Analyzing The Pandemic of The Century

Nicholas Taleb described „Black Swan‟ as an improbable event and random occurrence with  extreme  impact.  „Grey  Rhino‟,  on  the  other  hand,  as  per  Michele  Wucker,  is  a highly probable event that may occur  after a series of  warnings  and  visible  pieces of evidence  with  enormous  impact.  Originating  from  Wuhan,  China,  towards  the  end  of

2019, coronavirus appeared as a „Black Swan‟ creating havoc across the globe. In India it  mutated  into  „Grey  Rhino‟,  causing  mayhem  in  the  form  of  extreme  disruption  and destruction.

It  was  during  March  last  year  that  Covid-19  virus  cases  began  to  surface  in  India. Initially,  the  daily  infection  rate  was  barely  in  hundreds  in  comparison  to  Western nations where the count was in five figures, despite the advanced health care system. Given modest medical infrastructure and India is being predicted to be a potential hot spot, the Central Government declared nationwide lockdown towards late March 2020

to  obviate  a  catastrophe.  PM  Modi  addressed  the  nation  frequently  to  sensitise  the citizens about the consequences of the deadly virus.

Starting with insufficient PPE kits, N-95 masks and testing facilities, the Indian medical fraternity   led   the   charge   against   coronavirus,   duly   complemented   by   „Non-Profit Organisations‟ corporates and the public at large. Despite severe hardships, migrants‟ untold  suffering and millions  losing their livelihood,  the nation reposed  implicit faith  in the PM-led campaign against the pandemic. By mid-February 2021, daily infections had dropped to around ten thousand after hitting the peak of nearly a lac. Corona appeared to be on the wane, given the assurances by the top leadership including the PM and Health  Minister.  The  economy  was  showing  signs  of  recovery  and  the  business environment   looked   favourable,   marked   by   a   sense   of   optimism.   Going   by   the indicators, apparently, the „Black Swan‟ phase of the pandemic had been well handled.


Now there was a window of opportunity for the Central and State administrations to get the house in order and prepare earnestly for the pandemic‟s second surge, evident from the  experience  of  US  and  Western  nations.  Even  the  forum  of  scientific  experts  had warned the officials against a more contagious variant of the Covid-19 virus taking hold of the country. Hence, making up shortages of critical medical equipment and ramping up  supply  chains  ought  to  have  been  taken  upon  the  highest  priority.  As  mass immunisation  offered  the  best  option  to  defeat  the  second  wave,  India  was  in  a  far better  position  than  even  the  advanced  nations  due  to  its  vast  potential  to  produce vaccine  doses.  However,  due  to  the  Government‟s  reluctance  to  fund  the  capacity building of vaccine manufacturing firms, the advantage could not be leveraged.

Ironically, complacency got better of prudence, faith trumped science and fixation with the election calendar threw all the Corona protocols to the wind. Assumptions like our young demographics and BCG  vaccination provided  us with  special  immunity against virus   proved   to   be   wishful   speculations.   Delusion   of   triumph   against   pandemic obfuscated all signs of impending disaster. The Covid-19 second wave did not turn into Tsunami overnight. The crisis had begun to loom large on the horizon towards the end of March. It appears India almost sleepwalked into the „Grey Rhino‟ trap.

It was only around 10 April when the daily cases crossed 150,000 that the panic button was  pressed.  By  the  end  of  April,  daily  Corona  infections  had  breached  the  four  lac mark.  The  health  infrastructure  in  many  states  has  been  overwhelmed.  The  role  of government machinery leaves much to be desired. With the situation having spun out of control, the nation today finds itself on the edge, many left to their own fate. It›s mid- May, the total infection stands at twenty-five million with over a quarter-million deaths. The daily cases continue to hover around 3.5 lakh, with approximately 4,000 deaths.


While  intense  fire  fighting  actions  are  on,  adhocism  and  past  assumptions  are inadequate to solve the existing cataclysm. The need of the hour is adaptive leadership

and strategic clarity. The toughest challenge facing the authorities is to reconcile to the fact  that  grievous  lapses  led  to  the  current  dire  straits.  Persistent  efforts  of  the administration  to  play  down  the  crisis  and  cacophony  of  blame  game  are  most disheartening. Instead, what is needed is the correct diagnostic of the problems areas and formulation of actionable strategies by the experts to mitigate the crisis situations. To this end, the constitution of 12 members National Task Force (NTF) by the Supreme Court  marks  a  step  in  the  right  direction.  For  effective  results,  the  NTF  should  be empowered   to   take   decisions   and   government   officials   must   ensure   a   speedy implementation mechanism.

Currently,  the  most  critical  issues  are  the  availability  of  oxygen,  ICU  beds  and  life- saving medical equipment. As for oxygen, the cruciality is not its shortage per se but the logistics constraints of the supply chains. Although the situation is now being addressed on a war footing by employing strategic air and naval assets and augmenting internal capacities,  it‟s  going  to  take  some  time  before  the  situation  eases  out.  Therefore, judicious  utilisation  and  prioritising  the  distribution  of  resources  can  considerably alleviate the criticality. Installing in situ oxygen plants in major hospitals must be done on the highest priority. Setting up field hospitals  facilities utilising the resources of the armed forces, central agencies like DRDO, ISRO, PSUs and industry has come as a great relief at a very crucial juncture.

During  the  calamities,  the  tendency  of  over-centralisation  just  cannot  work,  case  in point  initial  blunder  of  virus  testing  restricted  only  to  government  labs.  Delegation, deregulation   and   distribution   of   responsibility   are   the   key   essentials   to   handle unforeseen   contingencies.   In   fact,   the   NGOs,   local   bodies,   „resident   welfare associations‟ (RWAs) are already making yeoman contribution by setting up Covid beds and supplying life-saving equipment. I can personally vouch for it being part of some of these  initiatives.  Incidentally,  in  China,  the  „Residential  Committees‟  (Juzhu  Weiyuan Hui) played a pivotal role in controlling the coronavirus. One of the serious shortcomings still  is  the  lack  of  real-time  information  regarding  the  availability  of  beds  and  critical medicines. Here, well organised „Covid Care Centre‟ in each major city/town can prove to be of immense value and bolster much needed public confidence.

It is most unfortunate that bureaucratic procedural norms continue to hamper the import of  critical medical equipment and speedy distribution of foreign assistance material to the states. „Crisis Management Teams‟ composed of logistics experts must be deployed at key nodal centres to handle this issue, as each minute the lives are being lost. During such  abnormal  times,  the  leaders  in  public  life  should  be  visible  on  the  ground. Ironically,  most  appear  to  be  missing  in  action.  The  political  parties  have  substantial resources  at  their  disposal.  Instead  of  indulging  in  petty  squabbles,  it  is  a  great opportunity for these organisations to contribute in the hour of crisis by throwing open their facilities for the good of the fellow countrymen.

There is a need for a clear overall strategy. The topmost priority ought to be in saving precious   lives   and   bringing   down   the   infections   rate.   Besides   lockdowns,   strict adherence  to  regulations  pertaining  to  public  behaviour,  prioritising  allocations  of resources and capacity building merit immediate attention. The medical supply chains

need  to  be  reconfigured  and  the  expertise  of  multinationals  like Amazon  and  Flipkart could  be  ideally  exploited.  Measures  must  be  put  in  place  in  anticipation  of  the  third wave in view of the new variant of virus and vulnerability of the under18 population. A long  term  strategy  is  needed  to  fix  the  public  health  system  which  is  currently  in shambles.

The  vaccination programme has to move  in tandem as  it is  the best  defence against future waves. The strength of pharmaceutical companies should be leveraged to boost the production of vaccines, alongside seeking immediate IPR waiver. The current pace of  daily  vaccination  which  is  barely  2  million  needs  to  be  accelerated  significantly. Pricing must be standardised and Central Government should compensate the Pharma companies for subsidising the vaccines. For those „below the poverty line‟ vaccination must be free.

As a nation, we have tremendous resilience to bounce back during adverse situations but  have  a  poor  record  in  anticipating  these.  We  tend  to  believe  in  fait  accompli, ignoring  the  science,  besides  avoiding  introspection  of  lapses,  thus  missing  out  on valuable lessons. Even our strategic community is more at ease with hindsight wisdom than prognostics. History tells us, „If you don‟t learn from history, you are bound to suffer it.‟

India will win the fight against the pandemic, primarily due fortitude and forbearance of ordinary citizens- the real Victors. Nonetheless, the leadership of the day owes to the countrymen a solemn commitment; “never again will India fall victim to „Black Swan‟ or

„Grey Rhino‟ phenomenon”.

The author is a war Veteran, former Assistant Chief Strategic; Currently Professor Geo Strategy

& Management Studies, Distinguished Fellow at United Institution of India.