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India Burning: Letter from Madhumita Gupta, Retired USAID Mission Economist and Office Director, USAID/India (1992-2015)
May 14, 2021
9:28 am
Tish Butler
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April 22, 2016
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India Burning — message from Madhumita Gupta

India is literally burning! This was expected – at some point, we knew/realized that the virus would spread like wildfire in a country that has a population four times that of the US but a land mass that is one-third ….

So, it’s been heartbreakingly sad. I’ve lost many family members, friends and ex-colleagues – and many are fighting for their lives in critical care units (ICUs) in hospitals, as we speak. Unfortunately, the UK variant that has now metamorphosed into the Indian double mutant variant, is going straight for the lungs and hence, the increased oxygen requirement that no one anticipated. Sadly, this double mutant variant is also affecting the young; for many, the sole bread-winner of the family.

24/7, the TV channels and social media, domestic and international, are in a loop, showing gasping victims, a sea of funeral pyres and overflowing graveyards – oblivious to the impact this is having on the dignity and self-respect of the families of the defenseless and the dead. This bombardment of negative messaging is having a devastating impact on the already mentally traumatized and isolated.

I personally, don’t think it’s a specific political party issue. With a) continued poor economic infrastructure, b) loosely integrated institutional arrangements (neglected or encouraged during the reign of every single political party), c) inherent indiscipline that “democracy” has afforded India, d) unfathomable diversity that is increasingly economic, and e) cursed with a generous dose of “overconfidence” — this outcome was inevitable!

As we all know and recognize, the challenges in developing countries like India are enormous! The fiscal space to support folks who have lost their jobs are minimum, at best. The federal government, having been burnt with a national lockdown, is reluctant to call for another national lockdown and has left it to the states. Number of requests to migrant workers to stay put – that food and shelter will be provided – have failed to dissuade them from making a run for the railway and bus stations – spreading the virus further. The only way to stop the spread is to minimize the points of contact. It has been proven time and time again across the globe during the past two years that if one minimizes social contact and follow protocols, the spread will go down. After just one month of such rigor, Delhi’s daily infection numbers have come down from over 26,000 to around 16,000.

Going forward, this raises serious questions for the development community.

India has been the privileged recipient of foreign assistance from across the globe for well over half-a-century now. A large percentage of this has gone to support India’s public healthcare system. Most donors, sadly, tippy-toed around ‘direct intervention’ programs, lest it step on the sovereign decision-making process of host Governments. So, the answer was “technical assistance”, a win-win for donor and recipient alike, least rocking the boat. However, in our ‘globalized’ world, the probability of epidemics turning into pandemics has evidently increased. The reality of the U.K. variant travelling to India to become the double mutant variant and returning back to the U.K. to reinfect the population, is chilling.

So, now it begs the question, should we, as donors, be looking at a comprehensive global healthcare systems model that ensures each country has the minimum capacity to prevent and respond rapidly to epidemics before they have the potential to turn into pandemics? This would include a minimum capacity to detect new pathogens, produce vaccines, be able to formulate and enforce protocols and regulations to minimize the spread, and develop economic contingency plans and response mechanisms that will minimize the impact on livelihoods across income and social groups.

Madhumita Gupta
Ex-USAID Mission Economist and Office Director, USAID/India (1992-2015)

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