This is a queer time when both doomsday alarmists and apologists for control-freaks are making hay. They are exploiting our dread of an invisible mass killer to manufacture public consent for coercive measures by gods or demigods to the ordinary mortals in the name of our collective good. A good number people who are otherwise wary of dystopias, either heavenly or earthly, now appear to be gullible enough to suspend their cynicism and accept the received wisdom about obeying orders from the above. After all, we are mere parts while the powers that be claim to represent the whole.
But authorities too have structures. We, the professional doubters cross-check about dos and don’ts across that hierarchy, particularly when it comes to an acute dilemma or a difficult choice between the devil and the deep sea.
Our Prime Minister has unilaterally imposed a three weeks long lockdown, ostensibly, not to throw our lives completely out of gears but to break the human transmission of the dreaded COVID-19. We don’t know when he will appear on television at 8 PM again, in between the re-runs of Ramayana and Mahabharata on DD, to announce another drastic measure. His worst critics won’t complain that he has ever suffered from self-doubts; dilemmas between his perceptions of public good and public’s perceptions of it, let alone the clash between democratic niceties, human rights and the government’s supremacy.
But the top guns of the World Health Organization (WHO), the global authority in their media meet on March 27 have again focused on minimum lockdowns and maximum surveillance and intensive networking for detection, testing, isolation and treatment of the human carriers. They are also worried about the impacts of prolonged lockdowns on people’s lives, particularly, in poor and middle income countries as well as government’s surveillance on society and individual human rights.
“We need to try and avoid the worst impacts of lockdowns, slowdowns and shutdowns. We need to minimize the necessity of such measures which will have hard impact on people’s lives and livelihoods from which they may not recover as quickly as people in other countries. Also we need to look at many vulnerable communities,” Dr Michel Ryan, the Executive Director of Health Emergency Programme, said referring to African and other poor countries.
He stressed on the ‘national to sub-national, provinces to municipalities’ intensive but differentiated approaches in zeroing in the killer’s hideout instead of blanket ban of public life at one go. “If you know what’s happening in the towns, who have the virus and know their contacts, you can adapt your measures to the situations in that particular area. All of us want to see that measures at community levels are for maximum control of disease but with minimum impact on economy and social life.”
For that he advocated ‘shutdowns etc. in different parts of a country at different times’. Two key elements in this strategy to succeed are ‘sophisticated surveillance and very strong health system’.
Surveillance and Human rights in the time of pandemic
Some journalists pointed to the concerns expressed by human rights organisations regarding the ongoing sweeping curtailments of people’s freedom of movement and mandatory disclosure of personal health information etc. The latter felt it could set precedence in some countries where these measures will stay and be used for infringement of upon basic human rights. The WHO director General Dr Tedros AG and Dr. Maria V. Kerkhove, the Technical Lead of Emergency Team dealt on those apprehensions.
For the DG, the choice now is between the ‘individual/community freedom and collective security/betterment in the fight against the globally transmitted virus’. Nevertheless, he stressed on the ‘dialogue between the communities and governments’. “The parliaments can make provisions for short periods ( of curtailments) and people will agree as long as it brings collective security”. He stressed on ‘community’s trust in their governments’ to ensure public ‘cooperation’.
Dr Kerkhove insisted on ‘regular communication by the political leadership to their populations.’ Referring to the DG’s meeting with 50 odd health ministers across the globe, she said: “They had shared what worked in their countries in mobilizing and communicating to their people. Empowering your population will help them to know what they need to do in fighting the virus’’.
Dr. Ryan, however, admitted that the surveillance on societies by governments and other powerful is a most tricky and ‘serious’ issue in our times. “It is important when we talk of surveillance and surveillance society. In case of public health, for gathering information about individuals and their movements, it must be done with the consent of the community and in many cases, individuals. Much better if it comes through trust and community engagements. It is not just about public health, but for so many other sectors across the society. There are serious issues to be addressed.”
WHO is no radical or woolly-eyed rights body and all its high ups are career public health technocrats. But they at least bothered to offer some nuanced observations on the vexed issue of relationship between the rulers and the ruled during a pandemic. But our leader neither consulted the parliament (he announced the lockdown just after parliament was closed) nor his cabinet (no communiqué has come out so far). We don’t know whether he spoke to the health minister and mandarins in the ministry. As usual, he was soul dramatis personae in his latest theatrics.
Global Solidarity Trial
We don’t know whether Indian Health Minister or somebody from India had joined the WHO DG’s meet on sharing experiences. Dr Tedros informed about a global ‘solidarity trial’ of therapeutic drugs on corona-infected patients in various countries pending the invention of a vaccine to get rid of the virus which he said would take another 10-18 months. He called the trial a ‘historic effort in global shared research against the humanity’s common enemy’. We don’t know either whether India will be part of it.
Though, the increasing number of COVID-19 cases across the globe is scary, Dr Ryan urged all not to ‘overreact to the daily numbers’. “Part of this rise in numbers reflects increased detection of cases due to better testing. We need to ensure that we are not punishing people for testing.”
They wanted us to prepare ourselves to ‘live with the virus’, at least for the near future. In the meantime, they urged the world’s mighty to increase productions of basic things like masks, sanitizers, testing kits et al and their supplies to countries and communities in dire need, particularly, the health workers as well as ‘precise, targeted measures’ to contain the pandemic.