Manipur experiences a number of crisis and emergencies. Be it man-made or natural calamity. But the current Covid-19 emergency is the first of its kind the state is encountering in terms of its form, scale and magnitude.
The state government is on a war footing to fight the virus with all its resources and man power. The response is commendable and remarkable, most significantly in terms of engagement of the state authorities notably the health department, health workers with limited infrastructures and facilities, pulling through this difficult circumstances.
While acknowledging the tremendous efforts – both by the state government and its agencies, a look back at the first week of immediate emergency response and crisis management has shown us some pointers that could be (have been) done better and smoother. Not a critique or a judgmental conclusion and not to say the state did not do enough. This observation mainly comes from the reactions and response in Churachandpur district of Manipur.
When pan-India lockdown was announced by Prime Minister Modi on March 22 and subsequent extension – lockdown was enforced all across the states in the country and districts in full force.
In Manipur, advisory, guideline, information or any public circular related to Covid-19 and lockdown were sent out mostly across social media, beside print and television. CSOs were roped in for emergency response – in terms of information circulation and later for emergency relief work. In pursuance, these CSOs directed their constituencies to follow rules, observe lockdown etc.
Civil Society (s) in Manipur, the hill- tribal districts to be specific, are the tribe/community based traditional organizations. This CSOs circulate information on Convid-19 related – such as lockdown – to each of their constituent members or community. This circulars and public notifications actually appears like it was a directive, an advisory coming from the CSOs.
Thus the informed general public took the task upon themselves. The impact of the advisory to stay indoor was so strong that volunteers came out to ensure that lockdown was ‘successful’ – colonies were gated, volunteers came out to guard their colonies. It is likely that such extreme response – such as guarding colonies by volunteers – was accelerated by the fact that advisories came from their CSOs. In that, in Manipur, the tribal society in particular, anything – order, notices, circulars – that comes from the CSOs are responded in heart and soul. The society is so used to following orders or notices from CSOs that this lockdown notice, advisories was also followed – tooth and nail. The circulars understood as a call for “volunteering” to make the “curfew” a success!
Moreover, the society is more familiar with terms like curfew, bandh and this lockdown was also popularly called “curfew”. Maybe due to numerous bandh and curfew that the society had endured over the decades. Bandh as a protest, curfew as a way of maintaining law and order.
Experience of scarcity of basic needs is what the state had gone through in decades, not once, twice, but many times. The long queue at petrol pump – at the drop of a hat – is one indication of such panic, that even as people were asked to stay indoors and not “go out” people still queue up to buy petrol. The scene at Lamka Town in Churachandpur, just as the lockdown was relax for the first time in March was a telling picture. The whole population throng the market, until the police arrived to forced shut the shops.
The food relief distribution is another mess. Even as the intention is appreciable and the objective being welfare, the situation is such that such initiative is just impossible to be ‘free and fair” and satisfy all.
In regard to the information and advisory, live telecast, live public announcement on television and loud speakers by district administration, elected representative of each constituency would have made huge difference in terms of management of the mass. And preferably this should have been done on a daily basis, from day one. Recordings of these public announcements and appeals can be circulated on social media instead of the public circular on official letterhead and signatures of CSOs. This could have made a tremendous impact, much more than police controlling the public. This will go a long way in containing the virus as well
One key aspect of this Covid-19 tell us that management of masses is equally as crucial as containing the disease.
Moreover, it is also a collective psyche of the public to disobey state authorities- maybe rebellious nature? or that the understanding of state or administration is yet to evolve or sink in? For people in Manipur, the encounter with state is mostly in terms of protest or curfew. More than state (administration and agencies) CSOs have more power over public control. And it is likely that is also the reason why they (CSOs) were roped in for emergency response.
It is a fact that there is trust deficit on the state government. This crisis is an opportunity to build trust and confidence. More efforts should be put in towards building this up.
On the emergency relief – it is understandable that not everyone is happy with the free distribution of rice or essential items. This could also have been better handled had the district administration, elected representative along with concern department such as food and civil supplies, social welfare departments were carrying out the task. Daily press conference, information and strategy of distribution plans should be live telecast. The free distribution concept and idea was a bit too utopian.
Manipur government has a large population of state employees, who could have been utilized during this emergency relief work or monitoring of public during the lockdown, instead of the traditional usual system of CSOs, or committees or volunteers. This could have lessened not only the public anger but helped in public management. Apart from calling out the people or trying to reach every family for rice distribution, the essential commodities should also be made available in groceries and shops. The opening of shops, selling vegetable could be made more systematic all the while monitoring prices. This would have lessened mass hysteria and cynicism. Those in extremely difficult situation could be dealt in a separate strategy or schemes. Identifying families in terms of economic status would not have been such a difficult task.
In any crisis or emergency there is room for learning and opportunity to set things better. The Covid-19 emergency is a learning to prepare us better in future. COVID-19 may not – hopefully – strike again but humanitarian crisis in various form is inevitable.
Independent journalist and commentator