We have role models who have led the fight against the pandemic in India. These leaders have emerged because of their genuine interest in helping people out, their intellect, and by being proactive.
You step out in Mumbai and humanity is at your feet, almost all revealed. There is much squalour with some glitz. There is chaos and also the calm of the sea. You either move or get pushed down by the crowds. People and constructed spaces in this city flow like opium, filling up your senses. I have found maximum city Mumbai to be as overwhelming as life can get. It is these crowds and deeply socialised nature of the city that eventually played a strong role in augmenting the reproductive ratio of Covid-19 here leading to winning the race in India that no one wants to win — of having the most number of active Covid-19 cases until recently.
Mumbai could have been more prepared. In a note authored by Professor Dhaval Monani and myself, that we submitted to the Prime Minister’s Office on April 2, 2020, we had proposed the setting up of temporary hospitals within vacant community halls, marriage halls, office spaces. But it was not until end of April that BMC decided to take over vacant spaces to create temporary hospitals for Covid-19 patients and for quarantining those at risk. BMC’s search also included the wrong spaces — maidaans, warehouses — which are not only expensive to convert in to Covid-19 recovery facilities, but also dusty and therefore detrimental to the condition of the patients. For setting up facilities at scale, we needed to keep the per-bed cost as low as possible. Instead, most of the facilities used expensive steel beds and equipment that was not needed.
Never waste a good crisis — I was dismayed to see this as the motto of several government officials to make a quick buck in procurement, of politicians who would be more interested in press coverage rather than getting any work done, and people in the private sector who overnight became dealers of testing kits at huge margins. I also watched (furiously) how CSR was at times used as a garb for profiteering off the crisis. My team’s efforts come free of cost. However, for-profit ventures for social good are also excellent as this builds in incentives to do good so that it is sustainable — but when doing so the model needs to be transparent. Mumbai, a city where dreams are realised as fast as they are crushed, was even during a pandemic using its elbows to get ahead in the crowd.
Large private sector companies have not stepped up. While elsewhere in cities like Pune, companies like Wipro set up temporary hospitals within their office buildings or the Serum Institute of India who is collaborating with universities to create a vaccine, where are the corporate giants of Mumbai? CSR is not enough, but even that has been inadequately spent to help Mumbai cope with the virus.
The city has woken up to randomised testing far too late. This week the BMC has removed the earlier order for the need of prescription to get a Covid-19 test and has introduced a new rule that does not require a prescription. People can now get a test done at any hospital. Right from the start of the spread of the pandemic, there should have been no need to make it so darned difficult to get tested! After the initial hiccups, Covid-19 tests were available in abundance. Numerous experts cried hoarse advising the government to make testing easier, but it was to no avail. Panic early, Mumbai.
Communications from the government has been confusing and damaging. At first, there was fear induced amongst people against Covid-19 which led to severe stigmatisation against patients. And then economic interests took over the concern for health, which suddenly made it alright for certain sectors to open up. Ironically, now as numbers of active cases of the Coronavirus soar, it has never been easier during this pandemic to be out and about in the city. There has been extreme short-sightedness on the part of the government, in at first believing that social distancing would work in a country where 1 of 6 urban dwellers live in slum zones. In most cases — and more so in a health disaster — we can not copy-paste solutions that have worked for other countries on to the unique context in India. Economy and health needs to be balanced, but it should have been balanced very differently than done. Mumbai could have adopted different policies in different districts depending on the local conditions. The epidemic could have been contained in some areas where it was rampant, and certain unaffected districts could have been opened up.
There is hope. We have role models who have led the fight against the pandemic in India. These leaders have emerged because of their genuine interest in helping people out, their intellect, and by being proactive.
For example, I was introduced to Amin Patel when we were making our first Covid-19 quarantine centre in Mumbai in early May 2020. Those were the days when my team at my company Sustain Labs and at the Anant Centre for Sustainability a think-teach-do tank that I established two years ago, was manufacturing equipment and moving trucks across India amidst a complete nation wide lockdown. Amin is a three term MLA from the Mumbadevi constituency in Mumbai, but his concern was for all of Mumbai. He set up a 200 oxygen cylinder bank for everyone to use in Mumbai — this is refreshing as often the challenge for democracy is populism, and that too combined with a narrow vision of pleasing the constituency for votes.
When Covid struck, Amin’s first reaction was to send ration to the Kamthipura area where overnight sex workers saw their incomes disappear due to social distancing rules in place. He once told me, “Even if one family anywhere in Mumbai needs ration I send a tempo with food.” His sleep routine is highly unrecommended — he sleeps at 1 am; is awake from 3.30 am to 6 am answering distress calls that he would have received while asleep and taking action on them; then he goes back to sleep from 6 am until 8 am.
While setting up the Covid-19 recovery facility with the help of Amin, one of the partners in the project had a demand for 10% of project cost as management fee to which Amin’s reaction is one that I will never forget. He was appalled at the demand and said, “10% of project cost can make 20 beds and save 20 lives every fortnight! We will refuse to pay that!” It is only too common for government officials and politicians to be in a hurry to get things done just to look good to the higher ups and the voters.
Why is it so difficult to help the government in India? This could well be the title of my next book as there is so much to reflect upon and write about this. In the meantime, all power to those government representatives on the frontline who are genuinely and effectively fighting for the rest of us.
The writer is CEO of Sustain Labs and Adjunct Professor at SciencesPo Paris. She is also a columnist and author of the 2019 bestseller Indian Instincts — essays on freedom and equality in India