Published Date: March 30, 2020
Late last night, The Hon’ble Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, Thiru Edappadi Palanisamy posted a tweet rejecting the request for an All-Party Meeting to help improve Tamil Nadu’s response to the ongoing Covid19 Crisis. The request was issued by my party’s leader, and the Leader of the Opposition in the Assembly, Thiru M.K. Stalin, and leaders of several other political parties in our state.
With due respect to the Hon’ble Chief Minister, who has always treated me with courtesy at a personal level, I want to respond by asking just a few questions regarding the Government’s actions so far, and raise a few areas in which I feel they can definitely improve and/or use a lot of help.
1. Is this really “Only a Medical Crisis”
All reasonable people realize this is not simply a Medical crisis. In fact, it is not just an Economic Crisis, but a full-blown Humanitarian Crisis. Crores of people face the risk of hunger, let alone economic ruin.
Is the Hon’ble Chief Minister so poorly informed of the situation on the ground that he doesn’t understand this, or does he lack the compassion to feel the distress, especially of the weakest sections of Society?
2. How well have the State’s Disaster Management Committees been functioning prior to this month, and how well is that Department Funded?
The CAG’s Report on the 2015 Chennai Floods (which itself was suppressed and released 2 years late by this Govt.) noted that Tamil Nadu’s State Disaster Management Committee (DMC), had NOT EVEN MET ONCE prior to December 2015. Has this been rectified? If so, how many DMCs (State & District Level) have been formed, how often have they met, and what actions, if any, have they taken to improve disaster-readiness?
After the Fire Accident at the Arulmigu Meenakshi Amman Temple in Madurai in February 2018, I asked the Govt. for a lessons-learned report, which could also help improve the DMCs functioning. I’d also asked for greater funding for Disaster Preparedness. Has the Govt. increased funding for this department by even 1/1000th of the Budget (~300 Crores) or 0.01% of the GSDP (~200 Crores)?
3. Has the Government acted with due urgency on this problem?
India’s first case of Covid19 was announced on January 30th, and some states (notably Kerala) started preparing for Disaster Management immediately. When did the Government first start taking any steps in this regard? If it could not learn from others, why did it not take inputs from Opposition Leader Thiru M. K. Stalin who asked to postpone Assembly Session for Demand for Grants, so the Government, and the MLAs, could focus on this problem.
When this Govt. did not even START to present its Demands for Grants before MAY 29th in ANY OF THE LAST 4 YEARS, why did you rush to finish it – first by March 31st, then as we kept complaining, by Mar 24th itself this year? Most of the Senior IAS officers attend these Assembly sessions, and hence also couldn’t focus on Crisis preparation. Couldn’t Ministers & Senior IAS Officers have focused on crisis preparation instead? On two successive Business Advisory Committee Meetings (Friday, March 21st & Saturday March 22nd) why did your party INSIST (despite our Leader’s request to postpone) on accelerating the Assembly sessions (to 2 sittings a day) – thereby worsening the risk of contagion in the Assembly?
Why did Govt then schedule 27 Departments’ Demands (half of 54 Dept.’s in total) to be presented and passed on ONE SINGLE DAY (March 24th), after the Opposition parties (more than 45% of the Assembly Members) had BOYCOTTED the proceedings? Was that not a mockery of Democracy?
Did you realize that these Demands (passed while the whole world is creating Stimulus Plans & Supplemental Budgets) would lose relevance because of the Economic & Humanitarian costs of the Crisis – and therefore their passage was not just undemocratic, but an exercise in futility also?
4. Why was the Lockdown delayed for so long, and why was it put into effect within 24 hours after announcement?
After you decided to close Schools, Theatres, Malls, etc., by March 17th, why did you delay the decision to order a complete Lock Down till late on March 23rd? And why did you give only ~24 hours advance notice? Was it because you decided to run the Assembly till 24th evening only?
Why did you not give ample time & transportation for people (especially those like daily wage/itinerant/migrant workers who wouldn’t be able to stay in cities without income/food) to get home?
It now appears that Government Agencies & some NGOs or Policy Think Tanks have comprehensive data on migrant labour origins and seasonality. Is that available to the State & District DMCs? If so, was it used in planning for the Lockdown – in term of both reverse migration demand, as well as food demands if reverse migration was not allowed?
Irrespective of that, I’m sure you saw the images of the massive crowds at Koyambedu Bus Station (& other major cities) after Lockdown was announced on March 23rd? Did the transport department at least run the same number of additional routes and buses it regularly does for Pongal & Deepavali season, on that day? If not, why not?
5. Why are we so under-resourced with Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for our Medical Professionals, and why has tracing & testing lagged?
The Hon’ble Health Minister has assured the Assembly multiple times that all Health Care staff at all hospitals have adequate Personal Protective Equipment (N95 Masks, Gloves, etc.). Yet reports from the field suggest otherwise. In fact, your own data shows that the ORDERED (& yet to be delivered) Quantity is many multiples of the stock allegedly available. If true, how do you see having around 10% to 15% of the need in hand, as being prepared?
When you implicitly admit (by locking down for 7 days in 1st announcement) that Fever & other symptoms may take several days to become evident (if ever) after virus infection occurs, why did the Government use “Temperature Screening” as adequate assessment of infection in both Airports & other places like the Assembly? Why did you not have every person interviewed at the assessment point to ask for travel/symptom history, and the final destination of international arrivals logged for future tracing (Cabinet Secretary admits 15 Lakh arrivals not properly traced across India).
Why are we so unprepared to do testing of samples? We have tested around 25 samples/million of population, far behind Kerala’s ~140/million. Is it because of a lack of test kits? If so, why are we not sourcing from new vendors? Why have we allowed Govt of Maharashtra to purchase from Chennai Company before Tamil Nadu Govt purchased?
6. How well is the Lockdown being operationalized? Can it be improved in a way that reduces the huge cost on our Economy & citizens’ lives?
We all realize that the decision to Lockdown was taken too late, and so the announced measures were Draconian (to make up for lake of planning on the Government’s part). But the Govt has continued to clarify, amend, and improve the conditions of the Lockdown almost daily (Shoot first, Aim later). I welcome & applaud the efforts to improve things at least now. However, the framing of rules/protocols still appears ad-hoc, and sometimes internally inconsistent (e.g. successive steps in a supply chain are treated differently, thereby disrupting the while chain). Why are rules not framed to ensure an unbroken supply chain for Agriculture & Food Processing, Wholesale & Retail FMCG & Perishable products, and Manufacturing?
We are regularly seeing/hearing of arbitrary stopping of people/changing of rules from around the State. There is a huge communication gap, which means that not everyone knows the rules in place at any time (especially as you change them frequently). This is particularly acute in rural and agricultural areas, Wholesale & Retail FMCG channels, & last-mile delivery services in Urban areas. Why are you not taking adequate steps to regularly close this gap in a timely and effectively manner so ALL people, including the enforcers, are clear about your intent?
Just as a suggestion for improvement, why not the following:
- Standardize - to the same time & format every day - the DAILY release of enhanced protocols & updated roadmaps (showing changes in open/closed status) in every town/district
- Ensure that every relevant officer (Police, Civil, Service, etc. in every town & District) makes a VIDEO Statements of these changes – shouldn’t need more than 2 minutes
- Broadcast these videos on WhatsApp & all Social Media using Official Government Handles
- Insist that all Television Channels & Cable Operators must broadcast these 4 or 5 times a day at pre-specified timeslots
Surely this will ensure that everyone (including the police) understand the rules clearly, and citizens who might be stopped can educate any police who do not, by showing their own SP/DIG/Commissioner stating the rules! Why are you not doing at least these steps, if not more?
7. Does the Government have adequate stock of Staples in the Public Distribution System (Card Holders + Daily/Trapped Migrant Workers at risk), and the information required to ensure no one suffers food shortage?
I applaud the enhanced functioning of the Amma Unavagams where they exist. But beyond that, have you estimated the number of Daily Wage, Itinerant, and Migrant workers in each District that will face hunger during the Lockdown? Have you made plans to deliver rations or ensure cooked food to these people as suggested by our Leader Thiru M.K. Stalin in the Assembly on March 17th?
How many month’s supply of rations – to meet the enhanced demand - does the PDS system have currently? If adequate, why not publish this? If not, why not take steps to improve this and let the people know?
8. How are we improving Data Collection & Modelling to improve our understanding of the trade-offs between Lockdown Benefits & Costs?
The Economic & Humanitarian costs of the Lockdown are very high as we all know. We THINK, HOPE, & PRAY that the Lockdown is worth it, because of the good it is doing in preventing the spread of the virus. But our data to test this theory is insufficient at best, and very poor at worst. What steps have you taken to improve data generation, collection or analysis? How many epidemiological modelling specialists does the Government have under normal conditions? Have you brought in more as full-time or consulting specialists?
Even with my dated knowledge of modelling (~30 years ago), I believe we can do model a lot better using reasonable approximations & assumptions, and historical data (separate article to be published tomorrow). There must be many specialists far better equipped to help the Govt consider various scenarios, which can inform crucial cost-benefit decisions. Please engage them!
9. What are the Government’s plans to deal with the massive Economic Disruption already wrought, and the immediate and longer-term consequences yet to come?
The short and long-term Economic consequences of this Lockdown WILL be much worse than either the Global Financial Crisis, or the Demonetization disaster (which was much worse). Consequently, every Govt is developing large Fiscal Stimulus plans. The US Govt has passed a $2 Trillion Stimulus, which is roughly 10% of its GDP. Singapore – which has not even closed the schools – has passed an entire Supplemental Budget. The Central Govt. has announced a package of around 0.8% of GDP, though much of that appears to be double counting of existing schemes. Kerala has announced a package of Rs. 20,000 Crores, which is about 1.9% of its GSDP. By contrast your steps so far (totalling to a few thousand crores, for a state more than twice the size of Kerala) have been accounted for less than 0.2% of our state’s GSDP.
Our Economy (Country & State), and Tamil Nadu’s finances (as I showed with statistics in the Assembly during the Budget Debate) , were already in much worse shape in January, before we entered this crisis, than they were in 2008 or 2016. Your Government will have a huge problem to work with, and very little room to manoeuvre. Yet you MUST act.
What steps have you taken to deal with this huge problem? Who are the Economic & Financial experts who are going to help on this?
10.Does the Hon’ble Chief Minister really feel he is in such firm control of the situation, and his Government is performing so well in this crisis, that he simple does not need the inputs of any other Leaders & Parties?
The most capable Leaders try to benefit from the opinion of as many specialists, and the inputs of as diverse a set of individuals as possible. In my personal experience at some of the largest Global Consulting Groups & Banks, managements go out of their way to ensure the diversity of perspectives in Executive/Decision Making Committees. Our legendary DMK leader Dr. Kalaignar was exceptional even within the rarefied cohort of great Leaders. When taking difficult decisions on complex issues, he would consult so many people parallelly that no one was even aware of the full range of his inputs.
In conclusion, I would humbly suggest to our Hon’ble Chief Minister that he should open his mind and welcome inputs from as many people as possible, starting with an All-Party meeting. This is the time for each one of us to be the best we can be, not for worrying about political considerations. Our State, and the Tamil people, will benefit from expanding the number of perspectives and specialists whose inputs go into devising and executing the management of the greatest crisis we have faced in our lifetime.