At the same time, given India’s population density, the cramped and squalid conditions in which tens of millions people live, not only will social distancing have limited effectiveness (household members of every infected person will be at high risk), but the loss of livelihoods and access to basic necessities will impose significant human costs. The short-term tradeoff between lives and livelihoods is manifest and nobody really knows where the precise balance lies. Too limited a lockout period risks the lives of potentially hundreds of thousands of people; too restrictive a lockout could result in the eruption of serious social unrest.
Responses cannot be one-size-fits-all and will need to be tailored to local needs. Agriculture is a state subject and states and district administrators should have flexibility and be encouraged to be innovative and not punished for thinking out of the box.
Concurrently the government needs to do five things. One, there needs to be clear messaging about behavioural changes aimed not just at the public but also the police.
Two, the State needs to work with industry to rapidly develop and manufacture diagnostic tests, personal protection equipment, medications and ventilators.
Three, the government needs to leverage the credibility and trust enjoyed by many civil society organisations to get essential services to vulnerable populations who the state cannot reach easily, such as migrants, older people or people with disabilities.
Four, from health care to supply chains, from the civil services to public utility personnel, several million Indians will necessarily be part of maintaining essential services. They are serving the country at considerable risk to themselves. They need to have first claims to personal protective equipment and testing and better life insurance.
Five, the government needs to recognise that in a crisis of this magnitude it needs the best expertise and competence, whether bureaucrats (serving or retired), or personnel from the private sector and civil society. Loyalty and ideology may have their place — but the costs today are simply too grave and manifest.
Finally, the Prime Minister has to realise that more than anything else, he will be remembered in history most by how he and his government handled this grave national peril. His leadership will require bringing the country together in a way that has not been his government’s strong suit. He needs to strongly lead with a spirit of cooperation with all states (such as a regular conference call with all the chief minsters), reach out to the political opposition and to all communities. History will then remember him as a healer and unifier, which will be critical to pull the country out from a spiraling national crisis.