How Jawaharlal Nehru would have dealt with the COVID-19 pandemic in India

In the mid-1940s, Jawaharlal Nehru, in jail for resisting British colonial rule over India, wrote a book titled 'The Discovery of India'. In the book he explained what he meant by scientific temper:

“The applications of science are inevitable and unavoidable ... But something more than its application is necessary. It is the scientific approach, the adventurous yet critical temper of science, the search for truth and new knowledge, the refusal to accept anything without testing and trial, the capacity to change previous conclusions in the face of new evidence, the reliance on observed fact and not preconceived theory ...[This] should be, a way of life, a process of thinking, a method of acting and associating with our fellowmen ... It is the temper of a free man.”

A second wave of COVID took India by great surprise in 2021. In retrospect, it is clear that we shouldn’t have been surprised because mutation-driven second waves had already hit other countries such as UK, Brazil and South Africa. And yet we chose to believe we had defeated COVID because India has been intoxicated with hollow nationalism. We believed in an Indian exceptionality of sorts, we believed COVID had touched India lightly because we were special.

Today’s India misses the scientific temper of Nehru. As a thought exercise, how would Nehru have dealt with COVID-19? This is not so much about Nehru but about a scientific temper being at the centre of dealing with a pandemic.

1) Nehru would have appointed a scientist as the chief responder:

A scientifically minded Prime Minister would have appointed an independent tsar to deal with the pandemic, and given her the rank of a cabinet minister. This could have been someone such as Dr Soumya Swaminathan, the chief scientist of WHO. This would have ensured that there is subject-matter expertise along with a focus on the pandemic. The health minister could then concentrate on their role in focusing on all the other aspects of health care that need to be adequately governed anyway. The pandemic tsar would have been the last voice in the PM’s war room, would hold the penultimate responsibility for the outcome of the pandemic, and would have had the power to work across ministries to address the changing nature of the crisis as needed.

2) Nehru would have immediately started a new research institute:

A scientifically minded Prime Minister would have realised soon enough that India needs to focus on the next generation R&D for vaccines and medicines, and would have set up an Indian Institute of Genetics that would have focused on accelerated development of mRNA vaccines. This institution could have collaborated with laboratories and institutions globally as well as nationally to have a single minded focus on developing the next generation of vaccines. Even if such an institution couldn’t come up with a vaccine in time for this pandemic, it would have for the next. The Rs20,000 crore budget for the Central Vista would be better spent here.

3) Nehru would have listened to expert advice on the second wave:

A scientifically minded Prime Minister would have listened to the experts, and would have studied all the previous pandemics the world has seen, to know that there will be a second wave (and a third and fourth wave). Even the second wave in the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 had a brutal second wave where much of the damage was done — a fact that any health expert will tell you. Such a Prime Minister would therefore have quietly focused on creating capacity for the second wave while the citizens went about their lives. This would have included more hospital beds, oxygen, and a reserve stock of key medicines. Such a scientifically minded Prime Minister would not have embarrassingly declared to the world that the pandemic in India is over after the first wave.

4) Nehru would have been more calibrated with lockdowns:

A scientific minded Prime Minister would not have boasted about having the most stringent lockdown in the world. Instead, he or she would have ensured lockdowns are used in a limited and staggered manner, as and when required. This would have minimised economic losses, at the same time ensuring that people don’t get tired with such curfews. It might have helped with better compliance. Other countries such as France have used lockdowns periodically and scientifically, rather than an all-encompassing one that lasted many months.

5) Nehru would have shown more empathy towards migrant labour:

An empathetic Prime Minister would have ensured emergency social welfare measures to ensure that the pain felt by migrant and daily wage workers is minimised. This would have included temporary housing, school facilities being used as community kitchens, direct payments to the poor, and perhaps an urban-NREGA style scheme to keep migrant workers employed in cities rather than migrate again and carry the virus to the hinterlands.

6) Nehru would have encouraged a critical press:

A progressive, scientifically minded Prime Minister would have ensured the freedom of press holds strong, thereby ensuring that information better reaches the ears of the government. The history of dealing with pandemics — such as in the recent Ebola scares — shows that overreacting and over-preparing for scares ensures better outcomes. It would also ensure that bureaucrats who underplay the issue or underreport the numbers don’t end up calling the shots, leading to shortages of oxygen, beds or medicines.

7) Nehru would have acted against those using the pandemic to incite intercommunal hatred:

A scientifically minded Prime Minister would have ensured that any attempts at communalising the pandemic fail. By attacking Muslims, Christians or Hindus who have fallen ill to COVID, one only stigmatises the victims of the pandemic. It also further fractures the society — a society where people of all faiths and none should be helping each other out in a time like this.

8) Nehru would have chosen facts over antics:

A scientifically minded and open Prime Minister would have communicated to people like they are adults — telling them the facts as they are instead of masking them up in antics and theatrics. Such a Prime Minister would have also taken open press conferences — something that the current PMO has never held. He would not have used the excuse of the pandemic to deny virtual meetings of Parliamentary committees. He wouldn’t have been afraid of criticism, and he would have worried about political ‘image’ only after defeating COVID.

9) Nehru would have shown great urgency in vaccinating everyone for free:

India’s history of vaccination tells us the country has shown great speed and urgency in eradicating diseases through vaccination. Free mass vaccination programmes have eradicated small pox and polio. Nehru would have placed vaccine orders early and made sure everyone got the vaccine free and fast enough to be one step ahead of the ever-mutating virus.

10) Nehru would not have allowed super-spreader events:

A Kumbh Mela attended by millions of people was brought forward for reasons either astrological or political. Nehru would have consulted scientific experts, who would have advised him against doing so since the virus had not been fully eradicated and there was the fear of a second wave. Nehru was too much of a democrat to not hold Constitutionally mandated elections on time, but he would have made sure the Election Commission didn’t allow huge rallies, and allowed the masses to send votes by postal ballots as in the United States.

11) Nehru would have acknowledged his errors:

An empathetic Prime Minister would have been sensitive to failures and apologised when necessary, or at the very least acknowledged having made a blunder like not preparing for the possibility of a second wave.

Apologies may not undo the damage, but they help in healing a battered nation. They show the nation that the leadership cares, that it too is rattled by this once-in-a-hundred year event. On the other hand, real weakness is being unable to accept the tone deafness of Delhi’s Central Vista project — which while arguably needed — could easily be delayed by a couple of years.

This is, of course, not to say that a scientifically-minded Prime Minister like Nehru would have ensured India mitigated the pandemic like New Zealand or Taiwan did. That is, frankly, impossible given India’s reality of being a developing economy with high population density and inadequate health infrastructure. However, a scientific approach to policymaking — one that values accountability, performance and planning in advance — could have lessened some of the worst effects of this man-made disaster.



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