In the wake of the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (Covid-19), Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi addressed the nation on Thursday. He pointed to the severity of the challenge confronting the world and India. He spoke about how meeting this challenge would require determination and resolve, restraint and discipline. He reached out to vulnerable segments. And he called for a people’s curfew on Sunday, as a symbol of India’s determination and a test of future preparedness.
The PM’s speech was correct in its tone and messaging. He was right in pointing out that the world is facing an unprecedented situation. He was also right in placing the onus on citizens. This is a disease that requires the highest degree of individual and social responsibility. The Indian State does not have the capacity to enforce a stay-at-home or a work-from-home policy for every citizen — it has to be voluntary — nor does it have the health infrastructure to deal with it if cases spread substantially. And the PM, by investing his personal and political capital, was telling citizens that they needed to change their everyday lives — for themselves, for their loved ones, for a secure future, and for the nation. The Sunday curfew is, possibly, a test, for if India enters the stage of community transmission, there may be periods when citizens will have to do this for longer. The PM was candid in acknowledging the economic distress across sectors, and sensitive in asking employers to pay workers even if they did not come to work.
The one element the PM should have addressed more substantively in the speech however, was the responsibility of the State — that is as critical, if not more, than that of the citizens. The government has, to be fair, been proactive, especially with regard to travel measures. But the PM would have done well to enumerate all the measures that have been taken; outline strategies for additional testing and why the government has been somewhat conservative in this regard; explain how the health system will be ramped up to meet additional challenges; how different layers of government — the Centre, the states and local governments — would coordinate better; and specific economic measures — including possibly a stimulus and direct cash hand-outs — which are becoming increasingly urgent. The PM should continue communicating with citizens, and transparently address some of these concerns. It will help reassure citizens, at a time of great uncertainty and distress.