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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 16 New Delhi, April 4, 2020

COVID 19 Crisis : Letters From Senior Former State Official to India’s Finance Minister and to the Prime Minister

Saturday 4 April 2020

DOCUMENT

EMAIL

‘‘From: E.A.S.Sarma
Sent: Tuesday, March 31, 2020 5:02 PM
To: Nirmala Sitharaman
Cc: secyexp[at]nic.in ; Preeti Sudan ; Dr. Harsh Vardhan; secy-dea; cabinetsy[at]nic.in
Subject: Fwd: Prime Minister’s initiative on Corona - Political parties & Corporates too have to act fast’

E.A.S.Sarma
14-40-4/1 Gokhale Road
Maharanipeta
Visakhapatnam 530002
Mobile: 91-[ removed ]
Email: eassarma[a]gmail.com’

To

Smt Nirmala Sitharaman
Union Finance Minister

Dear Smt Sitharaman,

Kindly refer to my letter dated 23-3-2020 on the subject.

Recently, you announced several relief measures to counter the spread of COVID19. In particular, you had announced that an insurance cover of Rs 50 lakh per person would be provided to frontline health workers - sanitation staff, paramedics and nurses, ASHA workers and doctors- who are working to tackle the COVID-19 illness and face the highest risk of contracting the illness. It is reported that the insurance cover provided to the health workers will be for three months with effect from March 25, 2020. This is expected to benefit 22 lakh health workers handling the COVID-19 crisis across India. I welcome this initiative on the part of your government.

However, more important that the insurance cover is the urgent need to provide every doctor, every nurse, every para-medical worker, every ASHA worker and every sanitation worker, facing day-to-day exposure the virus, with personal protective equipment (PPE) including protective shoes. Without this, providing a mere insurance cover may not meet the requirement.

I have personally seen sanitation workers struggling to clean the streets, where there are suspected Corona case, without safe masks and gloves and without using safe shoes.

I have enclosed [hyperlinked here] here an article, "Indian doctors fight coronavirus with raincoats, helmets amid lack of equipment" which sums up the situation. Even if there is some exaggeration in it, the position that prevails today is more or less what has been described in it.

The Prime Minister’s Relief Fund, I am told, has an unspent balance of around Rs 3,000 crores lying idle. Could not that amount have been spent on PPEs as soon as India came to know the magnitude of the COVID19 threat? I am somewhat surprised that a separate fund called PM-CARE Fund should be opened when the PM Relief Fund has unspent amounts lying. It is inexplicable that the Ministry of Health should wait till the end of March to place orders for PPEs/ ventilators etc. though the magnitude of the global spread of the virus was known to us in the last week of January itself. Perhaps, we have lost precious days in responding to the challenge.

Till date, the number of the virus affected cases, as established on the basis of tests conducted so far, has remained modest. However, the mass movement of the migrant workers, without any timely response from the government to provide them social security, has opened the floodgates to community transmission of the virus. Compounding this is the virus spread triggered by the Nizamuddin religious meet in which hundreds of suspected virus-affected persons have since travelled far and wide, making citifies like mine highly vulnerable. These developments are likely to push up the numbers of the virus affected persons in several States, posing a severe stress on the medical infrastructure. If those engaged on the medical and the sanitation fronts fall prey to the virus, the outcomes can be truly distressing.

I request you, as reiterated time and again, to make sure that the medical, para-medical and sanitation personnel are 100% equipped physically with the state-of-the-art PPEs and the hospitals provided with adequate numbers of ventilators on a war footing. Without this, the insurance cover will not inspire public confidence.

In the case of COVIND19, we cannot afford delays in decision making!

Regards,

Yours sincerely,

E A S Sarma
Former Secretary to GOi
Visakhapatnam

31-3-2020

o o o

---------- Forwarded message ---------
 
From: EAS Sarma
Date: Mon, 23 Mar 2020 at 10:18
Subject: Fwd: Prime Minister’s initiative on Corona- Political parties & Corporates too have to act fast
To: Nirmala Sitharaman , dr.harshvardhan
Cc: secyexp[at]nic.in, secy-dea , cabinetsy[at]nic.in, Lov Verma , Preeti Sudan , Dr. Thomas Isaac , chiefsecretary-ap[at]ap.gov.in, cs[at]telangana.gov.in>, cs-ori[at]nic.in, , , , <csoffice.cg[at]gov.in> , , , , <cs.pon[at]nic.in> , <cs.pondicherry[at]nic.in> , , , ,
 
E.A.S.Sarma
14-40-4/1 Gokhale Road
Maharanipeta
Visakhapatnam 530002
Mobile: 91-[removed]
Email: eassarma[at]gmail.com

To

Smt Nirmala Sitharaman
Union Finance Minister

Dear Smt Sitharaman,

Kindly refer to my letter dated 20-3-2020 addressed to the Prime Minister on the ongoing fight against COVID19. I have enclosed a copy of that letter for your reference.

The campaign against COVID19 is assuming urgency in view of the rapidly increasing rate at which the States have been reporting virus-positive cases.

The Central and the State governments cannot afford to lose even a day in the campaign to contain the spread of the virus, in ramping up the medical infrastructure, in equipping the medical/ para-medical staff to insulate themselves from getting infected, in protecting the lakhs of the sanitation workers who are equally, if not more, exposed to the contagion and in providing livelihood relief to millions of low-income families who have lost their livelihoods as a result of the lock down imposed across the country.

In the coming one or two months, it is likely that the number of COVID19 positive cases will peak, bringing the infrastructure under an enormous stress and making community transmission of the virus a reality. While the Centre has the overall responsibility to help the States, it is the States that have the cutting-edge responsibility for containing the virus spread.

Here are some suggestions as to how your Ministry can play a vital role in this COVID19 mission.

Help the Union Health Ministry:

The Union Ministry of Health has the overall responsibility to set up additional Corona testing facilities across the country, enable the industry to manufacture coveralls, masks, gloves, hand sanitisers, ventilators etc. and coordinate the Centre’s and the States’ efforts. The Health Ministry has put in a commendable effort that needs to be fully supported. If they need more budgetary allocations, your Ministry should readily provide the same at any time, if necessary by diverting funds from other less essential schemes.

As a result of panic-driven hoarding of masks, gloves and sanitisers, many sanitation workers and para-medical personnel are going round on their duties without wearing safe masks/gloves and without sanitisers. The Central and the State governments should intervene and ensure that every worker engaged in anti-Covid19 work is equipped with safety-certified masks, gloves and sanitisers. Hoarders should be proceeded against. Price controls should be imposed and enforced. PSUs, private companies and other govt agencies should be coopted in this effort. In some States, the jail inmates are being encouraged to produce masks to prescribed specifications.

I understand that, though the first case of COVID19 was detected in India on 31-1-2020, till date, no orders have been placed by the Health Ministry for the supply of protective equipment, due to "procedural" reasons (https://scroll.in/article/956866/investigation-crucial-coronavirus-gear-supply-clouded-by-allegations-of-government-malintention). I hope that this news report is not entirely correct. However, this is not the time for blame games. It is the time to move forward urgently, without looking back.

Instead of getting bogged down in procedures, the govt should ask the industry not only to work to their full capacity but, to the extent possible, divert all its resources to manufacture more of such equipment so that the COVID19 campaign may not get constrained by equipment shortages. The Finance Ministry and the Health Ministry should constitute a team of eminent doctors to place orders on a nomination basis to speed up delivery at this crucial hour. They should be given blanket freedom to take decisions. The CAG can be kept informed.

I understand that there will be an acute shortage of state-of-the-art ventilators (https://scroll.in/pulse/956930/explainer-battling-coronavirus-will-take-more-than-just-buying-additional-ventilators-for-hospitals).

Hospitals in the United States have roughly 160,000 ventilators. There are a further 12,700 in the National Strategic Stockpile. I understand that there is a total of only 30,000 ventilators in India. Compared to USA, India’s large population, exposed to the virus, requires a much larger number of ventilators. India should therefore resort to urgent ventilator imports, pending the ramping up of domestic manufacture and the creation of additional indigenous manufacturing capacity. If the virus spread is much more than expected, there will not be enough time for the government to procure ventilators from overseas sources. By now, the global ventilator market must have already come under a severe stress. Ventilator shortage will enhance the rate of mortality in the case of patients critically ill.

In cutting the procedural delays, from the financial point of view, your Ministry can help the Health Ministry.

Help the States:

The States have come under a severe fiscal stress due to the threat of the virus, as it is the States that need to operate the COVID19 detection systems, create quarantine and treatment facilities, prove social security nets and so on.

Kerala has undertaken these measures in right earnest as brought out in the following article.
https://thewire.in/economy/interview-india-economic-package-coronavirus

The States, where similar social security cover is not available, may study the Kerala model urgently.

Considering that the States will face an uphill task during the last week of this month and possibly throughout the month of April, the Finance Ministry will have to re-schedule the release of a sufficiently large proportion of the funds due to the States under the "devolution" entitlement for the year. If there are arrears of any kind due to a State, the same should be released forthwith.

Similarly, under the various Central schemes of social security, the bulk of the releases to the beneficiaries should be made during the next five weeks, in consultation with the States.

The lock-down imposed by the States to contain the virus spread has disrupted the lives of the marginal workers. They stand severely deprived of their livelihoods. They also face greater exposure to the virus, compared to the others, as physically they are more susceptible and the facilities available to them are meagre. Special security safety nets are urgently needed for providing them timely relief.

Since all these measures involve significant public expenditure, the Ministry of Finance should clamp austerity in the functioning of the government, including cutting down on non-essential expenditure and severely curtailing official travel and meetings.

What the Centre preaches to the people at large, it should implement it within its own ambit. Here is an example that should make the authorities ponder over this.

Mary Kom, the well known boxer and a member of the Rajya Sabha is reported to have attended a breakfast hosted by the President at Rashtrapati Bhavan on March 18, even though she was supposed to be under home quarantine at that time. (://www.businesstoday.in/current/economy-politics/coronavirus-mary-kom-escaped-mandatory-quarantine-to-attend-breakfast-with-president-kovind/story/398866.html). What distresses me in this context is that Rashtrapati Bhavan should choose to host such a large gathering involving public expenditure at a time when the nation is facing the scourge of COVID19! In such a gathering, it is not just the Parliamentarians who might have got exposed to the virus but hundreds of auxiliary staff who too might have got exposed.

As I had mentioned in my letter dated 20-3-2020, it will go a long way towards fighting COVID19, if the Prime Minister at his level calls upon the political parties to self-regulate and the private industry to join the campaign voluntarily. Instead of asking for tax sops and statutory concessions, the industry should join the national fight against COVID19 like any other citizen. It should be a combined effort without which the virus may soon overtake each one of us.

I hope that you will discuss the above suggestions at the highest level and take immediate steps.

Regards,

Yours sincerely,

E A S Sarma
Former Secretary to GOI
Visakhapatnam

23-3-2020

---------- Forwarded message ---------
 
From: EAS Sarma
Date: Fri, 20 Mar 2020 at 11:26
Subject: Prime Minister’s initiative on Corona- Political parties & Corporates too have to act fast
To: cabinetsy[a]nic.in
Cc: dr.harshvardhan, Lov Verma , Preeti Sudan

For the personal attention of Shri Rajiv Gauba, the Cabinet Secretary:

Dear Shri Gauba,

I will be grateful if this letter can be placed before the Prime Minister

Regards,

E A S Sarma
Former Secretary to GOI
Visakhapatnam

19-3-2020

Letter to the Prime Minister

E.A.S.Sarma
14-40-4/1 Gokhale Road
Maharanipeta
Visakhapatnam 530002
Mobile: 91-[removed]
Email: eassarma[at]gmail.com

To

Shri Narendra Modiji
Prime Minister

Dear Shri Modiji,

I welcome the unique initiative taken by you last evening in appealing to the public at large to recognise the importance of preventing the spread of COVID19 and voluntarily observe self regulation. I also welcome your asking the people to extend full support to the medical and the para-medical personnel engaged in treating the virus patients and the lakhs of the other personnel who are struggling to maintain sanitation and other infrastructure facilities throughout the country.

I am sure that your appeal will elicit widespread public response.

As the French President said recently: "The enemy is there—invisible, elusive—and it is advancing.” To counter that enemy, we need to move fast and strategise. No time can be lost in this war against COVIND19.

There are two important additional aspects that you may like to touch upon so that we may remain fully prepared to face a possible explosive outbreak of the virus in our country. I have listed them below.

Manufacturing industry:

If India were to go the Italy or the Iran way, in view of the huge population we have, especially the low-income families, the outcomes can be very significant.

We need to put in place sufficiently large numbers of protective facilities such as coveralls, masks, gloves, hand sanitisers etc. In addition, we need to be ready with adequate number of test kits, ventilators, isolation wards, quarantine space and so on. In particular, lakhs of sanitation workers are involved in cleaning up the urban/ semi-urban areas and many of them have no gloves to wear and adequately protective masks to cover their noses.

In China, I understand that cabs and other modes of public transport have been provided layers of protection in their vehicles to insulate the spread of the disease within the vehicle. We need to do likewise, as in a situation like this, logistics assume utmost importance. The common modes of transport in our country are three-wheelers, cabs, buses and trains and it is those that run and operate them that need to be provided utmost protection.

Perhaps, you should call an urgent meeting with the manufacturing industry and ask them to take up the manufacture of at least some of these equipment on a war footing, so that the government may strategise on what to import, how much and how soon.

In UK, In response to an appeal by the Prime Minister, 1,400 companies had offered to switch their operations to help manufacturer the Corona-related equipment, including Formula One.

I am sure that, given a direction at your level, the Indian industry will rise to the occasion and join the effort of the government on a massive scale.

Political parties:

A time has come when all the political parties in the country should stop mutual retribution and start acting collectively to fight COVID19.

The civil society to whom you have appealed for self-regulation expect the political parties also to self-regulate on their part.

I suggest that you call for an all-party meeting urgently and appeal to them to adopt a "COVID Code" as follows.

1. Political parties will neither hold public rallies nor encourage public gatherings of any kind till COVID comes under control. Leaders of political parties should refrain from participating in large gatherings and discourage such gatherings in general.

2. Those political parties in power, whether at the Centre or in the States should consciously curtail all events involving more than 20 persons gathering at one place.

3. Whether sponsored by any political party or not, all political parties should reach out to the people at large and appeal to them to call off their public gatherings voluntarily, if any, so as to avoid their exposure to the virus and its spread to the community as a whole. There can be several other ways for the civil society to express its views.

4. Each political party will involve its workers to go to the people, explain the precautions to be taken to counter the virus and disseminate information to them on whom they should contact in case anyone displays the virus symptoms.

5. Leaders of political parties and those occupying public offices should be careful in making statements recommending quick fixes for preventing the spread of the virus or for its cure, not based on scientific reasoning, as such misleading statements may numb the people into a false sense of security.

6. Political parties should collectively adopt a resolution that each one of them will place the fight against COVID19 at the top of the agenda, not winning elections or score over one another. They owe this to the people where they belong.

7. COVID affects all, irrespective of the divisions within the society, income-wise, caste-wise, language-wise or religion-wise. A fight against it cannot be effective unless we too pursue our campaign against it, likewise.

In particular, at a time like this when the focus is on how to contain COVID19, the nation should remember that, according to the official statistics, at least one sanitation worker has died while cleaning sewers or septic tanks every five days since the beginning of 2017. I suggest that the welfare and the safety of the sanitation workers should occupy a central place in the campaign against COVID19.

Let us strive for a COVID-mukt India!

Regards,

Yours sincerely,

E A S Sarma
Former Secretary to GOI
Visakhapatnam

20-3-2020

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