A White paper on Covid-19

Parliament has finally held a debate on the most pressing issue of contemporary times — the public health and economic challenge posed by Covid-19. Health minister Harsh Vardhan first offered a statement, where he outlined the government’s efforts to tackle the pandemic, the improvement in the health infrastructure, the gains because of the lockdown, the low death rate in India, the medical efforts underway, and the need for constant caution. In response, many Opposition leaders questioned the government’s assessment and critiqued the lack of initial preparation, the management of the lockdown, the economic contraction and the distress caused to migrant workers, and the rising case count in the country.

While the pandemic is still ravaging lives and livelihoods, the debate itself is a good first step in evaluating how India has fared so far. Three points emerge from it. On the lockdown, the Centre continues to believe it did the right thing — the Opposition believes that even if the lockdown was necessary, the four-hour notice was inadequate and caused panic, and the government did not take into account the distress it would cause. On the economy, while the government argues it has taken major steps to tackle distress through a stimulus and welfare measures, the Opposition believes that these steps have been inadequate. As Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam Member of Parliament, Tiruchi Sivá, said, India had the most stringent lockdown, the weakest stimulus, and has the hardest-hit GDP. On Centre-state coordination, while the former claims that there was regular consultation and decisions were taken based on inputs from states, the Opposition believes that the Centre has taken credit for the good, while putting the blame on states, especially those ruled by non-Bharatiya Janata Party forces, when the going is tough.

This divergence is not just a matter of theoretical debate — it has had, and continues to have real policy implications (and human and economic costs) on the management of the pandemic. Given that it has been close to six months since the lockdown, it is perhaps a good time for the government to come up with a White Paper on India’s Covid-19 record. This should highlight the unprecedented nature of the challenge and the steps that the government has taken. But it should also look at the gaps — in terms of India’s public health systems, weak social security safety net, and the persistent challenge in protecting both lives and livelihoods. This will help both current policymaking and serve as a historical record.

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