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COVID Response Must Not Descend Into Election Campaigning; Kerala Model Shining Example For Manipur

[avatar user=”Chitra Ahanthem” size=”thumbnail” align=”left” link=”file” target=”_blank”]CHITRA AHANTHEM[/avatar]

The Covid pandemic in India today is not just a good indicator of the state of health but also the manner in which administration and governance is being carried out: the coordination between other allied sectors and departments. And no, we are not only talking of infrastructures but also of systems being in place which then brings us to policies and their implementation on the ground.

The national leadership on the response to the Covid pandemic is a mix of too little too late, and no substance but lots of drama. We have had the clanging of utensils, the lighting of candles and at this point of writing, a plan for helicopters to shower flower petals on hospitals that are treating Covid patients. Are any of these steps related to the welfare of the people of the country and specifically, to the frontline health workers who are being made to work continuous hours on their feed with low quality protective gear? How does any of these token gestures compensate for doctors who work up to 8 hrs standing on their feet, mostly without food and water because it is difficult, almost impossible to get out of the Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) suits they wear when they are treating Covid patients? How do they compensate for non-Covid doctors who remain at risk because they are attending to other patients who may be Covid positive but who are asymptomatic?

Apart from the grandiose steps, the manner in which the lockdown was imposed deserves every bit of criticism leveled: late in the making, no preparation for the fallout on migrant exodus, no economic stimulus for the poorest and small business outlets or micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs), no clarity on testing protocols, the corruption over procuring testing kits and the lack of quality control for PPE materials, no clarity on treatment protocol for Covid and so on.

Interestingly, with the central leaderships failing to take timely interventions that are required, it is the state leaderships and administrations that have taken the lead in these difficult times with the exceptions of a few. Kerala of course is the best of the lot with a leadership that sticks to strategic and pragmatic responses, a readiness to take criticisms and trust in the administrative units.

With a state response helmed by the Chief Minister and the Health Minister, the administrative officers placed at the second level of decision and strategic planning made all the difference for Kerala in terms of contact tracing, testing, isolation and quality care for Covid patients and potential patients on one hand while ensuring that the general population was kept informed and well provided for. In Delhi too, the District Collectors are put at the helm of administrative measures and take the lead in terms of Covid response which can be anything from ensuring effective lockdown to taking measures for feeding daily wage labourers who have been hit the most. The same is true of Maharashtra and Punjab.

One commonality in the responses in these states? No politician/ MLA/Minister are involved in the roll out of relief measures or becomes the VIP face, which is the exact opposite of what happens in Manipur all the time, pandemic or no pandemic. The question here is ‘But aren’t elected representatives responsible for the electorate he/she represents?’ Of course they are but that does not mean he/she uses the plank of a natural calamity/a pandemic and the resources that are allocated for the welfare of the people to build the narrative as his personal ‘donation’.

In Manipur, it is common for political representatives to announce magnanimously, ‘I am donating so and so amount from my MLA fund’ and a willfully ignorant public misses that the fact that the Local Area Development fund is not the personal domain of MLAs but what is allotted for citizens from the taxes that we all pay. The manner in which MLAs and Ministers throw their weight around is just so ingrained in our state that even when one hears rumors like their demand for PPE meant for health workers to be given for their party workers, there is no reason not to believe what one hears!

The Social Welfare Department, which has a host of flagship social welfare schemes is in fact, the most used and abused by political representatives in Manipur. Pandemic or not, MLAs use the funds allocated by the concerned Ministry and routed by the department into various heads and schemes as a reward scheme for loyal vote banks and party workers. Thus any scheme, which is meant to cover anyone who fits the criteria for whom it is designed, is limited to only to those who voted for the respective MLA of the area who uses the funds from the Department.

This needs to be stopped entirely for welfare schemes are not meant to be a political tool. Also, when welfare schemes are carried out in the way it should be done: in ways that are accountable and transparent, they will contribute to the overall good of the state and its people. Here again, the lesson to be learnt is from Kerala where MLA involvement is done differently: as volunteer carrying relief materials and never as someone who is more important than the people he/she represents.

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