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New Delhi, April 16, 2020
Senior Congress leader Rahul Gandhi today said that the nationwide lockdown imposed by the Government would only act as a "pause button" in the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and could not defeat the deadly disease.
Interacting with media persons through a video conference here, two days after Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the extension of the 21-day the lockdown for another 19 days, Gandhi appealed to all political parties to work unitedly against COVID-19.
He began his press conference by saying that his remarks should be taken in the spirit of constructive support and advice and not criticism.
"We are in a very serious situation, that is clear, and I think, all political parties have to work together and the people of India have to work together, if we want to solve this problem and defeat this virus," he said.
To a question about his view that India was not doing enough testing, Gandhi said, "The first thing to understand is that a lockdown is like a pause button. A lockdown is in no way a solution to the Covid virus, it is as if you hit pause and stop the virus in its tracks until the lockdown. When we come out of the lockdown, the virus is going to start its work again. So, it is very important that we have a strategy to come out of the lockdown.
"Now, what are the things that need to be put in place? The lock down allows you the time and space to put in medical resources, to ramp up your testing ability, to prepare your hospitals, to get ventilators, to create the type of architecture that is required to fight the virus, when it peaks up again. So there is a misconception that I would like to clear up. In no way does a lockdown defeat the virus. It stops the virus for some time.
"Now, what is the real weapon against the virus, the biggest weapon? The biggest weapon is testing. Testing its scale, so you know, where the virus is moving and you can isolate the virus, you can fight the virus, and you can target the virus. I want to give you a few statistics on testing. I think our testing rate is 199/million and if you look at all the tests that we have done over the last 72 days, it works out to approximately an average of 350 tests per district. This is in no way enough to tell you how the virus is moving. So, the central theme is if you want to fight the virus, you have to increase testing dramatically and your testing has to go from chasing the virus, to moving ahead of the virus, means you have to move into random testing and you have to start to preempt where the virus is moving. Lot of our testing is currently chasing the virus, because we are identifying cases and then following the virus, with that type of testing you will never be able to actually get a good image of what the virus is doing and where the virus is.
"So, one advice to the Government and this is something that I have said and we have been saying-- push testing aggressively, maximise testing and use testing strategically, use testing to assist the states in their fight, use testing not simply to track patients, who are infected, but to create a map of India to see where the virus is moving, identify hotspots using testing. So, I am proposing scaling up testing and using testing strategically and I am saying that the Government of India's current testing levels are too low and they are not using testing strategically," he said.
Asked about the relaxations in the lockdown announced with effect from April 20, Gandhi said it should be a strategic opening. He said testing should be used to identify hotspots, which should be clamped down.
He said that when the doors are opened, the disease would come rushing out. He said there would also be the first waves of unemployment, leading to massive pressure on the financial system.
"So, you will have to set up structures and manage your funding, so that you don’t get caught. Suppose, you spend all your money right now, immediately and then you have a financial crisis, later in a few months, you have got a real problem. So, you have to think strategically and you have to move strategically. Certainly you have to spend a significant portion of your money in protection of people," he said.
Gandhi said protecting the lives of the people was the most important thing but it also has to be ensured that the economy is not destroyed completely.
"So, it is a dynamic, constantly moving strategy. That is why I get worried, when I see very blunt instruments. I would have liked a lot more power decentralised to the states. I would have liked a more detailed conversation between the states and the Prime Minister with regards to the strategy with the lockdown, but, fine, there is a particular style that Modi Ji has, which is fine, one can work around that style," he said.
About Modi's interactions with Chief Ministers on the issue, Gandhi said the Prime Minister needed to ask Chief Ministers what they needed to handle the situation.
"There is a difference between management and control. I think one needs to go beyond conversations. One needs to actually start putting money on the table, dynamically asking the Chief Ministers what do they need, how can the Central Government help? So, it is more than a conversation. It is a method of working," he said.
To a question about what he thought was wrong with Modi's strategy to combat the outbreak, he said this was not the time for a blame game. He said it was a time when the Opposition should be give constructive suggestions to fight the disease and it was up to the Government to accept their ideas or ignore them.
He said he differed with the Prime Minister on many issues but did not want to get involved in a "Tu Tu Main Main" (blame game) when the country is fighting a difficult battle against the virus and would succeed only if everybody worked together.
"There should be no premature declaration of victory, it is a long fight. I disagree with PM Modi on a lot of issues but we have to unite and not fight. We have to defeat the virus together," he said.
On the issue of migrant workers, the Congress leader said mistakes were made with regard to the suddenness of the lockdown which have created a problem.
"We have a lot of migrants, who are now stuck and it is going to become a bigger problem as we go ahead. I think it is very important that we have a strategy for this and I think the Central Government should work on strategy of this, either, how to move, how to solve this migrant issue in the states. I have not been speaking directly to my Chief Ministers about migrants, but, I have mentioned to them that they need to handle this situation with extreme care and gentleness," he said.
He said no other country has the scale of migration that India has, other than China, where most fo the migrants live in factories and in proper housing.
"So, we have this huge migration problem and we are also quite a decentralised country. I have been a Member of Parliament in Uttar Pradesh and in Kerala. I can tell you that the response in Kerala is completely different than the response in Uttar Pradesh, results are different, way of working is different, the style is different, so, you need to give much more power to the Chief Ministers.
"In my view, the Centre needs to control the main arteries, the main national system. Bu tte State needs to control its area. So, if Chhattisgarh, in my view, wants its more nuanced lockdown and Uttar Pradesh wants a total lockdown, that choice, in my view, should have been given to the Chief Ministers. But, it is fine, it is not being given, we are past that now, there is no point going over it again.
"Now we have gone into a full lockdown. We have now opened partially on the 20th. I am advocating a strategic opening because I fear that if you open and you do not have testing, you will be forced to go into a lockdown again. Because you will see the disease profile will pick up. So, that is why I am advocating for a strategic lockdown where the state Governments are aggressively testing and checking what is going on dynamically," he said.
Gandhi said there was a need for a safety net for critical areas of the economy.
"Food is going to be a major problem...We have our godowns full and after our crop we are going to have an overflow. Let us start giving that food out to the poor people.
"Farmers require protection, prepare a package and deliver the package. Unfortunately, the nature of the crisis is such that everybody is impacted by it. You can talk about farmers; you can talk about small and medium businesses, you can even talk about big business, so it has to be an Indian response, it has to be a response that is compassionate to everybody. But, one must keep in mind that do not use all our ammunition right now, because if you use all your ammunition right now, and we end up 2-3 months from now with a serious financial blow back. We have a real serious problem. So, it has to be a thought-through strategic way of doing it. My advice is give out as much money to the poorest, weakest people as you can, but, keep in mind that there is going to be a financial backlash...," he said.
On the financial package announced by the Government, Gandhi said there was a need to be more liberal with the amount of money being given to the people, "because it is a question of protecting them and protecting our economic structure."
"So, I don’t think, we should be penny-pinching right now. The amount of money that has been given is no way near adequate. I think we need to significantly increase the amount of money," he said.
Gandhi said one of the issues with a complete lockdown in a country liek India is that it is practically not enforceable in a slum.
"So, you have completely different problems in a slum than you have in a place where people are living separately in buildings. This migrant labour issue is a very serious issue, one needs to think about it, work on it and resolve it. I mean, there some people are suggesting moving the migrant labours, some people are suggesting don’t move them, give them food, give them assistance, where they are. Whichever choice the Government chooses, they need to act on it quickly, because if they do not act on it quickly, we will see social unrest developing very fast in this country," he said.
He said the people could not be blamed in such a situation and the government had to be compassionate with them.
"If people are coming out, there is a very valid reason for them to come out, because they are starving, so, you have to fix that reason. So, I think, we have to, as a Government, our Government has to be very, very compassionate and sensitive to these feelings. It has to respond to them quickly," he observed.
Gandhi said the people should not worry about the situation, though it might look like a scary experience.
"I want you to know that this is country is bigger than any disease. This country knows how to deal with much, much bigger challenges than the one we are facing. So, I want you to think about this with a sense of confidence. If we are able to overcome this, it will put us actually in a much better place.
"It is challenging, it is difficult, but, we will do it together. I am absolutely convinced that we will succeed. We will defeat this virus and India will come out at a better place. As a member of the opposition, I want to give support to the Government, to all the Governments, not just the national Government but, the state Governments and I want to tell all the people, who are fighting this battle that we are very proud of you and we know the difficulties that you are going through, the trouble that you are going through," he said.
He also talked the need for protective equipment for doctors and nurses. "This is something that is absolutely has to be delivered because they are at the forefront of this fight.
"But we must not deal with this through fear. Fear is not the prism we should use. The prism we should use is confidence, we are a great nation and we are going to win this fight and we will come out much better on the other side," he added.