Bhubaneswar: By the time the World Health Organization (WHO) named the novel coronavirus as COVID-19 and declared this crisis as a Public health emergency, there were 42,708 confirmed cases reported in China with 1017 having lost their lives: most of them reportedly in Wuhan. Outside China, there were 393 cases in 24 countries, and 1 death. A few weeks later, as reported by Roy Anderson and his team of Scientists inThe Lancet, most countries were likely to have spread of COVID-19, at least in the early stages, before any mitigation measures had an impact. They had also predicted that Governments would not be able to minimize deaths and the economic impact of the viral spread. The COVID-19 virus is highly contagious as it does not respect borders, societies or communities. Even with most of the world locked down and the scientists struggling for the long elusive vaccine, the governments’ world over are lost in scores of uncertainties. However early or late stage a country is in as regards to the virus spread, the governments are desperately trying to arrest the crisis that is dynamic and ever evolving. The efforts for developing a vaccine has also brought many scientists together, with over 80 groups worldwide kicking into high gear.A day after Israel claimed to have achieved significant break-through in developing an antibody to the novel coronavirus and applied for a patent, Italian scientists now have also reported substantial break-through in developing the vaccine, with some claiming this to be first in the world since the quest began. Nevertheless, we will wait to see the claims actually turning into reality.
Institutional Responses across the Globe
The pandemic required most governments across the globe to declare a state of emergency and adopt necessary measures to contain the virus. Many once-so-busy-avenues such as shopping arcades, cinema theatres, airports, railways stations, coffee shops, bars, clubs, airports, etc. turned into silent and desolate zones. Experiences from China and other countries showed that quarantine, social distancing and isolation of the infected could contain the epidemic. Chinese authorities responded with the relentless power of its totalitarian regime by isolating Wuhan which is a major travel hub and by applying rigid mobility restrictions and enforcing behavioural changes. The UK and recently Sweden with a relatively relaxed approach initially to control the spread, had to move to engage in more rigid approaches. Similarly, some hesitant leaders, who tried to oppose the evidence such as Donald Trump in the US joined the global fight. In Brazil Jair Bolsonaro’s resistance to acknowledge the threat triggered growing resistance and opposition, destabilising his leadership. Despite varying in their degree of restrictions, the adopted measures created an overwhelming impression that the more restrictive the means the better. Measures were legitimised by a continuous update of numbers that was employed to depict the magnitude and severity of the crisis and how well or badly different countries managed the spread of the virus. The reality of the spread of the virus coupled with media coverage depicting the impact of the virus and human responses to uncertain, unknown, and involuntary risks began to influence the Governments to design authoritative tools to manage the epidemic.
Between then and now
Between the announcement by WHO on 11 February 2020 and 06 May 2020, the numbers have grown exponentially to an unprecedented level. WHO dashboard on 06 May 2020 at 17.00 hr CEST reads (as shown below), 3,588,7333 confirmed cases, 247,503 confirmed deaths and 213 countries, areas and territories globally with cases.
COVID-19 in India
The first case in India was reported on 30 Jan 2020 in Thrissur and the 50th case was reported on 10 March 2020, 41 days after the first case. As we write this the total number of confirmed cases in India reads 46,434 with reported death numbers at 1568 and 12,726 having recovered so far.
State as an Agency of Social Control
Since social control is considered to be one of the foundations of order within society, in situations like this COVID-19 induced crisis the role of the Government in asserting the required control and regulation assumes paramount significance. However, the rapidly evolving nature of the invisible and unfamiliar threat combined with persistent uncertainties create remarkable complications. As reported in Scientific literature, uncertainties include questions over the incubation period, infectivity before symptoms, seasonal dimensions, specificity of the disease for certain population groups, re-infection rates, and, perhaps most importantly, the mortality rate. Taking this perspective a little further, let’s make a rapid assessment of key policy realignments that the Government of Odisha- known widely for its past track record of disaster preparedness and management- has adopted in a hitherto unknown and ever-evolving situation.
Some Notable Dates and Numbers from Odisha
On 13 March 2020 Odisha Government declared coronavirus as State disaster and announced a special package worth INR 200 crores to augment the public health response fund. All the schools, colleges, shopping malls, swimming pools, cinemas were shut down till further notice. On 16 March 2020 a 31-year-old man from Bhubaneswar who had returned from Italy became the first confirmed case in the state. Soon the travel history of the first case spread like wildfire across social media forcing the Government to take its preparedness to the next level. On 21 March 2020 with the confirmation of the second case, the government announced total shutdown in five districts in the first phase and subsequently in four more. Later, the central government declared lockdown for three weeks across the country from midnight of 24 March 2020. On 4th April 2020 the Government declared complete shutdown of three cities with active COVID-19 cases and did aggressive contact tracing. The samples of a 72-year-old man from Bhubaneswar who died on 6 April 2020 tested positive, marking the first coronavirus death in the state. Subsequently, the Government decided to extend the lockdown period from 14 April to30 April 2020 to effectively contain the spread of the virus. With this Odisha became the first state in the country to extend the lockdown period. By the time the announcement for the first nationwide lockdown was made, 14 out of 30 districts of the state were already under a lockdown.
Odisha’s familiar territory: Disaster Management
Odisha has in past two decades, promised and delivered on its commitment to ‘no human casualty’- most recent instance being the severe cyclone Fani in May 2019. In doing so, the State Government has always drawn global attention in disaster management. However, this unfamiliar emergency situation demanded that the Government took immediate steps to realign its existing policies and also bring in new ones. Let’s take a quick stab at some of those.
Constitution of Task Force
The Government of Odisha, on 16 March 2020, constituted an Expert Group of doctors and scientists to advise the Government on prevention, containment, and clinical management of COVID-19 in the State. The members included the Directors of All India Institute of Medical Sciences(AIIMS), Indian Institute of Technology(IIT), National Institute of Science Education and Research(NISER), Regional Medical Research Centre(RMRC), Institute of Life Sciences(ILS), Public Health Foundation of India(PHFI) and few leading doctors and scientists. The task force was empowered to suggest to prevent the spread of the infection.
Odisha Covid-19 Regulations-2020
As an immediate response, the Government of Odisha issued the Odisha Covid-19 Regulations-2020 on 3rd April 2020 in exercise of power conferred in the Epidemic Disease Act, 1897. The regulations issued by the Department of Health and Family Welfare at the behest of the Government of Odisha empowered the Directors of Public Health(DPH), Health Services(DHS) and Medical Education and Training(DMET) to exercise jurisdiction in the whole state and the Collectors, Municipal Commissioners, District Medical Officers, Sub-Collectors, Tahsildars, Executive Officers of ULBs to act in their respective jurisdictions.
Curbing the Spread of rumours and misinformation
The Odisha Covid-19 regulations, 2020 mandated that no person, Institution, and organization would use any print, electronic or social media for information regarding COVID-19 without prior permission from the appropriate Government authorities. To avoid spread of any unauthenticated information and/or rumour, such acts were made a punishable offence. State government’s chief spokesperson for COVID-19 Subroto Bagchi on 01 April 2020 warned that any rumour relating to COVID-19 would be dealt with severely.
Reassignment of State Bureaucracy to Meet Emergency
On 15 April 2020the Government assigned areas under Bhubaneswar Municipal Corporation (BMC) to senior officers in the rank of Additional Chief Secretary/Principal Secretary and Secretaries to the Government for control and prevention of COVID-19 in Bhubaneswar, as the number of reported cases in the city was the highest in the State. In wake of the sudden spike in the number of cases in Balasore, Bhadrak and Jajpur, the Government on 23 April 2020, appointed three secretaries to oversee and monitor the situation in these three districts. Subsequently, on 27 April 2020, as many as 22 IAS officers were given responsibilities of all the 30 districts.
Delegation of Power to Sarpanchs
On 19 April 2020 in a video message, the Chief Minister said, “Extraordinary situations call for extraordinary solutions. Empowering panchayats and ULBs will facilitate tracking and monitoring of migrant workers who are returning from other states. The involvement of PRIs at the grassroots will go a long way to fight Corona pandemic”. In a historic move, for empowering the sarpanches with the powers of District Collectors in their respective jurisdiction to fight COVID-19, required provisions were made under Section 51 of the Disaster Management Act-2005 and the Epidemic Diseases Act-1897.
Reclassification of various Departments
In view of the lockdown, the Government reclassified various functional departments as critical, partially critical, and non-critical till the lockdown period was in force. Food supply and consumer welfare, Health and family welfare, Home, Special relief commission, General administration, and public grievance, and Housing and urban development were declared ‘essential’. Energy, Finance, Revenue, Steel and Mines, Forest and Environment, Commerce and transport, Fisheries and animal resources, etc. were put under ‘partially critical’ category whereas not-so-essential ones like Excise, Labour, Parliamentary Affairs, Sports, School and mass education, Tourism, Culture, Skill Development and Technical Education, etc. were marked ‘non-critical’.
Keeping in view the urgency of the situation and as per section 50 the Disaster Management Act-2005, the Government constituted several committees on 22 March 2020 to look after emergency procurement of drugs, equipment, consumable, etc. The committees have been made operational at various levels with approval of making emergency procurement and taking all required procurement decisions without any financial limit. The government on 10 April 2020 sought more funds, equipment, and testing kits to effectively tackle the spread of COVID-19 in the state.
Enhancement of Financial Powers of Directors of DH&FW and District Collectors
In an unprecedented move, on 23 March 2020the State Government delegated financial powers to various authorities making the procurement and also enhanced the cap for a temporary period till 30 June 2020. The Directors of DH&FW have been allowed INR 5 million and 15 million respectively for recurring and non-recurring expenditures. Similarly, the cap of expenditure for District Collectors have been raised to INR 2.5 million and 7.5 million for the same.
Department Specific Orders
Recognizing that the State would require marshalling of all services available across the state to respond to the emergency, it has issued several department-specific orders from time to time. Department of Public health, on 18 March 2020, was asked to increase paramedical staffs and doctors up to 25% against the sanctioned positions. On 23 March 2020 the Planning and Convergence Department issued orders for the provision of manpower, procurement of materials for the temporary health camps (THC) and isolation centres and provision of physical infrastructure at the THCs. On 28 March 2020, the General Administration and Public Grievance department were asked to reinforce the healthcare personnel by imparting necessary training to paramedics and students of state-run medical colleges. On 31 March 2020, the Finance Department was issued an order to defer the salary by a certain percentage for the Ministers, MLAs, and the highest level executives in the administrative cadre, till further orders. On 6 April 2020, the Government issued an order empowering the DH&FW for requisitioning services of government or non-government health providers as the available recourses might not be adequate to effectively deal with the evolving situation.
Building Trust and Resilience
Although there cannot be a one-size-fits-all approach as every disaster poses different challenges before the state administration, the state government has leveraged its past experiences to build up its capacity to mitigate the damages. While handling the Covid-19 crisis, the Government is invested in raising awareness and dissemination of credible information by setting up a dash-board hosted by the DH&FW at https://statedashboard.odisha.gov.in/. Previous researches on SARS, swine-flu and ebola have provided enough evidence that trust can influence perceived severity and transmissibility, willingness to adopt state-imposed measures such as physical distancing and curbing of impulsive individual behaviours. Recognising this, the Government of Odisha has ensured continuous engagement with the people of the state through daily press addresses. These efforts have gone a long way in winning the trust of the people of the state and garnering cooperation to mitigate the damage.
Further into the unknown zone
Public inconveniences, economic turmoil, loss of livelihood choices have been reported widely, putting the Government under tremendous pressure. Going forward, there would be a new set of problems to deal with. The migrant labourers that the State is making efforts to bring back home are already rendered jobless. And, with many economic activities either completely shut down or partially operational, this section of population will keep limping. Due to the closure of educational institutions, the children from the disadvantaged sections will surely suffer the most. Both the citizens and the policymakers, in this battle against COVID-19 virus, will, in all likelihood, have to reorient their priorities and be realigned to the ‘desperate’ measures that are and will continue to be emerging out of unknown spheres. Said all these, presently the focus of the State Government is on containing spread of the virus. However, eventually the other associated and hitherto unforeseen challenges will add on to the already existing socio-economic problems. While we agree that the measures taken so far by the State Government are worth appreciating, the newer and perhaps newer challenges in coming days will surely put more pressure on the Government, requiring further reorientation and realignment of priority areas. Let’s hope the new normal arrives sooner rather than later.
About the Author
Dr. Pranay Kumar Swain is the Chairperson, School of HSS, National Institute of Science Education and Research, Bhubaneswar. Contacts +91 674 2494010 (O), Handheld- +91 993 700 9939/943 986 1939
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of Pragativadi and Pragativadi.com does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.