Prime Minister Narendra Modi has taken a multifaceted approach to fighting the coronavirus pandemic, guided by an array of national task forces. He has suspended international and domestic travel, implemented contact tracing and exposure notification, expanded diagnostic capacity, and scaled up manufacturing of medical equipment. “Had India not adopted a holistic and integrated approach,” he noted when extending the nationwide lockdown, “taking quick and decisive action, the situation in India today would have been completely different.”
This well-coordinated strategy has involved the scientific community and private sector in the development and production of testing kits, personal protective equipment, ventilators, and other respiratory devices. Recognizing the need to scale up testing, New Delhi expanded its diagnostic network to include 391 government laboratories and 164 private labs. With its ramped-up capacity, India has tested 2,512,388 samples as of May 20. Following the model pursued by other countries, the government has also launched a contact tracing app to identify, notify, and support people who may have been exposed to infected patients.
Despite these aggressive measures, the caseload had steadily mounted, reaching 107,819 reported cases and 3,434 deaths as of May 20. More than 1,200 coronavirus cases reported in Asia’s largest slum, Dharavi, only add to the bleak reality of the situation. Moreover, the sudden nationwide lockdown has proved to be a massive logistical challenge for migrant workers. Travel disruptions, vulnerable supply chains, and confusion about which essential services can operate have greatly affected those engaged in the informal sector. Although the Indian government has announced a relief package and is closely working with states and NGOs to provide food and shelter to these stranded workers, the measures do not seem sufficient to assuage the plight of those affected by an extended lockdown.
India is currently considering how best to ease its restrictions. Despite scaled-up testing and enhanced contact tracing, the country’s public health infrastructure must also be prepared for a rapid surge in cases in the period after May 31, when the nationwide lockdown is scheduled to end.
Shruti Sharma is a research analyst with the Technology and International Affairs Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. She works primarily on the safety, security, and ethical implications of emerging biotechnologies.
Interview with Rakesh Sood, former Indian diplomat and Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, India
How does India perceive the role of international institutions in combating this pandemic?
All international institutions have been found wanting. Political organizations like the UN Security Council, G7, and G20 have failed to take action because of lack of leadership. The United States has been reluctant to lead, European countries are preoccupied, and China is more intent on changing global perceptions of its role than taking a lead by investing effort and capital. The specialized World Health Organization could have been the natural driver for collective policy action but has been caught up in the U.S.-China blame game and lost credibility.
Given that South Asia is the most densely populated region in the world, what are the opportunities and challenges for the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) amid this pandemic?
Since even countries in better integrated regions like the EU and Southeast Asia—with much more efficient regional mechanisms and institutions—have leaned on national measures rather than regional coordination to respond to the pandemic, it is unrealistic to expect SAARC to play an effective role. As the region’s largest economy, India alone can support its neighbors. That support is bound to be limited and, in most cases, bilateral.
Confronting the risks of complex global supply chains has reinforced nationalistic rhetoric around economic protectionism. What will be the implications for the global economy if more countries remodel their supply chains and use domestic industry to bridge the gap?
Extended global supply chains were already being strained, largely on account of U.S.-China trade tensions that had spilled over into the technology sector. The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted additional concerns about supply chains for medical equipment and pharmaceutical products. Where possible, supply chains will certainly be shortened and national capacities further developed. However, not all countries have equal recourse to such policies. Larger economies will have a natural advantage, while smaller economies will do what they can to make their supply chains more resilient.
Given that India is mostly dependent on China for the supply of raw materials needed to manufacture hydroxychloroquine and other pharmaceuticals, why did India choose to remove exemptions for drug exports?
Its decision was driven by political factors. These drugs had already been brought under a restricted category that authorized the government to clear exports on a case-by-case basis. The previous decision to impose a blanket ban was ill-advised: it took away the government’s leeway and its quick reversal caused avoidable embarrassment.
How do you assess the impact of this pandemic on the informal economy of India? What measures can be taken to support the job market?
Estimates suggest 85–93 percent of the total workforce is engaged in the informal economy, largely in agriculture, construction, manufacturing, and trade. These roughly 430 million workers labor without protection or regulation by the state; amid the disruptions of the pandemic, they will need food and income support for at least four to six months. At a ballpark figure of 10,000 Indian rupees per worker ($132), this works out to over 2 trillion Indian rupees ($26.4 billion), approximately 1 percent of India’s GDP. However, the longer the lockdown continues, even if partially eased, the more the economy will shrink. India will also have to bear significant medical costs, though those may be somewhat constrained by the limited capacity of its healthcare system.