Dipty Desai, Megha B Purohit and Arushi Saxena-
Since the first coronavirus (COVID-19) case was identified in China in December 2019, the virus has spread rapidly throughout the world, reaching one million confirmed cases by April 1, 2020, and the second million, two weeks later.
Although it is too early to fully evaluate the effectiveness of India’s coronavirus response, the country has already seen some success in slowing the spread of the virus. The keys to India’s response to the coronavirus pandemic are the speed of the government’s response, the policies this response included, and use of technology.
As soon as the first case was confirmed in India at the end of January 2020, the Government of India set up 12 labs for testing and screening patients. As of the beginning of April, there are 111 government labs and more than 50 private labs across the country authorized to test for COVID-19. The National Health Authority (NHA) has made testing & treatment for COVID-19 free of cost for beneficiaries of Ayushman Bharat, the national government-funded insurance for the under-privileged, at private laboratories and enrolled hospitals.
As soon as the WHO declared the virus a pandemic on March 11, the government invoked powers under the 1987 Epidemic Diseases Act to contain the spread of the virus. On March 24, when India only had 350 cases, Prime Minister Modi ordered a 21-day lockdown of the entire country. However, on April 15, the lockdown was extended, with modifications, until May 3.
Although the March 24 lockdown was initially criticized as harsh, this decision has since been credited as vital to slowing the spread of COVID-19 in India. As of April 20, India has had more than 17,000 cases, including almost 3,000 successful recovers and more than 500 deaths. In light of the country’s population of 1.3 billion people, India has a significantly lower rate of infection per million citizens than other countries.
With the population sheltering and working from home, the government released a number of policy measures to support the economy, including postponing tax filing deadlines for both income tax and goods and services tax (GST). On Mar 26, a $23 billion stimulus package was announced to support India’s most economically vulnerable citizens, including the provision of food rations, 83 million free gas cooking cylinders, and cash transfers. Another $2 billion package was cleared for health care workers to receive protective gear, testing facilities, and training.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi also launched the Prime Minister’s Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations Fund (PM CARES Fund) to fundraise for COVID-19 relief, and qualified donations to this fund as both tax-deductible and corporate social responsibility (CSR) spending. Additionally, coronavirus-related spending through the State Disaster Response Fund (SDRF) was made possible by declaring the virus a ‘notified disaster’ under the Disaster Management Act of 2005.
Technology, rather than leadership or culture, has been the greatest differentiator between countries’ ability to contain the spread of COVID-19. India’s Department of Science and Technology set up a COVID-19 Task Force soon after the lockdown was announced, to hunt for promising leads in its R&D labs, academic institutions, start-ups and small enterprises, and India’s scientific community has risen to the occasion. Scientists from the Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology (IGIB) have successfully developed a low-cost paper strip test which can detect coronavirus within an hour, and Indian pharmaceutical company NovaLead claims to have identified 42 existing drugs which may provide relief to patients at different stages of SARS-Cov-2 infection.
Additionally, the government and India’s startup community quickly came together to launch apps for location tracing and symptom checking, to provide authentic and up-to-date information on COVID-19, and even to access online services, such as applying for movement passes. Both the government and the private sector have sought to crowdsource technological innovations to COVID-19 issues. The government has done this through its Start-up India initiative, receiving more than 550 proposals by April 15, while the venture capital community formed the Action COVID Team (ACT) to provide grants worth 100 Crore, for funding early-stage ideas and technology to flatten the curve or provide support during the pandemic.
Ultimately, it is too soon to draw conclusions on the success of India’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, especially when considering its implications for the economy and unemployment as well as public health. This is a crisis that will have – and has already had – an immense humanitarian impact across the globe. However, it is worth applauding the success that India has achieved in slowing the spread of COVID-19, and the scope of the country’s public and private sector response.
[Dipty Desai is the head of the West Coast Division of USISPF and is the co-chair of TiE Global Health. The column is co-authored by Megha B Purohit and Arushi Saxena. The views expressed are their own].