting and back-casting scenario planning.
- Role of private healthcare providers: If you have national health insurance, pass orders to consider COVID-19 treatment under the scheme without a co-pay (if you have a co-pay). In case you don’t have an insurance, fund the testing and treatment. Keep sufficient stock of COVID kits for frontline healthcare workers. Put a team to monitor the frontline healthcare workers’ exposure and prophylactic actions that may be needed. Don’t force the private sector to offer services for free. If they are volunteering, it’s fine.
- Research & manufacturing: It is time to invest in R&D for prevention and therapy and there’s a need to manufacture protective clothing and equipment on a mass scale for domestic consumption and exports.
- Consumer Protection: The regulators must ensure that the consumers are not charged excessively for products and services related to the prevention and treatment of COVID-19 and there is an assured supply of daily necessities and facilities for transport in case of death or a medical emergency.
- The government’s role has to change from an arrogant extortionist to a responsible shareholder: The reality is that governments across the world generally collect between 25-40 % of income as taxes. Which means, Governments are shareholders with an upside without a downside. So, whenever a company makes money, the government will ensure that it collects its due from the income. But COVID-19 calls for governments to also show that it can be a partner when there is a downside. If coronavirus impacts a country for three months, stop tax collection for six months, put a moratorium of loans of corporates for the next six months and waive the interest due on them for that period and offer them a line of credit, this is more critical for MSMEs and entrepreneurs. Help the private sector come out of this contagion. It’s time for governments to chip in. Else, the private sector will finally convert ‘work at home’ to ‘stay at home’ (retrenchment), and this will lead to a ‘viral recession’. Shockingly, the government treats the private sector as a mistress. While government and bureaucracy want all favours from the private sector, they are shy to come out openly to support them in the time of crisis. This is more applicable to MSMEs who are left to fend for themselves to pay for the rentals and EMIs with lockdown in place.
- Workers in Unorganised Sector: They are the real engines of the ‘buying economy,’ which keeps the corporate balance sheets in green. But because of COVID-19, these people are under a severe threat of survival. It is time to pass on the money directly to these workers for the next six months. Also, those countries which run social service schemes like free or subsidised ration must deliver these to their doorsteps along with other necessities.
- There should be a complete lockdown on public movement, and the government must only keep police and hospital services open with preventive testing of exposed or people with symptoms. Mass screening of suspects is the solution. Also, the government must arrange for the public to buy daily essentials from mobile vans, which the government must provide. Also, the clinicians who are into other roles than frontline staff must be pressed into service. Even those who are preparing for their post-graduate. It is an emergency worse than war.
- Governments must not worry about the rating agencies or fiscal deficits for the next year and must be honest about numbers and projections. These are unprecedented times, and it calls for pre-emptive steps, not just preventive.
The governments will be judged by actions and relief on the ground, and not by high octane statements because the reality of infection and death cannot be manipulated. COVID-19 will change the way governments deliver or change the governments which don’t deliver.
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(Prof. Rajendra Pratap Gupta is a leading public policy expert and a former advisor to the Health Minister, Government of India. He tweets @rajendragupta)
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